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Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

The cacao nursery at BFREE

Each year the cacao nursery at BFREE is restored and prepared for the new planting season. Any old plants or trees are removed and fresh liner is laid, the area is weeded and trimmed, and damaged poles are replaced. Additionally, the nursery was expanded to hold more bags and the irrigation system was modified for more efficient watering.

Soon after those preparations were made, came the task of filling thousands of nursery bags. Lucky for us, ARCC participants showed up just in time to help fill bags with a sand and soil mixture. Because of them, a huge job became much more manageable.

BFREE Cacao Fellows are assigned to the management of the cacao nursery, so Mark Canti has replaced Lenardo Ash as caregiver to the young cacao and shade trees. Once bags are filled and put in place, Mark waters and fertilizers the soil to prepare for seed planting. In the coming months, he will be responsible for ensuring the successful growth of the nursery trees.

Shade trees are just as important to this project as cacao trees, so both short-term and long-term shade tree seedlings are included. Therefore, five varieties of short-term shade trees were planted: Pigeon Pea, Plantain, Bananas, Erythrina and Madre de cacao. Long-term shade trees include Bribri, Jobillo, two species of Barbajalote, and Mahogany. We continue to search the property for other types of seedpods and saplings.

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.

Summer Intern Spotlight: Parr McQueen

Parr McQueen, an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond traveled to Belize with BFREE earlier this year along with thirteen other classmates. The Field Course led by Dr. Amy Treonis and Dr. Kristine Grayson was focused on using experiential field methods to learn how scientists study the natural world.

Inspired by his trip and what he learned during his semester-long course, Parr returned to BFREE this summer. For just over a month, Parr spent his time working in the field, collecting data to support his research examining cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. When he wasn’t busy taking soil samples, Parr explored the many trails around BFREE snapping incredible photos of the wildlife he discovered.

We are so fortunate to have hosted Parr for the second time this year. We can’t wait to see all of the great things he will accomplish!

My Summer Internship at BFREE

By: Parr McQueen 

Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to stay at the BFREE field station for five weeks as part of the summer internship program. As a current undergraduate student at the University of Richmond, this was a great educational opportunity for me. Doing anything from assisting with the care of the Hickatee turtles to working with school groups, I was able to experience the rainforest more than any week-long field course could offer. This was an incredible experience with too many good memories to write about and has certainly made me grow, providing a stepping stone for future career prospects. In addition to the internship program, I made use of my time in Belize to conduct my own research.

My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture. Slash and burn farming is prevalent and it is occurring right up to protected area boundaries, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics has been estimated to make up 29% of the total emissions from fossil fuels and other sources that cause global warming.

BFREE has an ongoing project to help promote cacao agroforestry, which is a much more sustainable farming method that still provides income for local farmers. This is a way of planting cacao, the raw product to make chocolate, within the established rainforest instead of in a traditional field. Rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. In many studies, this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for avian and mammalian species, but no work at all has been done examining how the microorganisms are affected. With the help of Dr. Amy Treonis, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, I am attempting to answer this important question.

While in Belize, I sampled soil from replicate cacao agroforestry farms and the adjacent undisturbed rainforest. Currently, in Richmond, I am in the middle of processing the soils to extract microscopic nematode worms. Nematodes are a commonly studied microorganism and are a good indicator species of soil health. I will be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems compared to the health in the undisturbed rainforest. This research is important because we need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil. While we can see the colorful birds and cute mammals prospering, we have no idea if the microorganisms in the soil are thriving or not. Healthy soil microorganisms carry out critical nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to having a fully functioning ecosystem.

Overall I had a wonderful time at the BFREE field station and was able to learn a lot, by fully immersing myself in the day-to-day operations, while at the same time strengthening my own personal research program.

 

Stakeholders Discuss the Future of the Cacao Industry in Belize

Participants gather in a circle for an open discussion during the Forum in San Pedro Columbia.

On  20th July 2017, the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) along with Ya’axché Conservation Trust hosted the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum, entitled “The Future of the Cacao industry in Belize,” at the Church of the Nazarene Medical and Education Center in the historic village of San Pedro Columbia, Toledo District.

The Forum brought together nearly 50 participants representing the NGO community, cacao farmers, community leaders, and government representatives in what proved to be an extremely positive event.

Located near the Bladen Nature Reserve in Toledo, BFREE has been hosting and sponsoring workshops, symposiums, and forums to promote the conservation and maintenance of Belize’s rich biodiversity, its tropical forests, watersheds and abundant wildlife for the last 25 years. This forum took shape in response to our current research and work, which focuses on using cacao-based agroforestry as a way to expand the edges of rainforests and protect the wildlife who inhabit the area.

The Forum had two primary goals; bring together a group of stakeholders in order to share information, discuss challenges and explore opportunities for collaboration and compile information regarding the cacao industry in Belize for inclusion in a regional cacao website, CocoaNext, which will be launched later this year by the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

Forum goals were achieved as information was shared and opportunities for collaboration were considered. The group represented an exceptional diversity of experts with a wide breadth of knowledge and experience representing in Belize’s cacao industry making for focused and informative discussions throughout the day.

With the success of the Forum behind us, participants are already looking forward to the future. The shared desire resonated – that Belize and, particularly Toledo, will continue to become an important player in the local, regional and world Cacao Market and that this growing industry will benefit local farmers, local businesses, Belize’s economy, and most importantly future generations.

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin welcomes the participants of the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum on Thursday, July 20, 2017.

The Forum speakers included:

  • •  Ms. Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre, at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Ms. Sankar provided fantastic overview and history of the Cocoa Research Centre as well as need and purpose for the regional cacao website that will be launched later this year.
  • •  Mr. Wilber Sabido, Chief Forest Officer of the Belize Forest Department. Mr. Sabido spoke of the Forest Department’s position on cacao and agroforestry.
  • •  Mr. Densford Mangar, Ministry of Agriculture Toledo Extension officer. Mr. Mangar presented a national perspective of cacao in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Pablo Mes, Program Coordinator for Maya Leaders Alliance. Mr. Mes described traditional Maya lands rights and land use in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Johnson Ical from Trio Village and Mr. Martin Chiquin from Indian Creek Village both provided the group with an overview of a small farmer’s viewpoint.
  • •  Mr. Gustavo Requena, Community Outreach and Livelihoods Director of Ya’axché Conservation Trust. Mr. Requena described how agroforestry bridges livelihoods as well as on protected area management and adaptation to climate change.
  • •  Mr. Jacob Marlin, Executive Director of BFREE. Mr. Marlin presented how cacao agroforestry may conserve and restore biodiversity.

Hyla and Jacob Marlin along with Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre pose for a photo before the Forum in BFREE’s cacao nursery.

BFREE would like to thank each of the speakers and the participants for their dedication to a healthy and sustainable future for cacao in Belize. Special thanks also to BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, BFREE Operations Manager and Cacao Demonstration Farm Manager, Elmer Tzalam and BFREE Board Member, Gentry Mander who helped make the event a success.

Funding for the Forum was provided by Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education, Ya’axché Conservation Trust, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

If you would like to know more about the Forum, would like to be involved or have any questions, please contact us at: contact@bfreebz.org

 

 

Making Chocolate at BFREE

cacao in the rainforest

Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, introduces students to how cacao grows in the rainforest. Photo by Graham Byers.

The 2017 field season is well underway! In late January, Vermont Commons High School returned to BFREE to participate in a field course. The group explored the rainforest, participated in homestays with Maya families in Golden Stream Village and traversed the coastal town of Placencia.

A highlight of the trip was making chocolate from scratch at the BFREE Field Station. The journey began with a tour of the cacao demonstration farm led by Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam. There students harvested ripe pods and, after cracking them open, were able to taste the sweet pulp that surrounds a cacao bean before biting into the dark chocolate bean.

removing a cacao pod from the tree

Student carefully removes a pod from a cacao tree. Photo by Graham Byers.

The group followed beans from the tree, through the fermentation process, to sun-drying, then peeling, pan roasting, and grinding until it was time to pour the liquid chocolate into molds and – finally – eat!

fermentation of cacao

Students remove beans from fermenting boxes. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

hand-making chocolate

BFREE Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle, helps a student fill the chocolate molds. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

roasting cacao beans

Students roast the cacao beans in cast iron skillets. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

 

BFREE Fundraiser in Washington, D.C.

BFREE volunteer, Lisa Ramsden shares informational materials with guests as they arrive. More photos from the event can be found on Flickr here!

On February 4th, BFREE hosted a social and fundraiser at Levine Music in Washington D.C. The event was attended by over 120 supporters interested in hearing about chocolate’s connection to rainforest conservation. 

The event marked the launch of a new campaign to raise capital for the Cacao Discovery Center, The CDC will be a centralized multipurpose educational facility dedicated to enhancing the learning environment at BFREE and promoting cacao-based agroforestry as a strategy to conserve and restore tropical rainforests in Belize. Once complete, the solar-powered facility will serve the many types of visitors that come to BFREE including students, researchers, farmers, conservation practitioners, and the public in general.

During the event, guests indulged their taste buds with BFREE’s finest hand-crafted chocolate made in Florida from cacao beans grown at the field station in Belize. The chocolate was presented in tasting squares, as whole roasted beans, as nibs and as a fondue from a chocolate fountain. Fresh fruit, as well as a variety of hors d’oeuvres were offered to guests. In classic, Willy Wonka style, gold-foil wrapped chocolate bars and hearts were available for Valentine’s gifts. The nights’ specialty cocktail; a ‘Belizean Rum Old Fashioned’ was created with homemade infused bitters using BFREE cacao nibs and Belizean One Barrel Rum.

A silent auction included food and handcrafted items all originating in Belize and including Marie Sharp’s hot sauces, beautiful wildlife and forest paintings, Maya hand-crafts, lovely hardwood bowls, and, of course, a variety of cacao products like nibs, cocoa powder, and soap.

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin shared some of BFREE’s history and described the growth of both the organization and field station over the past 22 years. He highlighted stories of the many projects BFREE has implemented, and focused on how growing cacao (chocolate) trees under the rainforest canopy is an important strategy for restoring and conserving tropical rainforests in Belize.

If you would like to support BFREE in our efforts to build the Cacao Discovery Center please consider making a a donation here: Donate now to support the Cacao Discover Center! 

If you have any questions, please contact us by email at: contact@bfreebz.org

More Photos of the event in Washington, D.C. are on Flickr here! 

Special thanks to Levine Music for providing the perfect event location and excellent staff support.  

Also, thanks to the artisans who created wonderful works of art just for this occasion: Grayson Sierra, Greta Leslie, Avelina Choc and Mr. Tyrone. We are grateful to event volunteers who donated their time and expertise: Kelly Sanville, Katie Bates, Lisa Ramsden, Shaman Marlin, Sofia Marlin, Hyla Marlin, Tierra Maclean, B. Trewin and Donato Alvarez.

Finally, thanks to David and Jackie Marlin without whom this event could not have been possible.

The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook

500 copies of the handbook are now available in Belize

500 copies were produced in the first handbook printing.

The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook is now complete and available in Belize. A joint effort between BFREE and UNC Wilmington’s Department of Environmental Studies with significant input from experts at the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, the handbook describes the benefits of sustainable agriculture for humans, wildlife and forests.

The 70-page manual is filled with illustrations and simple descriptions intended to guide farmers through the basics of land preparation, nursery management, planting, maintenance, harvest and post-harvest. The ‘Resource,’ section of the Handbook includes checklists, management schedules, and cultivation records, to help farmers track their farm activity and keep on schedule throughout the year. The hope is that this new handbook will provide a comprehensive resource for cacao farmers whether just starting out or experienced, and help promote organic cacao-based agroforestry practices as an alternative to traditional agriculture that often required clearing of rainforest and intensive agro-chemical inputs.

Five hundred handbooks were produced during the initial printing and will be made available to farmers in the Toledo District through farmer cooperatives, during meetings and workshops, in farm supply stores in Punta Gorda, at this year’s Chocolate Festival of Belize, and at the BFREE field station. In late January, the first books were distributed to BFREE staff who will share them with their village leaders and community members.

Partial funding for the Belize Cacao-based Agroforestry and Restoration Project (BCARP) is provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

BFREE staff with Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook

BFREE Staff members pose with their copies of The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook in January 2017 at the BFREE Field Station.      Standing from Left to Right – Carmelita Shol|San Felipe Village; Patron Coc|San Marcos Village; Apolonio Pop| Santa Cruz; Jacob Marlin| BFREE; Pedro Rash| Indian Creek.    Seated from Left to Right – Thomas Pop|Golden Stream Village, Thomas Chub|Indian Creek; Elmer Tzalam|Golden Stream Village; and Cesario Pop|Silver Creek.