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The Science of Fine Chocolate

by Jacob Marlin

The flavor attributes of chocolate, especially fine flavor chocolate, is determined by numerous factors: 1. Genetics of the cacao, 2. The farming practices implemented, 3. The location, biophysical features, and climactic conditions of where it is grown (also called terrior), 4. The time of harvest, 5. Fermentation protocols, 6. Drying methods, and finally the chocolate-making including, 7. Roasting and, 8. The final recipe. Each of these factors has tremendous variability and requires specific expertise to successfully implement the management and interventions.

Fermentation is a critical aspect in flavor development and final acidity of a finished chocolate bar. You can’t hide bad fermentation in chocolate. If the beans are over-fermented, they yield an undesirable, wet “barnyard” type flavor. If they are under-fermented, the results are an astringent attack on your tastebuds that causes your mouth to pucker.

Even with the best farming practices producing the finest beans, if the fermentation is not done to its fullest potential the results will be disappointing at best. Our work to determine this important stage in producing some of the world’s finest chocolate is an important part of our current efforts.

BFREE began a collaboration with Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, to begin to determine the best fermentation protocols for Criollo cacao. Crioco Cacao’s Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, and I managed the fermentation experiment at the BFREE Field Station. Because there is no information on successful fermentation of the rare and ancient Criollo cacao, we had to undertake our methods based on limited information. We instituted three separate fermentation protocols and upon completion sent these batches to Dancing Lion Chocolate, where my good friend and colleague Rich Tango-Lowy and my son, Shaman Marlin, processed the beans into chocolate using a standardized roasting methodology. These three profiles were then molded into exquisite artfully designed hand crafted limited release specialty chocolate bars. Dancing Lion Chocolates is not your typical chocolate shop. Each bar is a work of art – visually dazzling and delicious. And chocolate is made in small batches and only one time in that exact way, they never repeat the same recipe twice. Rich has used BFREE Criollo cacao in the past on a few specialty bars and bonbons. After visiting BFREE with his wife, Torene, and Dancing Lion’s Baker, Donna McLintock, we began a conversation on how to improve and refine our fermentation methods.

I’m thrilled to announce that our initial collaboration was a success. Chocolate from these three different batches will be sold this year through Dancing Lion Chocolate. I’m especially proud to acknowledge Shaman Marlin who has been working at Dancing Lion for over a year and was responsible for making the chocolate in these bars! A very limited supply will be available in the shop and online after Thanksgiving. The bars can be identified by Criollo I, Criollo II, and Criollo III.

By determining the best fermentation protocols based on continuous feedback, revisions can be made until the process reveals the unique flavor attributes intrinsic to this unique cacao. In 2016, the BFREE cacao beans and chocolate were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), one of only 16 cacao varieties throughout the world to receive such an honor. In order to get designated “Heirloom Fine Flavor”, beans are submitted to HCP blind, meaning the chocolate maker, in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate, does not know where the beans were sourced. Once made into chocolate liquor and chocolate, it is tasted, also blind, by a 9-person panel made up of the world’s most expert chocolate tasters. If the flavor meets a very high mark, the beans are designated Heirloom. Based on those results and additional feedback and reviews, we are confident that this Criollo cacao is unlike any other cacao in the world, and this inspires us to continue our efforts to master the process, from the nursery to fermentation to chocolate bar.

From Bean to Bar: BFREE’s cacao program bears fruit

by Jacob Marlin

Over the past three years, BFREE has been doing research and experimentation to develop a model for farming the BFREE Criollo cacao, under its for-profit – Crioco Cacao, LLC. The goal is to create healthy and productive trees that yield cacao beans that are ultimately made into some of the world’s best Heirloom Fine Flavor chocolate. So, we are experimenting with creating conditions in the farm as well post-harvesting protocols including fermentation and drying techniques. Our work is challenging and requires a lot of innovation. Primarily because this cacao has been growing in isolation on BFREE property for thousands of years and has not been worked with by anyone in the cacao industry.

Specifically, experiments have focused on fine-scaled management of the farm setting to provide the optimal conditions for cacao tree health. This includes planting and managing temporary and permanent shade trees, as this variety of cacao has been growing under the natural canopy of the rainforest for thousands of years, and requires a lot of shade. To date, we have planted over 10,000 criollo cacao trees and an equal amount of shade trees representing 25 soil enriching native forest and fruit tree species. The work begins in the nursery with very specific protocols including grafting robust seedlings with clonal material from the most productive criollo trees on site, and continues as the young trees are transplanted into the farm. Specific pruning protocols, of both the cacao and shade trees is a constant endeavor, and careful management is required as each tree has its own unique set of conditions and expressions. Organic nutrition is applied throughout the year, and regular observations and adaptive management takes place as the dry and rainy seasons set in. Extensive data is collected throughout the year, providing the basis for improving management and adapting the conditions to best reflect the perceived requirements of this rare and unusual cacao.   

Historically, much of the available literature states that cacao trees with a high percentage of criollo genetics are very difficult to get optimal productivity because of low yield, are prone to disease and pests, and are difficult to cultivate on a commercial scale. However, initial results from our work suggest otherwise. We are finding that with careful and specific management activities, this unique variety of 100% Criollo genetics shows promise that it can be highly productive given the right conditions.

After three years of trial and error plus the hard work of our staff as well as meaningful contributions from expert advisors, we are narrowing in on the exact conditions for the trees to thrive. As the pictures below illustrate, trees in the best condition are showing very high levels of productivity after just two years and promise to bear fruit in the years to come. These early results keep us working toward our goal to create a thriving cacao agroforestry system which restores forests and provides habitat for a wide array of wildlife species while also providing some of the world’s finest chocolate to the consumer while simultaneously providing a sustainable climate smart source of revenue for BFREE to further achieve our important conservation work.


Meet Robynn Phillips

BFREE’s New Engagement and Communications Coordinator

Hi! My name is Robynn Phillips. I’ve recently joined BFREE on a contract basis as the Engagement and Communications Coordinator. My role is primarily to manage activities associated with BFREE’s annual awareness campaign for Hicatee Awareness Month.

I am from one of the coastal communities in Southern Belize about 20 miles from BFREE called Independence Village. I am an aspiring conservationist. For me, it all started while taking boat rides and eating fresh sea food. I remember being a young girl eating fry jacks on the beach in Placencia Village, which was only a fifteen-minute water taxi ride away. The local tourism industry was higher over in Placencia which meant more job opportunities and most people would travel over for work daily: my mom was one of them. My two siblings and I would head over on holidays to spend the day on the beach as we waited for our mom to clock off.

My passion and caring for the natural environment stemmed from what I saw then: the crystal, clear water, blue sky, and the breathtaking beach. As I got older and furthered my education, I truly understood that such beauty needed protection – and it would take a lot of work and knowledge to protect it. Since then, I have contributed to keeping that same area pristine through beach clean ups. During my education, I got to see where the very fresh seafood my mom cooked came from and encouraged fisher folks to fish sustainably through education and outreach activities.

My associate’s degree is from Independence Junior College (IJC) and my bachelor’s degree is from the University of Belize (UB), both in Natural Resource Management. Through my educational journey, I had the chance to travel my beautiful country to explore its diverse flora and fauna. Experiencing such beauty made me grow tremendous appreciation for the natural environment in all its forms; terrestrial, marine and aquatic.

After completing my studies, I entered the work world in the field that I studied for and a scenery that was very much familiar. As I ventured off to start my career focusing on marine resource protection, I had the chance to oversee the day-to-day operations of two important marine protected areas in Southern Belize, off the coast of Placencia Village; Laughing Bird Caye National Park (LBCNP) and Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (GSSCMR).

For over five years, I have been working and volunteering within the conservation sector, focusing on the marine environment. So far, it’s been extremely rewarding as I have learned a lot, seen some of Belize’s natural treasures and worked with many inspirational people. I am grateful for the all the dedicated and hardworking people who paved the way and made it possible for those who came after them. I aspire to be just as or even more influential with hopes to continue to protect and bring awareness to our unique natural resources.

I first visited BFREE back in 2015 and 2016 as a student for two separate courses during my time at IJC. During both trips, I was able to learn about small mammal traps that were used for research, ongoing bird research, the cocoa planation and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC).  At the HCRC, my classmates and I had the chance to see the Hicatees, learn about the bi-annual health assessments and about how these data collected are used for decision-making and to strengthened overall management of the facility and the species.

Now, I am excited for the opportunity to be a part of the movement to protect and re-wild the critically endangered Hicatee Turtles. I look forward to learning and effectively contributing to BFREE’s continuous conservation efforts. The efforts to save a dying species are beyond commendable. Here’s to being a part of such an awesome team!!

Team Hicatee – Ed Boles, Jacob Marlin, Barney Hall and Robynn Phillips (back row), Heather Barrett and Thomas Pop (front row)

Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop

Developing a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize

Co-hosted by Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Zoo New England (ZNE), and the Belize Fisheries Department, the Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop was held online via a Zoom webinar on May 17, 2022. The purpose of the Hicatee Conservation Workshop was to bring together stakeholders to begin to develop a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle in Belize. Organized by Dr. Ed Boles, BFREE Dermatemys Program Coordinator, with the support of BFREE staff, the workshop was facilitated by Ms. Yvette Alonzo with technical assistance from Mr. David Hedrick of TSA. The workshop was attended by 38 professionals supporting Dermatemys mawii research, conservation, and outreach, including key Government officials from the Belize Fisheries Department.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Breakout Groups

Participants divided into five breakout groups in previously identified focal areas of: Laws, Regulations and Enforcement; Community Outreach, Education and Social Research; Captive Management and Reintroductions; Biological and Ecological Research, and in situ Conservation. The groups were tasked with discussing background, ideas, and concerns for 59 proposed actions divided among seven conservation goals. Further they were responsible for modifying action descriptions, eliminating irrelevant actions, and adding actions the group identified as appropriate.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Participants

Breakout Groups Members of the Breakout groups 
Laws, Regulations, and EnforcementFelicia Cruz, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department – Chair, Jacob Marlin, Executive Director, BFREE – (first half), Gilberto Young, Inland Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department, Peter Paul van Dijk, Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Thomas Pop, Hicatee Conservation & Research Center Manager – (first half), Debora Olivares (note taker)
Community Outreach, Education, and Social ResearchHeather Barrett, Deputy Director, BFREE – Chair, Conway Young, Administrative Officer, Community Baboon Sanctuary, Jonathan Dubon, Wildlife Fellow, BFREE, Paul Evans, Outreach Officer, University of Florida, Emilie Wilder, Field Conservation Officer, Zoo New England
Captive Management and ReintroductionsBryan Windmiller, Director of Field Conservation, Zoo New England– Chair, Elliott Jacobson, Veterinarian, University of Florida, Brian Horne, Wildlife Conservation Society, Calvin Gonzalez, Outreach Officer, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Dudley Hendy, Fisher, Jacob Marlin (second half), Thomas Pop (second half), Julie Lester (note taker)
Biological and Ecological ResearchDay Ligon, Professor of Biology, Missouri State University – Chair, Boris Arevalo, Wildlife Conservation Society, Donald McKnight, Turtle Biologist, La Trobe University, Thomas Rainwater, Research Scientist, Clemson University, Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez, Director, Lamanai Field Research Center, Manual Gallardo, Olmaca University, Guichard Romero, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Vanessa Kilburn, Director, TREES  Eduardo Reyes Grajales, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Jessica Schmidt (note-taker)
In situ ConservationAndrew Walde, COO, Turtle Survival Alliance – Chair, Elma Kay, Managing Director, Belize Maya Forest Trust, Tim Gregory, TSA and BFREE Board Member, Yamira Novelo, Technical Assistant, Wildlife Conservation Society, Denise Thompson, Per Course Faculty, Missouri State University, Ed Boles, Dermatemys Program Coordinator, BFREE  
*Attendees who were not able to participate in Breakout Groups were Rick Hudson, Turtle Survival Alliance and Tyler Sanville, BFREE

Workshop Results

Results of the workshop yielded a 33-page transcript capturing input from participants, which will serve as a supporting document for the compilation of the first draft of the “Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize”. A follow-up workshop to review the draft will take place later in 2022. Completion of an integrated and inclusive plan for Belize, guided by research and decades of traditional fisher experience, is the goal. If successful in this country, the content will be exported as guidance for similar plans in Mexico and Guatemala.

The overall theme of this very successful workshop can be described as taking actions to increase research, conservation, and restoration initiatives that are inclusive of local communities and the promotion of community-based management through the full D. mawii range. Farmers, fishers, youths, and all concerned citizens are recognized as vital partners in ensuring the survival of D. mawii into the future – a theme that shall be tightly woven into the resulting conservation, management and action plan.

Freshwater and Terrestrial Turtle Survey – Year Two

by Eric Munscher

This year, we, members of the TSA – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), had a team of ten people fly down to trap turtles on the BFREE private reserve in southern Belize. If you have never been to Belize, I highly recommend it. The country is beautiful and the people are wonderful. Working with the people at the BFREE Field Station on this project has been so much fun.

This is our second year of a planned 10-year survey of freshwater and terrestrial turtle species on BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Last year, we identified several species range extensions and caught seven of nine freshwater and terrestrial species known in Belize. The survey is valuable information not only for the TSA, NAFTRG and BFREE, but for the country of Belize where very little data exists on many of these species.

During the first 12 days we caught 221 turtles representing 8 species. The holy grail capture of this trip was finding our first Narrow Bridged Musk Turtle (Claudius angustatus), which is a really cool and understudied species of musk turtle. One that is not known from southern Belize. We ended up catching a dozen including some juveniles and a hatchling indicating a viable breeding population.

Our team also helped kick off a new grad student project for Collin McAvinchey who will be staying in Belize for most of the month of July tracking Tabasco Mud turtles (Kinosternon acutum). Collin’s project started off slow due to weather conditions. Finding adult Tabasco Mud Turtles was more of a challenge this year than last year. Still the data he is gathering is surprising and amazing. As of yesterday, he is now tracking ten of these turtles all over the rainforest. For a mud turtle they seem to act more like box turtles….

I am really looking forward to generating our first manuscripts from this work and seeing Collin’s thesis come together. I’m also excited to return next year! A valuable and exciting part of this program was the opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to a long-term dataset. There will be opportunities next year for additional participation.

Thanks to an amazing crew Arron Tuggle, Madeleine Morrison, Nicole Salvatico, Stephen Ross , Tabitha Barbree Hootman, Luke Pearson, Becca Rádio Cozad, Georgia Knauss, and Collin McAvinchey. Also to the BFREE team: Thomas Pop, Barney Hall, Jonathan Dubon, Heather Barrett, Jacob Marlin, and many others, thank you for all of your efforts and hospitality and making this project such an early success! Finally, thanks to Tyler Sanville for supporting our travel logistics and to Eddie Pop who kept us well fed and always ready to get back out into the field.

To read more about last year’s survey, read Under the Shade They Flourish: Beginning A 10-Year Study in Belize published by SWCA Environmental Consultants and TSA-NAFTRG Survey at BFREE.

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.

New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

Feste Film Crew Visits the HCRC

In collaboration with the European Nature Trust, The Feste Film crew has been traveling throughout Belize, documenting the country’s many important conservation initiatives since January.


This week, the crew stopped at BFREE to learn about our work to preserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee. They are interviewing BFREE staff at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) and learning about our captive breeding program and rewilding goals for this critically endangered species.

The Feste Film crew beats the heat with BFREE bandanas!

A New Species of Coccidia Described in D. mawii

We are pleased to announce a recent publication in the Journal of Parasitology that describes a new coccidian protozoan, Eimeria grayi. Named after the biologist who described Dermatemys mawii, this is the first description of a coccidian in the Central American River Turtle. The discovery of this bacteria advances our understanding of this under-studied and monotypic species of turtle. This coccidian was identified in captive turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. We do not know if this coccidian exists in wild turtles. 

The publication was a team effort and we are especially grateful to Dr. Elliott Jacobson who took the lead on this important effort.

Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam