In this week’s HCP Designee Snapshot, we are hearing from Erick Ac, Chief Operating Officer/Cacao Program Manager at BFREE, HCP Designee #11.  The BFREE research/demonstration farm is located on a 1,153 acre private reserve that borders over 1,500,000 acres of protected tropical rainforest within the Maya Mountains of southern Belize, an area described as one of the least disturbed and largest continuous expanses of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon.

Erick Ac, Chief Operating Officer/Cacao Program Manager at BFREE

Jacob Marlin, BFREE’s founder and Executive Director, discovered a remnant population of wild cacao trees growing on the reserve over 20 years ago. In 2016, genetic testing done by the USDA/HCP determined that this variety is 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by ancient Mayan civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. As a result of this discovery, BFREE began a project to preserve and propagate this rare and wild ancient heirloom fine flavor cacao while investigating its economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Propagated from these wild trees, BFREE has over 15 acres of HCP #11 cacao growing in an agroforestry environment, where wildlife like Jaguars, Tapirs, Howler monkeys, Harpy eagles, and Scarlet macaws are ever- present. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, we have been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with nursery and farm development to propagate this rare and flavorful heirloom fine flavor cacao.

Erick has taken the time to answer some questions in regard to how the pandemic is affecting BFREE operations and its programs, as well as the country of Belize as a whole.

Heirloom Cacao Nursery at BFREE

In Belize, the government implemented actions starting in mid-March, when the first positive COVID-19 case appeared. After an initial outbreak, a total of 30 positive cases have been confirmed. Of those, there were two deaths. Starting in early March, the Belize Government took prevention actions in the form of laws including 6 feet social distancing, mandatory use of masks, an 8pm curfew, public transit restrictions, total closure of borders as well as the international airport, and closure of all non-essential businesses. Heavy fines and imprisonment have been levied on persons breaking the mandatory regulations. The strong measures taken by the Belize Government early on in the pandemic have virtually eliminated any further spreading, and Belize ranks as one of the best models for mitigation of COVID-19 in the world, and for months has been the only country in the Americas COVID-19 free.

Q: How has the Pandemic impacted your operations?
A: Operations at BFREE have been especially affected by:

  • Lack of reliable public transportation for local cacao staff members.
  • Erick Ac, has not been able to enter the country of Belize as usual, due to the closing of borders, as Erick resides in Guatemala.
  • The purchase of agricultural inputs for the management of the plantations and nursery is complicated and difficult to find all the necessary inputs. For example, all of the organic fertilizers used in the cacao program are transported from Guatemala.
  • Some equipment and materials could not be purchased, since the supplying companies have  either closed or limited their operations. (irrigation systems, measurement equipment for processing center and laboratory, etc.)
  • The work schedules have had to be adjusted to the times and restrictions established by the government. There have been periods of time when less work has been accomplished due to limitations based on government orders.
  • The visitors to BFREE, including researchers and students, which supports the research at BFREE that includes cocoa, has completely closed and it is estimated that the closure will continue during the rest of 2020 and possibly into 2021.

Q: How has the Pandemic impacted the livelihood & economy in your area?
A: Many producers in the area have stopped attending their workplaces due to restrictions.  Furthermore, there are many people who work in the tourism sector and currently this sector is completely stopped, without any activity due to the closing of borders, the international airport, and restrictions of crowding of people. Perhaps this is the activity most affected and with the greatest impact on the national economy and many local people.

Over 75% of all jobs in Belize are related to the tourism industry. Many of these companies may be going bankrupt and there is a high risk that many people will become unemployed permanently. Currently, close to half of the entire working population is now unemployed.

Q: What is the current status of operation in your country/region?
A: Currently we are partially operating, the field work in the nursery and farm continues, however, with many limitations to efficiently implement all the management protocols: lack of supplies, availability of equipment and materials, limitations on the mobilization of staff members to get to BFREE and go home. Visitation, research and field education linked to the cocoa program are completely closed, and the opening does not have a definite date and will possibly take the rest of the year.


BFREE Nursery Program

In 2018 and 2019, BFREE was awarded two HCP grants funded by the Lesley Family Foundation to support the preservation of their heirloom designated cacao.

The main objectives of the project is to conserve the genetics of criollo cacao and generate knowledge about its ecology and potential of production.  The projects support the generation of data for mechanistic process-based crop simulation models for an ancient wild criollo cacao, which are useful tools for maximizing the efficiency of crop management ultimately improving profits to growers.

To learn more about the HCP designation process and BFREE program, watch our documentary on the HCP YouTube channel here:

Q: How has the Pandemic impacted your program rollout?
A: The program is operating, however, some actions included in the new grant with HCP and LFF, will be postponed due to the lack of purchase options for the necessary equipment, which could take until the restrictions are concluded and the companies start operations and shipping is more normalized. This situation delays the measurement activities in the field and laboratory, and it will be necessary to wait for another harvest period to continue with the tests and validations. Only progress can be made in developing protocols for testing and preparing the necessary infrastructure in the processing center.

Q: What new challenges has the pandemic caused in your operations?
A: Coordination of field activities are a challenge in the current farm, nursery and the implementation of new plantation areas, in addition to research in wild cocoa, because Erick Ac (Cacao Project Manager) is in Guatemala and the team at BFREE in Belize, which limits personalized training, follow-up of activities, monitoring and decision-making to implement the activities of the operational plan. The investigation of wild cacao is partially halted because the coordinator is not currently present in Belize and the coordination is remote, by chat or video calls, and through social networks.

Q: Are you developing new opportunities to adapt to these new challenges?
A: We are implementing strategies to adapt to the new conditions. Fortunately, the team went through a period of training and induction, prior to the arrival of the pandemic. These local capacities developed in the first phase of the project have allowed the program to continue operating to a certain extent.

We are looking for a communication strategy that will allow us to continue operating in the field and share the work being done and the results obtained.


 

 

Want to learn more about BFREE? Check out their website here: https://www.bfreebz.org

 

 


How can you help support Heirloom Designees around the world during these uncertain times? Click the following link to our Buy Heirloom Chocolate page on our website, where you can find a list of retailers selling chocolate made from Heirloom designated cacao beans.

With your purchase, you will enjoy extraordinary chocolate and support our Heirloom farmers.