Many of us will enjoy tucking into some chocolate over the festive period. But how many of us will think about where it has come from? Cacao farming in forest systems – known as agroforestry – can be a sustainable option for producing the raw material that feeds our chocolate obsession.

Fauna & Flora International’s long-standing partner in Belize, Ya’axché Conservation Trust, works with over 80 small-scale cacao farmers within the Maya Golden Landscape, a patchwork of community and private lands and protected areas, to adopt climate-smart agroforestry.

In these farming systems, cacao is planted, along with spices, fruits and tubers, beneath wild trees. This practice allows cacao to be cultivated within the forest and enables degraded, treeless areas to be rehabilitated under the farming system. With trees providing much-needed shelter for shade-loving cacao, well-managed agroforestry farms can be productive for more than 25 years.

Cacao agroforestry farms are designed to support conservation, increase crop diversity and expand income sources. Farmers are provided with training, technical support, seedlings and tools to establish and maintain profitable systems. Three years after implementation, farmers can begin harvesting and, as the crop trees mature, production increases.

In the Maya Golden Landscape, the benefit of cacao to farmers became clear in a few short years. But the question remained: are these farms also helping wild animals?

To find out, Ya’axché developed a pilot study in 2015. Training in wildlife monitoring was provided to farmers and Ya’axché’s rangers, who are from the same Maya communities where the cacao agroforestry programmes are implemented. This included a how-to on setting up motion-triggered camera traps and establishing methods to record resident and migratory birds. Every month, the rangers and farmers compile photos from the camera traps and records of target birds.

Ranger Rosendo Coy setting up a camera trap at a cacao agroforestry farm. Credit: Maximiliano Caal, Ya'axché Conservation Trust
Ranger Rosendo Coy setting up a camera trap at a cacao agroforestry farm. Credit: Maximiliano Caal, Ya’axché Conservation Trust

In just three short years of farm monitoring, photographic evidence reveals that cacao agroforestry supports diverse wildlife. Agoutis, collared peccaries, nine-banded armadillos, raccoons, pacas (known locally as gibnuts) and Baird’s tapirs were all caught on camera. Surprisingly, even animals such as the ocelot and tayra, both of which prefer undisturbed areas, were recorded by the camera traps.

In the cacao agroforestry farms, birds acting as indicators of healthy ecosystems are present in higher numbers between October and March. Most of the target birds recorded in these farms are migrants – indicating that the agroforestry systems offer important bird habitat and feeding sites. Species recorded include waterthrushes and other warblers, American redstart and yellow-headed parrot.

Collared peccaries have been recorded in cacao agroforestry farms. Credit: Erik Hammar
Collared peccaries have been recorded in cacao agroforestry farms. Credit: Erik Hammar

Cacao agroforestry farms are showing promising results in terms of supporting wildlife in a fragmented landscape. Farmers are delighted to see such diverse wildlife and are filled with pride knowing that their farms harbour some of the more secretive species.

It is clear that within the Maya Golden Landscape, cacao agroforestry farms are supporting farming families and helping to conserve forests. Ya’axché aims to strategically expand its collaborative work with cacao farmers to connect forests within this fragmented landscape. Farmers are approaching Ya’axché to seek support for establishing their cacao agroforestry farms, and Ya’axché is working to map current farms and identify areas where forests can be connected with these farms. This vital information will help the organisation prioritise where resources should be allocated.

At a farmers' forum held by Ya'axché in the one of the Maya Golden Landscape communities. Credit: Maximiliano Caal, Ya'axché Conservation Trust
At a farmers’ forum held by Ya’axché in one of the Maya Golden Landscape communities. Credit: Maximiliano Caal, Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Ya’axché believes in building programmes that support livelihoods and conservation and is continually improving knowledge on how wild animals are using cacao agroforestry farms within the Maya Golden Landscape of Belize.

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