Cacao for Conservation

By Venita Jenkins

Chocolate is known for its many health benefits. A group of UNCW researchers is exploring another benefit of this decadent treat: rainforest restoration.

Gabriella de Souza ’18, ’22M; Environmental Sciences faculty members Dr. Sheri Shiflett and Dr. James Rotenberg (retired); and Dr. Zachary Long, associate professor in Biology and Marine Biology are working with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education to study the environmental, social and economic benefits of cacao as a tool for conserving and restoring tropical ecosystems.

The group was awarded the Charles L. Cahill Grant in 2020 for a project titled “Birds and Chocolate Forests: Restoring Tropical Rainforests One Delicious Bite at a Time.” The team’s research examines optimal shade and light needed for growing cultivated wild cacao.

De Souza and Dr. Shiflett traveled to Belize in May 2021 to study a rare variety of chocolate trees, Criollo cacao. This native variety has been cultivated by the Mayan community in Belize for centuries, said de Souza. They visited BFREE, a preserve and agricultural forest for Criollo cacao.

“Dr. Shiflett and I measured physiological and environmental parameters to determine which factors might be influential to cacao plant health,” said de Souza, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental sciences from UNCW.

One of the environmental parameters measured was light availability. To do this, de Souza used fisheye lens photography to capture the forest canopy directly above each cacao tree. With Adobe Photoshop, she was able to transform the images to quantify the amount of light passing through the canopy. Black pixels represented vegetation, while white pixels represented the light potentially reaching the cacao plant underneath the canopy.

“From there, you can quantify the amount of light that might be reaching that plant,” she said. “The data from this project are important because they can help us conserve a rare and culturally valuable species by identifying the ideal growing conditions for cacao.”

Dr. Shiflett noted the research will not only make an ancient variety of cacao more widely available and accessible, but it will also contribute to forest restoration in areas that have been disturbed by a Category 4 hurricane. The idea is to plant hardwood trees which facilitate ample light penetration and provide soil nutrients while growing the cacao in the shaded understory layer. Researchers are also interested in studying which bird species benefit from sustainable cacao agroforestry.

Farmers who are curious about sustainable agroforestry would learn new techniques for optimizing their processes, Dr. Shiflett added.

“Recent research studies have focused on the climate adaptation benefits of low-to-intermediate shade cacao agroforestry in Africa, but far fewer studies have been conducted in Central America,” she said. “Our work will allow for comparisons of benefits among tropical agroforestry systems.”

De Souza felt honored to participate in the research. In fact, the study became her master’s thesis.

“With climate change, rapidly developing areas and people constantly wanting to clear land for development, it’s essential that rare species like this should be conserved and preserved, not only for cultural importance, but for genetics and science in general.”