Biochar – providing long-term, sustainable economic opportunities for Central American cacao growers

A Report on Carbon Gold’s Recent Activities.

We are pleased to announce the successes of a 5 year biochar project with the Toledo Cacao Growers Association – funded by Mondelēz International and the GEF Small Grants Programme implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. It will see 45,000 grafted cacao plants raised in biochar-enriched, water-retentive soil – resulting in stronger plants, increased yields and quicker, more reliable harvests for local farmers.

Using 10 SuperChar 100 Kilns from UK biochar company, Carbon Gold, cacao growers in Belize now have access to a biochar production system that is now recognized to:

  • Provide viable, long term, sustainable economic opportunities
  • Deliver a sustainable solution for waste management and water saving
  • Produce a vital soil amendment
  • Increase cropping and generate reliable, predictable harvests


Providing viable, long term, sustainable economic opportunities

The Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) is a non-profit company owned by its members. It was incorporated in 1986 “to improve the socioeconomic standard of living of its members through competitive and diversified systems of production which incorporate sound ecological principles.” It has 1000 members from 55 villages and over 90% are indigenous Maya farmers. Cacao is currently the only certified organic product leaving Belize. It is also Fairtrade certified. The TCGA provides viable, long term, sustainable economic opportunities to individuals who are interested and committed to organic cacao production and its related management of natural resources. The TCGA has direct links with its communities and represents them on the international stage to promote environmental protection and sustainable livelihoods.

The project was initiated in 2009 to encourage the sustainable production of biochar by TCGA farmers, to test its use as a soil amendment in cacao orchard and nursery settings, and was designed to complement existing pruning programmes. In phase one of the project, biochar was to be produced by TCGA farmers in situ, using cacao and shade tree prunings as feedstock. The material converted into biochar was taken from areas where the “milpa” system – also known as “slash-and-burn” – was traditionally carried out, with an aim to slow down this environmentally destructive practice and extend land use. In phase two, the resulting biochar was to be crushed and added to the soil in cacao orchards and nurseries to examine its potential as a soil amendment.

Sustainable waste stream management

In the Toledo district of Belize, cacao trees are prone to the fungal disease monilia, made worse by lack of airflow through the orchards. Pruning the orchards generates a greater airflow but creates a waste-stream of biomass that is generally burnt or left to rot – resulting in atmospheric CO2 emissions.  The project aimed to show that these prunings could provide a sustainable source of feedstock for producing biochar.

Allowing nursery systems to flourish & halving water usage

How cacao plants are cultivated in Toledo is evolving. Traditionally, seedlings were planted directly into the soil. Growers are now raising grafted plants in nurseries, often for up to eight months during the dry season before they are planted out in an orchard setting. Grafting allows for stronger rootstock to be spliced onto a superior fruiting stem – thereby increasing plant strength and yield.

Seedlings planted with biochar and fertilizer were the fastest growing, with the largest, most vigorous and darkest green leaves. Biochar showed significant water retention capacity and when used in soil mixture in a nursery setting, irrigation can be reduced by 50%.


Important lessons have been learnt during this 4 year project. TCGA farmers have developed the skills to produce and use biochar to improve their yields, increase their incomes and slow down environmentally damaging ‘slash and burn’ practices. Appropriate, sustainable supplies of feedstock have been identified. As cacao prunings were found to be insufficient as the sole source of feedstock, biomass from other sources will now be used, including sawmill residues.  Rice husks from a local rice mill represent a further feedstock source.

Production systems

The project has also established that centralised biochar production – where biochar is made by dedicated producers with mobile kilns processing a variety of local feedstock – has proven most effective. Three of the ten farmers who participated in the trials will now be paid by the TCGA to produce and sell biochar to other cacao growers throughout the cooperative.

Optimal use

The key outcome of the project is the realisation of the benefits of biochar as an effective soil amendment and one that is imperative to the successful propagation of cacao seedlings in a nursery environment. TCGA farmers will now be propagating all of their cacao plants in nurseries, expanding to nine across the cooperative – each raising 5000 seedlings at a time. 45,000 grafted cacao plants will be grown in biochar-enriched, water-retentive soil; resulting in stronger plants, increased yields and quicker and more reliable cropping.

Additional income

The project also brings financial gain to the TCGA. Biomass from the waste stream has become a valuable resource as feedstock, and as the horticultural value of biochar in the cacao growing system has been substantiated, the value of biochar is set to rise.

Bright Future

The project officer trained and employed to lead biochar production throughout the trials has won a scholarship to study agronomy in Costa Rica – the opportunity of a lifetime in a nation that is readily rediscovering the horticultural arts of its ancestors.