Jeff Pzena has always had an interest in how things are made. After graduating from the University of Chicago he moved to Cambridge, MA where he started a beer and wine-making hobby shop and then opened a microbrewery with his own label, Fat Cat Beer. While living in Massachusetts, Jeff met Chris Crowell, the future founder of Cotton Tree Lodge. Jeff returned to school for his MBA, writing the business plan for Cotton Tree Lodge while still earning his degree. After graduating, Jeff spent a few years in the corporate world as a brand manager for Nabisco, then began consulting for Cotton Tree Lodge which quickly evolved into a partnership with Chris Crowell.
Jeff became interested in chocolate in 2004 on one of his trips to Belize. He bought what he thought was a bag of almonds in the local farmers market and discovered that they were cocoa beans. He made some crude chocolate that trip and on return trips to Belize, Jeff’s interest in chocolate grew. After establishing a tour for guests to a local cacao farm, Jeff established a partnership between Cotton Tree Lodge and Sustainable Harvest International to offer an eco-voluntourism experience packaged as a “Sustainable Chocolate Tour.” These unique trips offer people an opportunity to help local farmers implement sustainable land use practices.
In addition to his responsibilities at the Lodge, Jeff has his own Fair Trade organic chocolate company, Cotton Tree Chocolate.
How long does it take people to get to Cotton Tree Lodge once they arrive in Belize?
Typically, if you’re going to Belize, you fly into Belize City. From there, you can take a local carrier to Punta Gorda. This flight can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how many stops they need to make. It’s like riding the local bus. Once people are in Punta Gorda, we have a driver who picks them up and takes them on a 15 minute drive to the banks of the Mojo River. Our boat meets them there and the approach Cotton Tree Lodge from the Mojo River. It’s a beautiful way to come in and it allows guests to get to know the area a bit.
Describe Cotton Tree Lodge and tell us why it might appeal to someone interested in eco-voluntourism.
Cotton Tree Lodge is situated on the Mojo River in southern Belize. It sits on 100 acres of land. Historically, the front 20 acres was a mango, papaya and citrus farm that a retired Peace Corps worker had farmed in his retirement. The back is all rainforest, and we pretty much kept it that way. We still have the mango and citrus. We have 11 cabanas for our guests, one lodge building and a restaurant. We also have an organic demonstration garden. We are catering towards people who want to have a nice, relaxing vacation but also on-site activities and tours of the surrounding area. We have kayaks, horses, bicycles and trails. We also take people on trips. We are in a fairly remote area. There is just rainforest and a few farmers. It is not developed for tourism by any means. Once our guests are with us, we are taking care of them.
Tell me more about how your demonstration garden is used.
We worked with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) to set up a demonstration garden to show local farmers how to farm sustainably and organically. SHI runs monthly workshops where they’ll invite farming families in to show them techniques. We also get a lot of the produce for our restaurant out of the garden.
What prompted you to connect with SHI?
We were working with a local farm owner, Juan Cho and his mother, Cyrilla, on a very casual basis, mainly because I was curious about how to make chocolate. I arranged to go to Cyrilla’s house so she could show me how to make chocolate. In talking to her, I realized that a lot of our guests would be interested in something like that, too. I asked if she’d like to set up a tour where we’d bring our guests over and she could show them how to make chocolate. That was really the beginning of this whole area of cultural tourism we started to explore. We found that people really appreciate a connection with someone from another culture in an informal environment – not a lecture. It’s a participatory thing. You get to make chocolate with a woman in her kitchen and meet her kids. People love that. We found that guests not only loved the experience, but afterwards, they wanted to do more for the community.
This is what led us to partner with Sustainable Harvest International and set up something a little more formal. The first chocolate tour we did with SHI was intended to show their donors what was happening with their contributions. It slowly has evolved and has taken on a life of its own. We’ve learned that people are very interested in volunteering, and they want it to be a personal experience. What started with this little chocolate connection has developed into what we call our Sustainable Chocolate Tour.
What typically happens on the Sustainable Chocolate tour?
The first night is a chance for all of the tour participants to meet each other, our staff, representatives from SHI and people from the community. The groups are usually fairly small, from four to 12 people.
On the next day, after breakfast, we take the participants to visit a local, organic farm or cacao plantation. This first day is similar to what we had started with Juan Cho, where we tour the cacao orchard with him and spend some time in his mother’s house. He talks with the guests, explaining how he started his farm, his relationship with SHI, and what it means to him to have learned organic farming. He also shows the group how cacao is harvested. Then we go to his mom’s house for lunch. While she’s cooking, we sit around with her family and talk. We get to see the way Mayan people use the chocolate in their daily lives and learn how it is processed.
How is cacao harvested and processed into chocolate?
Basically, you harvest the pod, scoop out the insides, and stick all the seeds, which are covered in fleshy fruit, in an open air box for fermentation. You turn it a couple of times a day for about a week. Before it is fermented, it’s called “cacao.” Once it’s no longer a viable plant, it’s called “cocoa.” After a week, most of the fruit has separated from the cocoa beans. Then it is spread out and sun dried for about a week. The beans are stored, fermented and dried. You can roast them when you are ready to use them. Mayan people roast them on an aluminum plate, traditionally over an open fire. So while our guests sit with Juan Cho’s mom, she’ll be roasting the beans over the fire and turning them with her hands. We’ll crush the beans with a matape, which is like a mortar and pestle. It is ground into a paste, and the paste is formed into balls. The balls are then stored. (In Mayan areas, you’ll find these chocolate balls everywhere.) From there, you can grate the chocolate off of the balls and make drinks with it. So on that first day, our guests get to see how Mayan people interact with cocoa, in the growing of it and using it in their daily lives.
Tell me about the cacao fruit.
The fruit is incredible, and it tastes nothing like chocolate. The cacao pods grow right off the trunk of the tree as well as its branches. It’s kind of creepy looking. The pods are kind of like a mini Nerf ball. In the inner cavity, there are about 30-50 seeds. The seeds are covered in a gooey, fleshy fruit. You can suck on the seeds and get the fruit off. The taste is something between a peach and a mango. That’s always a shock; this sweet, tart thing tastes nothing like chocolate.
Back to the chocolate tour itinerary…
On the next day, SHI will take our guests to another farm that is just being set up. There, they will do a lot of work. They may prepare seed beds, take cacao pods and put seeds into soil, and set up seed bags in a nursery. If the rainy season is starting, they may transplant seed bags into the ground. Our guests may plant up to 1,000 saplings on an acre or two of land. There is usually another day devoted to another project that will help farmers. An example might be building a stove. These stoves use a lot less wood and create a lot less smoke than the traditional, open fire stove.
After working all day, people usually come back to Cotton Tree Lodge and relax. They may go for a swim in the river, for example.
Our guests will also have a day to get a feel for other things SHI does to help local farm families. For example, if SHI is working with a family on their garden, our guests might get to help harvest stuff form the rainforest that can be used as a natural, organic herbicide. They might also get to see progress that SHI has made with other families or other places in the communities. They might see a seed bank SHI developed for a community. They might visit a garden that SHI set up at a school to start teaching children about sustainable, organic gardening.
The next day, the guests will get to complete the project they started two days earlier. So if they were building a stove, they would actually complete the stove on that day.
Toward the end of the trip, the guests usually get to do something fun, like hike to the Rio Blanco Waterfalls or go caving. We have taken people to Tiger Cave, which is really wild. There are rooms in there that are like cathedrals. The Mayan people are, in general, frightened of caves. They do not go in.
So the caves are pristine. You might even find shards of pottery when you’re walking through. The ancient Mayan people would make jars and sit them inside the cave and allow water to drip in them for years. Then royalty would come and drink from these pots the water that took years to fill.
In a situation like that, or in another situation where you’re taking your guests into a pristine area, how much education is involved so that your guests don’t end up spoiling that? Do their experiences over the previous few days help instill in them a respect for the local culture and history?
The experiences definitely help. In any situation where we’re going into a cave, or someone’s home, or somewhere where we want people to be aware of how they are affecting the environment, we never take groups of more than eight people. If we have more than eight people, we split them into groups. We also use local guides, so they help gently guide our guests so that they can enjoy the experience in a way that is respectful to the culture and the environment.
Does that day or two of fun round out the Sustainable Chocolate Tour experience?
One more thing that often happens is that our guests get to see the final end of the chocolate process. After the beans are fermented and dried, they are sold to the first fair trade organic cocoa coop in the world, in Punta Gorda. It is called the Toledo Cacao Growers Association. We’ll take our guests into town to meet with representatives from the Association, who explain the history of the cacao market in Belize. So our guests get to learn about the politics and economics of cacao in the world market. While we’re in town, we usually take people to the farmer’s market, too.
Anything scary in the river?
No. No crocodiles. No piranhas. You can very safely swim all the time. It’s beautiful. To go out there when no one is around, say at midnight, for a starlit swim, is incredible.
How is business these days?
As the U.S. economy started to crash, our bookings completely crashed for about five months. It was getting scary. But since then, January, February, March, April and May have been great. June looks good. We have gotten a number of bookings for next year as well. About 15% of 2010 already sold out.
We work with a lot of groups. We work with Elderhostel, and other large organizations that like to offer their members intimate trips. Elderhostel is an organization that offers educational travel for people over the age of 55. We also work with Tom Brown Jr.’ Tracking School. His area of expertise is wilderness survival. We do yoga retreats, college groups, and many other groups.
What percent of your bookings come from SHI’s Smaller World program?
Probably in the 5-10% range.
Obviously, partnering with a reputable non-profit organization or other group is a smart move for the organization, as they get to build ambassadors, they know they have a nice place to stay, etc. Beyond providing 10-15% of your business and exposing you to potentially new markets, how has your partnership with SHI been a good move for Cotton Tree Lodge?
There is a direct benefit. We have a great garden now!
But there are also a lot of indirect benefits. Partnering with reputable organizations gives us a sort of stamp of approval. With SHI, it lets people know that we operate in this location according to their standards of sustainability.
We are also starting to develop a direct relationship with some of the farmers. I’ve even started my own little chocolate company on the side. I have a friend who, along with his brother, owns Mast Brothers Chocolate.
We’re in the process of setting up a way to work together where they can get direct access to farmers so they can control the process. Most confection companies have to melt down chocolate that someone else manufactured from the cocoa beans. There are some companies that do the whole process from bean to bar. This takes it even a step further. Forget about bean to bar; let’s start with the tree.
Has your partnership with SHI helped make the surrounding community more welcoming to your guests?
We were on pretty good ground to begin with. My partner, Chris Crowell, has owned this land for ten years. He was running a sailboat charter business out of Punta Gorda. He got to know the area and the people. He hired the man who had been the previous owner’s caretaker, and became friendly with his family. Chris did not live on the property for the first five year, but every year, when he would come down, he would bring collections of clothing and other items for the people in the town. He got to know people in the community. Jose, the caretaker, helped us recruit local people to help build the lodge. They all build their own houses. They are very simple structures, and we wanted to use that as our design anyway. So we had the community help us build our first cabana.
We also did something else that a lot of other foreign businesses fail to do. The Mayan community has a legal representation and a cultural representation. The village council is the political representation of the village in town. Then there is the Alcalde, which is the figurehead mayor. We let both know what our plans were and learned about their concerns. I think being up front with your neighbors and letting them know what is going on is extremely helpful.
Based on your experience partnering with SHI and having these volunteer opportunities for your guests, what would you say is the primary reason people choose to incorporate volunteer work into their travel experience?
It is ultimately that they are just aware of where they are in the world and the advantages that they have. They want to give something back in some way. It’s also interesting. Coming in as a stranger and really helping someone out is an incredibly personal experience. Whether you are working with someone for a day or a week, there’s a real cultural exchange that occurs. People get a charge out of making a connection with somebody who is from a place very different from where they live.
Even guests who are not here to volunteer and have no interest in that kind of experience often end up enjoying those connections. We may casually suggest joining us for a chocolate making trip or a tortilla making day. To be able to go into someone’s house and sit in a kitchen and laugh with a couple of Mayan women about how bad you are at making tortillas is great. People end up cherishing those experiences.
Do you feel like people come away from one of your trips with SHI with an understanding of how slash and burn agriculture has affected the ecology down there?
It can be hard to see. It depends on when you come. If you’re coming down right at the end of the dry season, before all the rain comes, yes… it seems like a war zone. If you take a plane from Belize City to Punta Gorda, you see smoke everywhere.
Do you see more partnerships like yours and SHIs being formed within the ecotourism or culture tourism industry?
I have suggested SHI as a partner to other people, so from my limited experience, yes. But I’m a little isolated here.
There is a section on Cotton Tree Lodge’s web site dedicated to testimonials. One of your guests said, “Cotton Tree’s ecotourism puts the emphasis on “eco,” not on “tourism.” How do you accomplish this, and how to you keep the lodge itself a sustainable operation?
We grow whatever we can. We have chickens here for laying eggs. Whenever we need to buy something, we buy as locally as possible. We try not to use any imported foods. We used local materials to construct the lodge. We are on a river that floods. We use composting toilets where the waste. Instead of a septic tank and a leech field, we have concrete pits that are filled will gravel and soil and banana trees. All the effluent goes to feed the banana trees, which are very good at evaporating a lot of liquid. Not that there would be anything wrong with it, but we don’t eat the bananas.
We rely on solar, but that doesn’t produce all the electricity we need, we supplement it with a generator. With the solar panels and generator, we store energy in a bank of batteries. We run off that bank of batteries through inverters.
We also decided that what we needed to cut down in terms of lumber to build our buildings we would try to give back. We have replanted a couple of acres of teak and mahogany. We have also planted some cacao.
You have worked in corporate America and been involved in branding. How would you describe the brand personality of Cotton Tree Lodge?
We just treat people like family. It’s very comfortable and a little rustic. I think what people come away with is “I went somewhere where I really got to make a connection with the people around me.” When we have meals, it’s one long table. You really feel like you’re part of a family or a community. It can be isolating when you go away somewhere. A lot of places try to be very exclusive. We try to be inclusive.