Venture into the Dominican Republic’s northern mountain range, and you’ll find Reserva Zorzal, a 1,019-acre bird reserve that’s fine-tuning a new recipe for the world’s cacao industry.
Zorzal’s mission is to finance conservation through the sale of cacao, which it achieves by keeping 713 acres “forever wild”, and utilising 130 acres to grow premium cacao via shade agroforestry. This cacao is harvested, fermented, dried and exported to artisan chocolate makers throughout the world, and the revenue is reinvested back into Zorzal’s conservation efforts.
“We have already increased the region’s protected area by over 2,300 hectares,” Zorzal Founder Dr Charles Kerchner tells me. “This is equivalent to about 10 percent of all protected areas in the northern mountain range of the Dominican Republic.”
“We are creating a protected habitat for birds — and better income for local farmers. Our goal is that this will become an example for others in the industry to follow,” he adds.
When it comes to conservation outcomes, Zorzal’s work is directly benefiting a suite of species, but it’s the Bicknell’s Thrush in particular that Charles has his eyes on. In fact, he’s dedicated his scientific and entrepreneurial career to conserving biodiverse landscapes for the recluse and vulnerable bird, establishing the Zorzal Reserve in 2012, and completing his PhD in 2013.
Charles' dedication is paying off too. In 2014, the Zorzal team started a bird monitoring program, encountering Bicknell’s thrush in 19 of 107 bird-count points, primarily in the rainforest reserve area. In 2016, this number increased to 53 of 107 points. These results suggest Zorzal’s work is significantly increasing habitat to support Bicknell’s thrush, as well as habitat for other co-occurring species — which excites conversationsts, farmers and scientists alike.
In fact, leading research organisation The Smithsonian recently launched a Bird Friendly® Cacao certification that incentivises cacao farmers to conserve native bird habitat and rewards them with access to premium markets. To obtain a Bird Friendly certification, cacao farmers must either set aside 50% of their land as forest or maintain a minimum of 30-40% canopy cover with at least 11 tree species per hectare — with both of these factors highly correlating with bird diversity and abundance.
In 2022, Zorzal was the first cacao farm in the world to receive the certification, giving much-deserved attention to a business model whereby cacao farming and conservation are working in tandem.
Looking beyond economic value
Nature is global, mobile and unhindered by human-made borders — and for this reason, Zorzal’s conservation efforts were always destined to extend beyond the reserve’s boundary lines.
In 2016, Charles started purchasing cacao from neighbouring farms, and in 2022, secured a Wedgetail nature-linked loan to scale these efforts. The nature-linked loan not only empowers Zorzal to purchase more cacao, but it rewards these efforts too, with an interest rate that automatically decreases as more hectares of surrounding farmland become bird-friendly certified. At the time of writing, Zorzal is purchasing cacao from more than 50 other farms, and has deployed its nature-linked loan to transition 245 hectares to bird-friendly certified.
As you might expect, obtaining a Bird Friendly certification comes with costs and criteria. To ensure these barriers don’t hinder local farmers, Zorzal covers these overhead costs and shares its hard-won knowledge.
“Teaching our network of farmers more about environmental stewardship builds value for their farms and Zorzal alike. Education is core to our growth as a business,” Chuck explains.
“The goal is to create a system where farmers are benefiting, producers are benefiting and consumers are benefiting.”
The Dominican Republic is one of the top 10 cocoa producers in the world, Chuck tells me, making it the ideal location for the Bird Friendly Cacao certification to take flight. But make no mistake, he adds, “it’s a replicable model that will spread worldwide”.