Cohune nuts await processing.

The ingenuity and traditional practices of colonial communities have long helped sustain their livelihoods. In Flowers Bank, a small village in the area of Belize, the art of cohune palm oil extraction once became a valuable income earner for slaves during the off-season months of the timber trade.

The methods used by slaves to process cohune nuts were labor intensive, but today, modern technology is enabling their descendants to produce valuable cohune oil while preserving the local ecosystem.

In August, a program developed by the Flowers Bank community and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (“CCCCC”) began mechanizing traditional oil extraction practices and incorporating renewable energy sources into production.

Flowers Bank, which sits within the dense forest corridor of the Belize River Valley, is home to thousands of the Attalea cohune species of cohune palms. Harvested for centuries by the Maya, cohune nuts offer rich natural oils, for use in cooking and as fuel.

The intended goals of the Cohune Oil Project are “to foster food security, create employment for women and young adults, serve as an alternative income generation, aid in economic growth and produce by-products such as charcoal, soap, animal feed and a source of biofuel,” said Ahnivar Peralta, Economic Research Assistant at the CCCCC.

Both conservation and energy sustainability are built into the project, as the extraction of the raw cohune nuts does not require the removal of forest vegetation and the cohune oil produced can be used as a low-carbon emitting fuel.

Grinding the cohune nuts.

Cohune oil is derived from the kernels of the fruits, or huts, of the cohune palm tree. The nuts, once cracked, are sun-dried and then pounded. The pounded mass is mixed into excess water and boiled for hours, and the oil is skimmed off. Finally, the oil is heated and purified.

The most notable improvement on the traditional processing method includes the use of renewable waste, as husks and shells are used to provide biomass and heating for the cohune nuts during the drying and oil extraction. In addition, the use of a new filtration system results in the production of virgin cohune oil – which can fetch up to $600 per ton, for an estimated $258,000 in sales per annum. In year two of the project, a local production facility will invest in expansion to facilitate the production of high-grade activated charcoal. It is estimated that 43 tons of activated charcoal will be produced per annum, and export markets will be explored.

Perhaps the most promising element of the Cohune Oil Project is the involvement of the persons who will most benefit from it. The Flowers Bank Community Group (FBCG) and the CCCCC are the key partners and stakeholder and provide technical and management backstopping. As a sign of its long-term commitment, the FBCG contributed all of the infrastructure, facilities, and knowledge base for the project, and will be involved in the training of 105 persons.

“This partnership between a community and a center of excellence provides the foundation for sustainability,” said Peralta.