An Open Letter to Anyone Concerned about Cultural Appropriation of Cacao or Cacao Ceremony
by NICK MEADOR
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: I last revised and updated this article on 7/17/2018 to reflect new information that has come to my attention and to honor the complex nature of the collective conversation. Changes to the original are marked with an asterisk.*)
Twice recently I’ve been accused of cultural appropriation for leading cacao ceremonies – which for simplicity I’d define as a guided meditation and/or self-development workshop in which pure cacao is served as a drink.
And cultural appropriation is “the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.” (Wikipedia)
It’s a very complicated subject, so I want to be very cautious with my words in responding to this kind of allegation.
Most people in the western hemisphere think about cacao coming from Central or South America. For example, most pure cacao sold in North American health food stores seems to come from Peru or Ecuador. But cacao is actually grown in tropical climates around the world. It’s not unique to countries in the Central and Southern parts of the Western Hemisphere that are home to indigenous cultures.
And the history of cacao is unclear. It was reportedly called the “Food of the Gods” in ancient civilizations of that part of the world, or even traded as currency at one time.* It’s absolutely certain that cacao played some role in the community life in ancient cultures of what we now know as Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries in that part of the world.
However, after visiting cacao farms and experts in those countries as well as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I couldn't locate an existing ceremonial lineage among indigenous cultures in the Western Hemisphere for using cacao in a spiritual context.* And it’s not clear what is fact and what is myth about cacao’s role in these cultures, past or present.
In regions of the world where cacao doesn't grow, much of what people know about ceremonial cacao originates from Keith Wilson.* He's a white man who has lived in Guatemala for decades and claims to follow the "cacao spirit" as it moves around to different farms. His website reads, “Ceremonial details of how ancient cultures used chocolate are not known.” Keith has dedicated his life to raising awareness about cacao produced for ceremonial use, presumably because of the potential collective benefits it could have in our current global situation.
I agree with Keith that pure cacao is a plant medicine – which I’d define as a natural substance that can put us more in touch with body, soul, and “the universe” (or whatever terms suit you), providing anything from emotional healing, to a creative boost, to insights on how to live a more fulfilling life. What creates a “heart-opening effect” is a much larger serving of pure, minimally processed cacao than most chocolate fans have had – and that's why it's still relatively unknown. However, anyone could buy the pure cacao in stores and have “an experience” with it.
Cacao is clearly unlike other plant medicines, and cacao ceremony is unlike other spiritual practices. Both plant medicines and the practices or rituals involving them often have clear lineages that have been passed down from person to person throughout the centuries. For example, from what I can tell so far, cacao is not like ayahuasca, with shamans that have always served the plant brew and facilitated experiences with it as an integral part of tribal communities.
There are Mayan ceremonial lineages, and there are instances when cacao is still served in a ritualistic manner.* But it's reportedly not the central focus. Instead, a Mayan ceremony will focus on something else, such as water or fire. This is important because a "cacao ceremony" in the modern Western world is a facilitated experience focusing on cacao as an agent of holistic improvement, and therefore could essentially be a Western invention. Even so, this would still demand respect for sacred treatments of cacao that have come before in indigenous cultures.
Wilson does refer to hard evidence that the “Cacao Spirit” was revered in ancient indigenous cultures of the parts of the world in question. However he says “it is cacao’s choice to return at this time,” after a relative absence from any organized spiritual context.* And in my own search, I’ve been told different information from different cacao farms and experts about cacao genetics, propagation, harvesting, and history. In other words, the world of cacao is a huge mystery.
Even with the evidence suggesting that there’s no indigenous ceremonial lineage centered around cacao,* that doesn’t mean it never existed. And if it did, then it could have been diluted or eliminated at any point from the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years ago, to the invasion of Western candy companies much more recently. I hope to learn more about what has actually occurred.
What I know now is that the chocolate industry has caused and continues to cause great harm in these areas. For instance, the major chocolatiers of Europe have probably always sourced most of their cacao from Africa. I’ve been told that it’s common to use child labor for cacao farming there, and I can only imagine the pollution and destruction that happens through that kind of large-scale agriculture that totally disregards the “healing” potential of cacao (at least 90% of beneficial cacao compounds are removed or destroyed in the process of making any common bar of chocolate).
Ceremonial cacao is necessarily sourced from relatively small farms creating small batches with a high amount of care at every step of the way. I personally source from a farm that is renovating land formerly pillaged to grow coffee and corn. They are reforesting to create shade for baby cacao trees. They grow cacao organically, using free range livestock to turn and fertilize the soil and cardamom to fix nutrients in it. They are “off the grid,” creating power from a spring-fed hydroelectric pool on their land. I visited the farm in person to gauge the ethical standards of their operation. I found that measures are being taken to minimize the manual labor of workers, and now there are steps underway to improve their quality of life further by boosting their nutritional input.
In an unexpected full circle, the ceremonial cacao “industry” has the power to fight back against the candy and junk food companies that have invaded the rural parts of developing nations that house tropical rainforests – companies that have lowered the health and even the life expectancy of residents through malnutrition. The circle is not complete, but it’s a beginning… and it’s happening because humans are taking action on the human scale.
I don’t want to skirt over the issue of appropriation or misappropriation. Some might wonder if steps are being taken to make this kind of cacao available to the people of countries like Guatemala where it’s grown. But from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve been told, indigenous Mayan people (for one) equate cacao with sugary, processed chocolate. There does not currently seem to be a widespread desire for cacao in a ceremonial preparation.* It could be possible to “re-introduce” it to indigenous people, and Wilson says that he has made some steps in that area. But forcing that could turn into another kind of Western colonial invasion. As I said at the beginning, this is an extremely complicated subject.
On the issue of facilitating a ceremony or workshop with cacao… I’ve explained my current perception that there is not an indigenous ceremonial lineage centered around cacao.* I welcome and intend to seek out more information in that area. What remains for me in the meantime is being as ethical and responsible as possible in where I’m sourcing, and also giving credit for the practices that I do use in my facilitation when appropriate.
I personally believe that no spiritual tradition, therapeutic modality, or self-development system is or can be 100% complete, for the simple reason that they are finite, and human beings and the reality we live in are both infinitely complex. I intentionally train in many modalities and seek experience with different traditions, to find the parallels that exist between them. Through that I can more effectively fulfill my mission of guiding people to greater empowerment, liberation, fulfillment, purpose, etc. I give credit whenever possible, and even this is a very complicated subject. Some “teachers” have caused me more harm than good, and yet I’d still be honest if using a practice or idea that I first encountered in one of their classes or workshops and someone asked where I found it.
The subject of a person of one race or heritage picking up and using or teaching a practice from another race or heritage is complicated beyond the scope of this kind of letter. I believe that if, for instance, a white person trains directly with an indigenous shaman to facilitate what would traditionally be an indigenous practice, and the indigenous shaman gives consent for that person to facilitate it, then the white person is justified in doing so as long as they are acting respectfully and with concern for safety.
Since there appears to be no indigenous lineage of that kind focused on cacao, a white person leading a cacao ceremony can’t accurately be described as committing cultural appropriation of an indigenous practice.* If someone makes the argument that a white person leading ANY kind of ceremony is cultural appropriation, they might have a case there, since ritual and ceremony have largely been lost from white cultures. But generalizing all white people who lead rituals or ceremonies as morally reprehensible doesn't do service to anyone.
I believe that more people of all races and heritages engaging in ceremony and ritual will have an overall positive impact on the world. And on the other hand, if there truly is no lineage of facilitation centered around cacao, then it would be cultural exploitation for a non-indigenous person (i.e., someone who's not of Mayan, Aztec, Incan, or related heritage) to claim that they were offering an indigenous practice with cacao ceremony.* I was doing that myself until I put these pieces together and then corrected my language.
There’s something to be said about weighing the costs versus the benefits of bringing or taking practices or physical goods between two cultures. For example, right now it seems to me that the positive effects of the proliferation of yoga and meditation in the Western world outweigh the costs that may have been associated with adopting and adapting these practices from Eastern cultures.
In other words, the world is a better place with this many people doing yoga and meditation, even if some get it a little “wrong.” It’s worth noting that one person accusing me is a Latin American (non-Hindu) woman who teaches yoga. I support her in teaching it. The world needs it. And as for cacao, it's not so simple to say that a white person leading cacao ceremony is automatically creating costs that outweigh the collective benefits. However I would say that anyone working with cacao who doesn't have ancestry in cacao-growing nations does have an obligation to verbally honor and respect the indigenous people who have kept cacao traditions alive for millennia.*
Aside from the subject of ceremonial lineage, there is still potential for exploitation in obtaining cacao. It demands respect of the people who grow it and regular reflection on how to effectively “give back.” But there is no process of training, certification, or authorization to serve a drink of cacao and then lead a meditation or other kind of workshop. And anyone of any race or gender could literally serve cacao drinks, instruct a group to simply focus on their breathing, and many or all of the people would probably have a useful experience. That’s the kind of facilitator or guide that cacao is.
This part about borrowing or appropriating cultural goods or practices could miss the point that I really want to make. Whatever change we want to foster in the world, pointing a finger of judgment at someone is a pretty sure way to stop them from hearing or supporting us. I’m aware that race is a loaded subject, and I don’t mean to put an undue burden of responsibility on minorities, people of color, and/or women in an interaction like this.
In other words, I acknowledge that as a white male with a high level of privilege, I also have a high level of responsibility to address situations of inequality and injustice. But I don’t know how to do that when, for instance, I’m automatically cast as a villain based on assumptions about my work and generalizations about my gender and race. And I’m a person who wants to make a difference! Imagine how little impact this kind of judgment has on people with more closed minds and hearts. It actually reinforces racism, sexism, and other divides, giving people with disowned/unconscious social power more ammunition to cause harm.
I don’t want any of this to come off as prescriptive, so I’ll speak for myself here. I spent a lot of my life feeling miserable because I wouldn’t take responsibility for my feelings. Instead I would blame others for what I was experiencing. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) helped me to see that I could pause and try to understand what someone really meant to say before simply reacting. And I could be more selective with my own words to get more of my message through, so that the person wouldn't just defensively block me out.
I’m very willing to open a dialogue with anyone concerned over these questions about cacao. It would be harder for me to do with someone who doesn’t use the kind of self-responsible language I describe above, because for me to enter a dialogue in which I take on responsibility for the feelings of others would actually contribute to their disempowerment – especially when such responsibility is put on me based on assumptions about who I am, the work I do, and what role cacao may or may not have played in historical ceremonial practices. I’d still try to open this kind of dialogue, because I realize that my exposure to a practice like NVC is part of my privilege. But I can’t change the fact that we are all responsible to meet our own needs, and that judging or blaming others for our experience can only leave our needs unmet and feelings like anger or grief unserved.
I want to reiterate that I’m interested in helping or supporting people who feel disempowered, and that I don’t know how to help when I’m villainized or blamed for what someone else is feeling, especially when sharp accusations are posted on a public Internet forum with the specific intention of lowering my professional reputation without any attempt to understand where I'm coming from.
I think I’d be able to help more if I received a specific request or proposal intended to lessen a situation of inequality or injustice. For instance, if someone was interested in making ceremonial cacao available for private or group meditative use to underprivileged populations in North America, and wanted to collaborate on that in a way that all benefited, that might be possible. Another idea could be to create travel opportunities to Central America for people who can’t afford it, so that they can learn about cacao first-hand.
Whether on this subject or any other, simply pointing to the problem without suggesting a solution or at least some forward motion actually just makes the problem worse. Doing that adequately might require starting a non-profit corporation. Simply idealizing the way things “should” be doesn't create forward motion with the way things are.
On a similar note, implying that there’s something wrong about receiving monetary compensation for working with cacao would make as little sense as saying that all yoga teachers should work for free. In my own workshops, I always make work-trade opportunities available for people who feel called to attend but might have an issue covering the cost.
It wouldn’t solve anything for me or any other person who doesn’t have cacao heritage to stop hosting cacao ceremonies or other workshops in which pure cacao is used as a tool for emotional healing, personal self-development, and spiritual practice. Cacao has had an immensely positive effect on my life. With its help I took control of my own holistic well-being instead of continually expecting others to do it for me.
I’m combining cacao with other tools and practices that have had a strong positive impact in my life. I’m not doing this out of misguided privilege, but actually out of a sense of duty and even life mission. I want to live that mission in and out of a workshop or ceremony setting. And also, I’m an imperfect human and I’m open to feedback, especially from people who have met me personally and witnessed my facilitation. I’m even more open to heartfelt conversation between two or more humans who share the desire to make the world a better place.