Alleviating Concerns About Cultural Appropriation of Cacao

Alleviating Concerns About Cultural Appropriation of Cacao

The Ruk'u'x Ulew (pronounced Roo-koosh Oo-lay-oo) women's cacao collective in San Marcos la Laguna at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Each time the collective sells cacao, 100% of the profits of that sale go back to the Mayan indigenous families who grow and prepare the cacao.
The Ruk'u'x Ulew (pronounced Roo-koosh Oo-lay-oo) women's cacao collective in San Marcos la Laguna at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. The business is owned by a Mayan woman, and much care is put into the well-being of the workers.

(NOTE: Originally published on 7/16/2018. This is an updated and revised version.)

Soul Lift Cacao acknowledges the collective conversation that has arisen recently around claims of cultural appropriation of cacao and ceremonial practices connected to it. This excerpt from the Soul Lift Cacao Guidebook is an overview to the very complex conversation, to assist in your heartfelt efforts to share cacao with the world.

Some believe it’s unethical for non-indigenous people to serve cacao in a spiritual context. This is what’s meant when people who don't have – or who appear not to have – cacao in their cultural heritage get “called out” for cultural appropriation for hosting cacao ceremonies. The critical viewpoint is based on some hard facts, and some assumptions shaped by broader cultural narratives.

One undeniable fact is that cacao has been a sacred part of the cultures of what we now call Central and South America for at least 3,000 years. There are hard records of it being consumed in a ritualistic manner and even treated as a monetary currency. Another fact is that those parts of the world have suffered various kinds of pillaging and oppression for the last 500 years, first at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, and now by developed nations and their corporate influences.

However, it seems to be an incorrect assumption to say that what we call a “cacao ceremony” is a lineage-based practice that is or has been passed down in the same manner as some other plant medicines. In fact, the term “cacao ceremony” as used in countries where cacao doesn’t grow (and even in places like Guatemala and Peru) can be a very general concept that might include any sort of healing or self-development activities combined with cacao.

Cacao is still present in some Mayan ceremonies, but reportedly it's not the central focus. There are fire ceremonies and water ceremonies, for example. Yet it’s unclear that a facilitated spiritual journey specifically centered around cacao ever existed in indigenous cultures. It’s possible that the unique phenomenon called a cacao ceremony is just being born at this time in history.

So while it’s extremely important to source cacao ethically and responsibly, it’s also important to trust in the gentle but powerful ally and teacher that is the cacao plant itself, and to trust in your own intuition. Anytime you serve cacao in a workshop or ceremony, it is recommended to verbally honor the indigenous people who have kept cacao traditions alive for millennia.

And it’s also important to seek training and experience in general methods of holding “sacred space,” ritual, and ceremony (which could potentially include yoga teacher training, Reiki attunements, tantra, shamanism, etc.).

In other words, be a professional! If you're going to take on the role of sharing cacao with the world (or if cacao "chooses you"), then embody the ethics and impeccability that it demands.

Remember, even an indigenous person sharing a lineage-based practice (i.e., a “shaman”) can still cause harm, as many travelers to the Amazon have unfortunately discovered. On the flip side, someone can be a legitimate shaman, generally safe facilitator, and ethical practitioner regardless of where in the world they were born. It’s important to consider all the factors and see each situation as unique.

If you get called out for working with cacao, try to slow down and do some real soul searching. Don't react out of fear or anger, or issue counter-judgments (such as calling someone "close-minded"). First pause and take deep breaths. Do what you need to do to get centered and grounded.

So many healing arts facilitators arrive at this work out of a sense of service and mission, inspired by their own painful past experiences. If that's the case for you, honor it deeply and make sure to take care of your own needs to avoid burn out. Remember that underneath any argument about this, all people involved probably have a deep desire to make the world a better place.

Consider that you could cause harm by responding without tact, even if simply not acknowledging that systemic oppression and cultural stealing have and still do occur in the world. In this context that would be if a white person held a Mayan fire ceremony without training or permission from of Mayan elders; or if white people claimed to be the first ones to discover the spiritual use of ceremonial cacao.

Not acknowledging the real social problems at all can be a type of spiritual bypassing, so we want to avoid that as well. While on the one hand no one owns a plant and a plant medicine does seem to have a mind of its own, it's important to acknowledge that sacred cultural practices do become tied with plants and artifacts.

Soul Lift Cacao’s whole business model is based on developing direct trade relationships with family farms and indigenous groups who grow and prepare cacao using traditional methods. That means growing organically, using sustainable/regenerative agroforestry practices, providing safe work conditions, and roasting cacao beans over an actual wood fire.

The ceremonial cacao movement is an undeniable force of good in the world, especially when contrasted with the “Big Chocolate” industry, which uses unsustainable farming practices, creates excess pollution, doesn’t pay fair trade prices, and even reportedly relies on child labor in places like Africa. Big chocolate, Mexican food chains, and other institutions are truly appropriative in the sense that they totally remove something from its cultural origins without giving enough credit, money, and/or other types of compensation to the creators.

On the other hand, the ceremonial cacao movement is actually improving the lives of indigenous people and protecting their ancient traditions of growing and preparing cacao. Our direct trade method is even a step beyond “fair trade,” because we’re transparent about sources and build direct relationships with the groups making the artisanal cacao.

Thank you for your efforts to support a better way. And remember, plant medicines do “choose us,” in a way. Shamanism can appear on its own, separate from any specific training or approval by a human authority. So we recommend finding a balance between confidently trusting your intuition, and practicing with great respect and humility.