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The commodification of cacao

Unpublished essay on my research of ceremonial cacao during my postgraduate Anthropology studies. I share my essays to track my growth and evolution through my research process and writing but also to inspire other academics at different stages of the journey. I have currently completed my Bachelor of Arts double majoring in psych and social anthropology and am currently working on my Masters of Arts Social Anthropology.

Essay submitted: 11/12/2022


Introduction

Ceremonial cacao has been a big trend since the 2020 pandemics and people began to crave intentional and spiritual connection leading to a rise in new age spirituality practices using cacao. In this essay I will discuss the commodification of cacao and the alienation of cacao farmers in the production and distribution process. I explore the fetishism of cacao as a western totem concealed as sacred ancient Mayan practices.

First, I talk about my own consumption of cacao and how I came to be involved with ceremonial cacao, then I look at what this says about me and how this generalizes to the target market new age western women spiritualist and the disconnect between this community and the supply chain of cacao and why I believe this to be apparent with Marxism commodity fetishism and Durkheim's totemism theories.

My consumption of cacao

I consume cacao sporadically, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, sometimes I will not have any for a month. I first began drinking cacao approximately two years ago when I was on a deep healing journey of myself, I was suffering from anxiety and a friend had mentioned to me that ceremonial grade cacao could help me. At the beginning I was using cacao daily, every morning. I would set my alarm to 5am and get up and drink pure cacao as the sun would rise, it became a daily practice for me, something I could not go without. I suppose how others would have coffee I would begin my day with cacao. When I got pregnant with my youngest son recently, I could not drink cacao whilst pregnant or breastfeeding for some reason it did not agree with me, so I lessened my daily practice. I mostly consume cacao alone regularly, but on occasions I have introduced others to it and attended cacao ceremonies. The cacao I have used usually is what I draw too but I like to buy unprocessed and in bulk as this is what was educated to me to be the best and I never really questioned further and have done that, because high grade cacao is hard to source and is imported into New Zealand, I usually look to connect with brands that I find on Instagram and buy.


What does my consumption of cacao say about me?

The consumption of ceremonial cacao and to drink in the manner I have mentioned above would assumingly put me as mid 20s upwards, western white woman, middle – upper class socioeconomic status in the alternative spiritual new age religion/community.

There is still some controversy about the origin and domestication of cacao (Motamayor et al, 2002), which is raw unprocessed cocoa beans, but as many in the new age western spirituality community believed that it was a an ancient ritual plant that was used centuries ago by the Mayans to connect to the goddess cacao used sacredly in ceremonies, rituals and sacrifices, however cacao in indigenous cultures was used for food purposes and as a trading commodity, the ritualistic and spiritual aspects of it were invented by the western users and specifically ceremonial cacao is mostly used by white woman who are on some sort of new age spiritual journey, there was an increase of ceremonial cacao practiced over 2020 Covid lockdowns as people sought ways to connect and make sense of the pandemic.

The pandemic year of 2020 is how I originally connected and began using cacao with ritual practice. My first encounter with cacao in a group was a women's circle that consisted of upper-class white woman.

The common themes I identify with the target market of cacao is either those looking to connect spiritually or using holistic healing modalities to aid mental health issues or the elite western white woman, which is interesting because cacao was traditionally traded in South America and used as a medical remedy for many things (Windelspecht, 2016) and was only attained by the elite and how much cacao you had was a sign of your status in Eastern traditions.


Supply chain of cacao

The supply chain for ceremonial cacao differs from each local distributer but commonly in New Zealand the suppliers seem to all claim to source there cacao directly from farmers in the Solomon Islands, I do think maybe South America produces a lot as well but I don’t really know for sure which highlights the alienation that Marx speaks of in commodity fetishism, I was told the myths of cacao, the benefits, the stories of how it was used, a story of where it was sourced all directly either through social media or at a cacao circle and until this essay, I never looked further.

This alienation benefits the user of the cacao because I think if we knew how it was really sourced it may remove some of the spiritual; aspect that we are looking from it in how we consume it, as we as consumers are sold a mythical story of this uplifting magical plant and the farmers who grow it pray to it, and they connect with the goddess cacao, it's an enticing story that you don’t want to look any further but as I researched trying to find the root connections to the ceremonies and the purpose of them there was very little historical research relating to these stories that are so often spoken of at women's circles.

We are told stories of fair trade, ethical trades, fair wages for the farmers who farm the cacao but again because we have alienation between the farmers and us the consumers, how do we really know that to be true?

It suits those distributing the cacao out for there to be alienation.


Cacao as a sacred totem

Ceremonial cacao fits with Emile Durkheim’s totemism theory. Durkheim theorizes that food can be a totem, in this case the cacao is the sacred plant totem. Worship of cacao directly reflects back to Durkheim’s totemism theory and highlights how group identities are singled by specific food totems (Johnston et al, 2016), because we know that the ritual of the ceremonial aspect of the practice with cacao is a reflection of new age spirituality and able to identify the user of ceremonial cacao based on this. Totemic principle highlights how culture unifies people through specific revered objects (Johnson et al, 2016) and the act of sitting in ceremony with others is again a reflection of this, this explains why information about the supply chain process, the mythical exaggeration of the foundations of where the ceremony began, the ideologies of how the plant is processed and farmed is not explored further and taken in agreeance collectively because the ceremony of cacao symbolizes connection, reverence and a collective identity spiritually, there seems to have been a veritable surge in the cacao business as these self-declared shamans and healers capitalize on a year of pandemic and lockdown-related stress, anxiety, depression, and the ever-increasing need for human connection. (Walsh, 2021).


Commodity Fetishism of Cacao

Karl Marx theory of commodity fetishism describes the relationship and exchange between production and consumer and the relationship here is not actually with the producer or the consumer but between money and the item, this creates an alienation of the worker and consumer creating unethical opportunities for the capitalist because the consumer is unaware of how the product is produced. My own experience with a lack of connection between the farmers who grow and crop the cacao and us the western consumers who use it for cacao ceremonies. We have fetishized the cacao and the ritual, but we do not ask many further questions, or any know details about how the cacao is produced, how it arrives in New Zealand. The production and marketing of cacao ceremonies reproduces disturbing colonial dynamics (Walsh, 2021) and real alienation with the farmers of the cacao and the consumers, with those holding the ceremonies and distributing the cacao creating profit.


Conclusion

The purpose of ceremonial cacao is to bring people together, connection and reverence between them and the plant but with the commodification of cacao has come along information relating to the production and supply of cacao to create an ideology of cacao in the western culture. The ideology of cacao alienates the true form of production and supply of cacao to the consumer to contain the ideologies but as discussed briefly in this essay we learned that cacao was not consumed as a ritual practice, and this was created recently. The fetishism of cacao as a totem in western culture as a sacred plant does not mean that the supply chain process is ethical, ultimately, we do not know because we have commodified the plant for our own use.


Reference:

Johnston, J., Cairns, K., & Baumann, S. (2016). Introducing sociology using the stuff of everyday life. DOI:10.4324/9781315776507

Motamayor, J., Risterucci, A., Lopez, P. et al. Cacao domestication I: the origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas. Heredity 89, 380–386 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.hdy.6800156

Walsh, A. (2021) The problematic elements behind uncritically embracing cacao ceremonies. RTE website. Retrieved from https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2021/0408/1208610-uncritical-embrace-cacao-ceremonies-problematic/

Windelspecht, D. (2016). Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the gods.” Ricochet Science. Retrieved from https://ricochetscience.com/cacao-mayan-food-gods/



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