Remembering the Spirit of “Miss Cacao”

This winter Yellow Seed hosted a 3 month Change Accelerator on Collaborative Trade, allowing over 50 organizations to participate in designing change for a more transparent and equitable trade system.  Ideas and wisdom surfaced to create a collective view of the system we want to change and a greater sense of possibility.  The experience also underlined the power of connection and empathy to catalyze change. This weekend, I was inspired to test a different approach. I hosted my first cacao ceremony at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) with friends to take a journey into the heart with a cacao bean as our guide.


A cacao ceremony is a celebration of the heart and a vehicle to reconnect to the things we care most deeply about. There is no one way to host a ceremony. Cacao is a synergy plant that loves diversity and embodies joy, so a ceremony is an invitation to co-create an event styled as uniquely as you are. I’ve seen ceremonies held to share stories and build community, amplify intention or simply to create, dance, or play. Cacao is an expression of diversity and possibility.


2015-09-06 10.41.46

Frothy cacao – notice the iridescence!


Cacao ceremonies are facilitated with “ceremonial-grade cacao” which is a very special type of cacao, one that maintains its full essence, spirit and physical attributes from the land where it’s grown all the way to the cup when it is consumed. This means the magical bean creates joy for everyone who touches it along the way and is produced in a way that is good for the earth. On a physical level, cacao should be made in a way to preserve the alkaloids and flavonoids that induce heightened states of bliss, empathy and joy. It’s recommended to process the beans by hand and with low levels of heat. The main active ingredient in ceremonial grade cacao is theobromine, along with anadamamine, phenethylamine that together potentiate the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters throughout the body. On an energetic level, cacao activates the “high heart” to facilitate a greater connection to our upper chakras and inner sense of knowing. Thoughts and emotions that surface during a ceremony may also illuminate blocks and challenges so we can better understand them to release them allowing us to become more balanced and whole.


For more information see Ceremonial Cacao Blog or this interesting article “What is a cacao ceremony?”


2016-04-22 13.46.16

Cutting blocks of cacao to mix with boiled water



The ceremony at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center was an invitation to build community. It was also a creative agent intended to inspire the design of the “permaculture ecosystem maps” of our own lives. Individuals offered an intention on paper or silently to themselves in exchange for a cup. After the opening of the ceremony, someone asked about my personal connection to cacao and the impact it has had on my life. Initially, my mind rattled off a rather scripted response of the people my work aims to serve, “Because of the 5 million cacao producers and 20 million associated workers who are invisible to markets or those working in unfair conditions.” A blank stare in return indicated that my answer did not quite match the personal story he sensed underneath. Later at dinner, someone asked me the question again, and I then remembered the experience of when I first learned about the heart and spirit of the plant. This inquiry powerfully reconnected me to the heart (my heart) of what fuels my work. Thank you.


2016-04-22 15.23.11

At OAEC kicking off the ceremony



Meeting “Miss Cacao”

I was in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where I met Keith, affectionately known as the “Cacao Shaman”, at a cacao ceremony in the mid afternoon.  He shared his story of how he connected to the spirit of the plant through the Mayan families he met on the land who have been communing with the plant for centuries. Indigenous tribes there speak of cacao as the “Food for the Shift” based on an old Mayan myth that tells us when the earth and man are out of balance with one another, cacao will come out of the rainforest to open up our hearts and reconnect us with our own sense of spirit, each other and nature. Keith spoke of cacao as a ‘plant teacher’ facilitating a bridge to the heart to cultivate empathy and consciousness necessary to build community and skills necessary for greater scale collaboration. It was used by Mayans to facilitate “inner work” by elevating the heart and quieting the mind, making it easier to gain insight and connection to one’s true self.  From biodiversity to biology,  from straightforward supply chain movement to more nuanced emotional experiences, cacao teaches us how complex patterns of right relationships can be in balance, can add up to joy.  As a child of two very rational scientists, all of these spiritual things were new to me, and wildly fascinating.



Keith, the Cacao Shaman


Strangely and serendipitously, mere weeks earlier I had just finished my “personal and leadership plan” for graduate school at Pinchot University, outlining the work I wanted to do in the world. Word for word my intentions matched the spirit of cacao, aka “Miss Cacao.” We were ‘sames.’ This is the true answer to the question of “why cacao?” Our dance through the years has taught me the power of the heart and joy at every step along the way.


I traveled from Guatemala to Peru to work with cacao farmers and these teachings continued to echo and play out in my head and heart. In amazement, I wrote about my experiences to Angela on the way home. Angela was an organizer of “The Cacao Tribe,” a group that facilitated cacao ceremonies in Europe and other parts of the world, and originally introduced me to Keith. Below are excerpts from that original email that also outlined the vision for Yellow Seed. It is affirming for me to reflect on this vision — after 3 years much of it is still alive and stronger than ever.


Excepts from a letter to Angela Economics of the Cacao Tribe

January 2014


The meeting with you and Keith in September resonated on a deep level and catalyzed a chain of events, basically leading to this last trip to Peru and this very email. That day you both spoke of themes and teachings of the spirit of cacao: her heart-based activation through spreading joy and catalyzing intention, as well as acting as a facilitator towards greater levels of collaboration and co-creation.  

Hearing these themes in sequence was like a rewind of voices and experiences that had been echoing in my own head. The timing couldn’t have been more poignant. Particularly, the way you described “the spirit of cacao” was almost word for word how I described my own personal intentions in writing or understanding of my role and work in the months prior. For example, in August I crafted goals and objectives for the year in a written plan, noting my desire to be some sort of organization facilitator in 10 years, helping instill group harmony through co-creation and collaboration. That day, I kept nodding in disbelief and in total amazement at these parallels of teachings and recent lessons. At first I thought “‘wait a minute, is this a joke?’ Miss Cacao totally has my number. I’ve been set up.”


Looking back, the patterns and events of the past 4 years are too synergistic to ignore. Miss Cacao has been a consistent thread, the glue and connector to the diversity of experiences and incredible people I’ve met along the way.

Just this week, I had a thought and asked her directly, “Hey Miss Cacao! Are you and I ‘sames?’ Compadres? Like in Cahoots?” This mere thought made me giggle uncontrollably for some reason. As you know Miss Cacao is hilarious, and I felt her grinning with her big white smile as I know she is now plotting her next “move.”


I described my own process of “facilitation” or creating structures for participation in a way that the plant works in nature.


Last month, I was inspired to write this reflection to a friend illustrating my role. “Sometimes I imagine I’m creating a kaleidoscope playground, slowly placing dominoes, rigging springs, and planting seeds in space and time. There will be a moment when all there is to do is just press a single button and POW! Lights, sparkles, spinny things, flowers, sun showers, giggles, sprites, lights and more lights. And for that moment, I get to sit back and watch a magical cosmic pachinko fiesta in action, the collective orchestration of everyone’s spirit and passion at work.”


I also outlined my desire to create systems that balance and protect both people and planet.  My travels taught me that catalyzing systemic change would require the development of connective tissue on all levels, including emotional and market-based connection.


“So why Peru? In one of the most abundant and biodiverse places on earth, the scarcity mindset of the community that “there is not enough to go around and someone is going to get left out” creates a reality of chaos where intense fear of loss and urgency for basic survival robs opportunity for building trust and collaboration among each other. Specifically, illegal gold mining in this area has catalyzed one of the worst ecological and social disasters of our time. Life in this region is extremely difficult and untying the magnitude of tangled knots seems nearly hopeless. It’s a fascinating puzzle.  


I can’t tell you why I’ve returned to this polluted, noisy, and feisty frontier town over a dozen times, except that my heart is somehow bound to this place. And love is blind, so I began (and still continue) without a clear picture of where all of my efforts might lead. But this trip helped illuminate how we might begin to unravel some pieces of the puzzle. And yup, you guessed it, Miss Cacao is our guide gently facilitating the process of how to trace threads of value and unrealized potential to heal the wounds of this region.  In short, Madre De Dios is in need of a collaboration success story.”


I speak of the value that exists, yet remains invisible to modern markets.


Madre De Dios Peru is where the sacred rainforest varietal named Chuncho is cultivated and grows wild. Some have started to refer to cacao as “the real gold” of the rainforest due to indigenous legend of the elusive and mystical white bean that originates deep in the rainforest of the region. One farmer we visited has already graphed this varietal onto the existing patrons in his farm. Yet, without a price difference between these artisanal cacao beans and modern monoculture crops, there is no real incentive to produce Chuncho and other special beans, and the quantities are too small to capture the attention of logistic intermediaries or commercial markets.

So, the region faces a fun challenge: how to increase demand of this magical bean so farmers can earn a fair price (for a non-timber forest product), to alleviate poverty and promote rainforest conservation.


The challenge is both practical (distribution) as well as spiritual (awareness). If we can “prove” the “true value” of the product, in more forms of capital than just economic, then Miss Cacao will act as a gateway product for other rainforest products, traditions, practices, and beliefs, etc. Just like the Mayan myth predicts, after walking through the steps of how we might set up a pilot test of distribution connected to demand with farmers and supporting organizations, I witnessed a transition in conversation from “we don’t have enough cacao here to export” to “cacao could be coming out of the rainforest — from literally everywhere!”  I have this bubbling feeling that if our tests to coordinating farmer networks are successful, then the potential to promote healing to an entire community as well as lift the spirits and hearts of consumers is very much a possibility.”



I outlined a rough strategy for the project which after many twists and added learning, remains more or less intact.  


“So where to begin? Small steps.


Our initiative Yellow Seed: The Collaborative Project aims to increase market participation of small scale farmers, consisting of 85% of the world’s farms with capacity to feed 2.2 billion people. Modern markets demand consistency and economies of scale, so many of the small farmers are excluded for the existing system. In order to connect markets and make visible the “true” value of the rainforest, there are currently two components to our project (mere brain-childs at this stage but moving steadily along):

A connection platform to link buyers, sellers and distributors to improve information flow and feedback to empower decision-making of small scale farmers and chocolate makers. This week we journeyed to farms via roads, rivers and forests to gather data for an initial registry of farmers, cooperatives, supporting organization and an initial distribution network.

A community network promoting cacao-inspired stories linking a web of artisans, alchemists, healers, mystics, conservationists, bird lovers, soil scientists, sustainable products and indigenous traditions, etc. Miss Cacao will serve as our initial guide, helping to trace the impalpable threads of our interconnected nature via the social, environmental, and health benefits of cacao. In this way, cacao facilitates a deeper conversation of our collective potential towards co-creative innovation.

Collectively, Yellow Seed sees cacao-inspired stories as a way to link value, promote best practices and be source of learning and connection.”



Celebrate With Us


You don’t have to travel to the heart of the Amazon to learn the lessons cacao can teach. This magic bean can be studied and enjoyed nearly anywhere at any time, as long as we continue to create ways for the ‘good stuff’ – the beans that are good for everyone along the way and the planet – to make it’s way out of the rainforest to you.  Come enjoy a frothy cup with us or host your own event. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter for future event and inspiration.


Seed the Change – This is a Global Community Effort


We can’t do this alone – nor would we want to! Miss Cacao knows that when we all create together we are already successful. The Yellow Seed Initiative has reached a stage where we are opening our hearts and welcoming support and partnership.


Join Yellow Seed to redesign trade to protect communities and restore our planet.  This movement requires partnership and participation to continue and to be successful.  Together we are creating a better future for people and planet.


Seed the change by making a tax deductible donation here or email me at nancy(at) to learn more. If curious to hear the 3 stories that bring the Yellow Seed platform to life, see the video Value Made Visible.


Thank you!!
DSC_1829-sm-zNancy Zam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *