Food as Sacred: The Deep Connection between Cacao and the Indigenous Bribri Culture of Costa Rica

An Interview with Mainor Ortiz Ortiz, by Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson: In 2016 I began a series of trips to Costa Rica with the intention of learning rainforest field botany. However, after apprenticing with a brilliant herbalist, chocolate maker, and Scottish Costa Rica transplant named Ancel Mitchell, my focus veered towards understanding the dynamics of the local cacao trade. 1

Though little of the world’s chocolate comes from Costa Rica today, plenty is still grown in the country and used locally. Ancel explained that the Bribri indigenous tribe of southern Costa Rica produces most of the cacao relied on by expatriate chocolate makers. The tribe receives almost none of the profit from the cacao it sells.

In Ancel’s telling, this is not only unjust for the cacao growers, but is also contributing to ecological damage as growers move away from the biodiverse, rainforest-compatible cacao groves to quick-profit nonnative crops that are harmful to the environment. To make matters worse, the pivot away from cacao growing has also resulted in damage to the culture, since cacao is deeply intertwined with Bribri spiritual and community life.

Heirloom cacao at the farm of Daniel South (Photo credit: Daniel South).

Ancel’s account sparked my curiosity about what kind of agricultural systems Bribri growers use. I began to wonder whether I could offer support by simply buying Bribri cacao for better prices.

The plot thickened a few months later when, back in Minneapolis, I met Mainor Ortiz Ortiz. Ortiz, a Bribri teacher and computer scientist who had relocated to Minnesota through marriage. Mainor grew up in a remote part of the Bribri territory and is, appropriately enough, from a Bribri clan of teachers. When I explained my interest in the Bribri cacao situation, he quickly introduced me to about a dozen of his friends and relatives who grow cacao. I was able to spend time with many of them in Costa Rica in 2020 and 2021, learning about what cacao means to the community and the many reasons why, at least in the case of Bribri growers, selling ethically produced cacao on the world market is extremely challenging.

My time with Bribri cacao growers helped me understand in a much deeper way where chocolate comes from. This magical food is not just a commodity crop, but a plant whose integrity has been carefully guarded by Indigenous people. The respect Bribri people have for cacao made me examine my own relationship to this plant, and to food in general. Could I view more of the foods I eat as sacred? What historical and ecological traumas would need to be repaired?

I asked Mainor to share some of his thoughts about about Bribri cacao growing practices and how he thinks about chocolate. Especially since he is in the early stages of creating a company to export Bribri cacao. Our conversation follows here.

SN: I was wondering if, first of all, you could describe a little bit about where you grew up and how you ended up in Minnesota?

MOO: Sure. So I am native from the Bribri tribe. I was born in Arenal, which, the actual name in my native language is Tsāñābla . Or, Alök Kicha as it was called a long time ago. I was born there and I have family from both sides of the country due to my tribe being one of the biggest tribes in the country. My mom is from the other side of the country and my dad is from the southern side. I grew up in Talamanca, and I ended up in Minnesota. When I was in high school, I was working on a project and I met a Peace Corps volunteer who was helping me to learn English, like with an English learning process. And then I developed a lot of projects for youth and kids in education. And then I met one of the Peace Corps volunteers whose name is Crystal Price, and she became the person who I live with now. So we met in Costa Rica. We met in Suretka. We were working together for one and a half years in curriculum development for kids and also teaching English to kids and young adults. And then we moved from Costa Rica to Minnesota four years ago.

SN: Oh, my gosh. Four years already.

MOO: And so that’s how I ended up here.

SN: Cool. Yes. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about the daily life of where you grew up. How did your family make a living? Did you grow and hunt all of your own food? What kinds of gardening or farming or hunting activities did you engage in?

MOO: Sure. So I would consider my tribe a collector and harvest tribe. The activities that we do for a living are more from the natural resources that we have. So, for example, food like basic seeds, beans, corn, rice, everything is collected and planted and grown in our own farms and our own pieces of property or land. The practices that we did the most were not just practices for culture, but also practices for a living. For example, fishing and hunting were the way we would obtain food for the house, for the family.

I would consider my tribe hunters and gatherers, and that is the main way the culture and the people are structured in the tribe. And so for gardening, we do gardening of a lot of different species of vegetables. For example, tomatoes or cucumbers. And there are also vegetables that are grown in the jungle that we would bring home that just happen to grow in the forest. For example, there is one broccoli that we call the traditional broccoli. It’s like a little broccoli that grows after you clear out a lot or after you take down the trees from a big property. You burn [or] clear out that space, and then they come and you can see there’s just a little broccoli growing. So it’s not even something that we plant; it just naturally lives like that and grows there. So we also consume a lot of [vegetables that are] not domesticated or not farmed by humans. A lot of vegetables are just from the jungle.

Also in our culture we have main activities like fishing and hunting. We have celebrations for those, which are acts that we do for fun sometimes, but also for a living. At the same time it’s part of the culture, so it becomes something where you celebrate them as an event. For example, we have one [cultural practice] that’s called Rëkë. That’s when you cross the branch of a river and you dry it out and then you collect all the fish that are just floating or with no water, so you can collect them. And so that’s the way we celebrate. But at the same time, that’s a way of living, too, that we do—fishing and events [that are] traditionally celebrated that way.

SN: Would you say that you were basically self-sustaining when you were growing up?

Yeah, correct. Of course, nowadays things have changed a lot. For example, economic resources have been one of the biggest challenges, and also outside development that has come to the tribe. I remember being self-sustaining in my family, in my community. But when the [outside] economy started growing very close to the tribe, that was when we were impacted by [having] to have a basic income to get [the things] we do not have or grow in the community. For example, one of these things is soap. That is something that we didn’t plant, and we just lost track, over the years, of the tree that provided the specific flower that we collected the soap from. A lot of the culture started kind of fading away.

One of the biggest impacts that led us to have to look for more income to be able to cover those kinds of needs was education. Even though it sounds weird, it has had a big impact on the culture, because we were just a self-educated tribe that culturally had an understanding and a structure and cosmovision, and everything was very remote. But when [formal] education came, it was like, okay, now you’ve got to send your kids to elementary school. And that was [a cause of] a gap of learning the culture. So that’s when we lost track of how to collect the soap, how to survive and live and be resourceful in our own tribe. We were asked by the government, and it was looked at as a new opportunity, to send kids to study, and then we lost track of a lot of cultural knowledge of how to survive and to obtain things to be self-sustainable.

So that led us to have, now, to work hard to be able to get the basic income to get soap, because now kids don’t know what tree we’re supposed to get the soap from. So that was kind of like a gap of learning. And so that’s one of the reasons why we have to work nowadays to be able to get an income. And not only soap. People were getting used to obtaining things [more easily] than we did in my generation. So for example, sugar. We used to plant the sugar, work and do all the grinding of the sugar and collecting the sugar in buckets, and all that process. I learned it. But then in the new generation, they were in high school or in elementary school, and they were not learning all the procedures to obtain the sugar. But now they see that if I work, I can go to a store and not have to plant anything or grind anything, because I don’t have time. Because I have to go to study; I can just go and buy a kilo of sugar, and that’s it.

So, those are the things that nowadays are affecting the culture a lot. The cultural way of living has been fading away because of the new development and the new structure of the education and also [the] economy. Education is leading us nowadays to prioritize the economy over the culture. For example, now they’re like, okay, you have to finish elementary school and go to high school and then go to university because that’s how you’re going to provide your family with food. Otherwise you are not going to be professional to be able to have a stable job and have a sustainable life. That new system put us into a different mindset and direction. So a lot of the culture has been fading away because of that. And so there are a few things that I would say that nowadays are not 100 percent as I remember when I was growing up, when it was more self-sustainable. I would say we were more into the structure of the tribe and not the structure of the foreign system.

SN: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask too. Did this shift happen basically in your lifetime?

MOO: Yeah. I remember even like, learning the language. So when I was growing up, I learned the language by, you know, just being with my family. But nowadays, my nephews and nieces don’t know anything. The most they can say is like, hello, you know, basic things. But when I was growing up, we were literally speaking the language every day. So why are they not learning the language properly? Because of education. Everything in the system is taught in Spanish for the kids.

So Spanish is taking over the native language. So that’s what we use; for elementary school, we teach all the subjects in Spanish. In high school, all the subjects in Spanish. In college, all the subjects in Spanish. It’s taking over a lot of the language skills for the kids. And also, education has changed the focus of people from the tribe to think, oh, I went to learn Spanish because I want to be professional, because I want to be someone who can have a better job to sustain my family in the future. And so people changed their mindset. They’re not thinking anymore: I have to speak my native language; I have to know how to gather; I have to know how to go hunting or fishing or be self-sustainable. I think that the economy itself and education have shifted people’s mindset and focus. That’s been affecting the knowledge and all the traditional ways I experienced when I was growing up. That’s not something that kids are experiencing anymore. Even the language, they do not speak it fully.

Kathia Almengor and her son, Thabih, harvest cacao at Kathia’s farm, Finca Integral Dilä, in the Bribi community of Suretka, Costa Rica. Kathia cultivates many plant and fruit species at Finca Dilä, and leads Sosukañir, a collective of 19 women cacao farmers who offer mutual agricultural assistance to each other in accordance with Bribri cacao farming traditions.


SN: You’re in an interesting position to be able to comment on this, because you grew up with a lot of tradition, and now you’ve also learned all these other languages and moved to the United States and have gone to university and been very successful in this other culture, too. How do you reconcile that for yourself, or how do you feel about that shift happening?

MOO: I think it’s been a good experience to be able to see. Being in this culture has shown me how far it’s gotten on a very large scale. I’ve seen how deep it is and how complex it is, and [what will happen] in my culture if we keep going into the system. There will be no return if we keep going this way. I think now [my task is] taking this knowledge and bringing it to my culture and saying, hey, look, let’s learn the language, let’s be self-sustainable, let’s promote my culture and live it and teach it to the kids and to the people. We’ve got to preserve what we have and the knowledge we have, because, like, tomorrow, no kids will know how to hunt. No kids will know how to survive if we have an earthquake or a disaster, or if the system breaks somehow, people will not know how to survive. So [I want to] bring people’s mindset back to thinking of having a balance. If we already are in this system, at least [we can] have a balance of like, okay, I have an income, I have a job, I have to study, but I have to teach my kids, I have to be traditional, I have to practice my tradition and then pass the knowledge to other generations, because otherwise they’re going to be depending on the system and that’s going to fade 100 percent of our culture away.

SN: It sounds like a big project to get everybody to do both.

MOO: Yeah, yeah. It is because it’s something that’s been growing superfast. I think the local government has been doing a really good job of bringing people back to the mindset of preserving the culture and practicing the language. So I think we do have a chance. I think we do have a chance to control it, or at least the local government can apply more of the policies that [support] the native way and native structure[s], rather than supporting the outsider system. Otherwise the culture [could] be something of the past.

SN: I feel like I should ask you to set the scene of where this is taking place. Would you say a little bit about the ecosystem and what the space is like there?

MOO: I grew up in what was and is still a community of less than 300 people. In Costa Rica we have eight different tribes, [and my tribe is] the Bribri people. So this takes place away from development or colonialism. We are remote, like we don’t have electricity, we don’t have cars or highways. We don’t have, in general, telecommunication. We don’t have technology displayed. This is way in the jungle where you are close and engaged to nature and to the family. Family is kind of like the seed, the base. The way of living is based on the cosmology, philosophy, and cultural Bribri cosmovision. And so it’s very remote, it’s very far in the jungle where we have these small communities. And so for example my community, is called Tsāñābla, and then we have [other communities such as] Alto Tsāñābla, and then we have Alto Koēn and then we have San José Kabecar—those are deeper in the jungle where you will see less and less exposure to development or to foreign interaction or foreign impacts.

SN: Could you describe the role of cacao in Bribri culture as well as your experiences growing, using or selling cacao?

MOO: Yeah, so cacao is…how can I describe this? Cacao is gold in my native culture, in Bribri. Cacao has a lot of meaning. Cacao is for healing. Cacao is for sacred ceremonies. Cacao has a lot of uses in our cosmology and our spirituality and in our daily use. And so cacao doesn’t only mean cacao for us, it means more than that. It means more like a sister. It means, more like a spiritual being that heals you, that has a strong connection with you here since [the time] you are born or here in life, and also in the future.

So cacao is very important. Like you said, we use it in a variety of ways. For example, a shaman has his own way of using the cacao seed or butter or bark, or the flowers, and we as regular people have our own way of using the cacao. Way back in time, like in the past, it was the main money. [So it represents] a huge value for the community, for the tribe. We used it as the most expensive seed you can trade. So for example, one pound of cacao could easily buy a cow or something. It was like a huge, huge value for the seed. And so traditionally, on a daily basis, we use it for drinking in the morning with ripe banana. And we use it for healing. For example, [we take] the baby cacaos and scrape a little bit of it on top of an injury or cut. And that’s going to help it to heal without scars.

SN: The baby cacao would be like a young cacao fruit?

MOO: A young cacao, yeah. And we also use the seed in different ways. [We] dry the beans [and do] all the processes of grinding the cacao and making the paste. We use the butter of cacao for healing as well. And also spiritually we use it when we do the ceremony for washing the hands and face before burying someone; cacao is the cleanest water you can get in the spiritual world. The cleanest thing you can wash your hand with is with cacao. Cacao is the main drink for that for the bereavement of gathering or ceremony.

One of the fanciest drinks you can offer is cacao drink. Also for women it is very useful, too. We use it when women are pregnant to help them heal and recover after giving birth and also washing their body and their hands and their faces, and washing the kid after being born, and the women after giving birth. [We have] a very specific ceremony for women after giving birth. It’s a ceremony that shows also the way that cacao means something very special and very clean, and is not only physical but is very spiritual for us.

SN: Traditionally would every Bribri baby be washed in cacao at birth?

MOO: Traditionally they would have. Traditionally our elders used to do the ceremony for the birth and wash the hands and the face of the baby and the mom too, using the cacao as a healing and cleaning component.

SN: What does it mean for this plant to be a spiritual being?

So this goes back to the history of the creation of the universe. In our cosmovision the universe was created by Sibö and was designed by Sibökãmã, his dad. And so when Sibö was creating the universe and the Earth, which was called Irìria, the first thing [he created] after creating the Earth itself was the spiritual beings of the trees. The trees are human beings’ oldest, oldest relatives, created by Sibö. So [that is why] we refer to them and we can connect with them through the knowledge of spirituality and through respect to them and through the knowledge of how to use them. But at that time, Sibö made spiritual beings who were three girls, Wërö, Skuálwö, and Slô. There is a story all around that. But the spiritual being of cacao was the most humble and the representation of the values that Sibö wanted the human beings to have.

That’s why, since that moment in time, he purified that spiritual being of that tree. He purified her and he told her, you are going to be well known all over the world. You are going to be used for many reasons and for a great variety of ways. You will useful for everything. You will be useful for things that no other tree would be able to be used for. And so he blessed her and he purified her and said, you’re going to always have the ability to heal, to purify, to have that role of a sister. And after he purified her with all those traits or characteristics, he turned her into a tree. So that’s why we don’t know Wërö, Skuálwö, or Slô. But we do know cacao, because that was one of her main meanings for life in this universe, in this earth. Since then, she is the most purified spiritual being that we can ever have connection with and we can ever use for any purpose.

SN: So, super central.

View of the forest in Arenal, Bribri territory, Costa Rica.

MOO: Yes. We have a strong connection with nature [and] trees, because in the shaman world, any illness, any psychological issue, can be fixed by our older brothers and sisters. So that means that the shamans have the knowledge to be able to connect to our past, to our older brothers and sisters, which are the trees, the plants, the veins, and everything that surrounds a plant, that is related to the connection between the Earth and space.

SN: Did you say veins?

MOO: Yeah.

SN: Okay, like the veins of the plant?

MOO: The veins of the plant. Yeah. So that’s why the shamans have that strong knowledge and connection. Like, if you’re sick [or] you have a psychological problem, you go to a shaman. What a shaman will do is he will research or do an investigation about your issue. But who is he going to ask for help? The oldest spiritual beings, our older brothers and sisters. He’s going to ask a tree or a plant, so the plant can tell him, “I know what that is. You will need this amount of leaves of me so I can help fix that psychological problem of that person.” So he goes to the jungle, collects the leaves, makes it however the spiritual being told him to do it. He will give you that medicine, and that will help you to recover from your psychological problem or your physical illness. And so, coming back to cacao, cacao is one of the sisters, and she’s one of those spiritual beings, too. But she had a special reason why she was left here on Earth, and she has a special role to hold here on Earth. That’s the reason why nowadays cacao is the most valuable seed, the most useful seed, and the most priceless thing you can have in my native culture.

SN: That side of the story also makes me think about the culture changing and people losing the traditions. It seems like there are spiritual ramifications for that loss, too. It’s not just that life will look a little different. It seems like it would be sad to lose the connections with these spiritual beings.

MOO: Yeah, exactly. So [all the] knowledge that I’ve gotten since I was a kid has been given through oral communication, through naptime, you know, like you take a nap with your grandma and she’s like, yeah, I’m going to tell you the story of the cacao. So you are a kid and you lay down and she starts telling you the story. So it’s not something that was written for me, ever, or, you know, a conference for me, ever. It was just a naptime story. But once I grew up, it [started to] make a lot of sense to me why shamans have a lot of knowledge. Why Bribri people know how to survive if we get bitten by a snake, how to survive that, how to handle that. So they go to the shaman and the shaman does his research and the ceremony and heals the person. So you’re like, how’s that? He’s like, from another world. But it’s not like that. It’s just that he has a deeper connection and knowledge to the earth and to our past and to our traditions and cosmovision. He understands all the branches of the spiritual and physical living world where we live.

SN: What is the word for cacao in Bribri?

MOO: Tsiru’

SN: Could you tell me about the present situation with cacao among the Bribri people or people you grew up with, your friends and family? I’m curious about how the cacao is grown in a traditional way and if that’s different from the other kinds of crops.

MOO: Yeah, for sure. So that’s a very important question. I would say cacao nowadays has been–thank God–always sacred, and always something that has a lot of meaning for us. It has a lot of value. But people have gotten so involved in the economy, and into altering the production of certain crops. The cacao has been suffering a little bit of hybridization, like mixing different branches of cacao into one stem.

That’s something that, culturally, it’s not right. But people have been doing it because of economics. People know and have realized and have learned that cacao can also be hybridized. And that is something that’s really concerning for elderly people and the new generation and everyone who believes that cacao is a very unique being and a unique tree for us. But combining them and doing a massive production [of] cacao is something that also has helped a lot of people make a lot of income from it.

But even having techniques like that, I would say cacao has been kind of like…in a circle. So it grows, we produce, we use, we share, we sell. But the cacao, because of its power and its meaning and its value for us, has been really hard to…you have to think twice to give it away. For example, there are markets that buy cacao for Europe, for anywhere in the world. But what happens? It’s not a good deal. Not a good price. It is not even worth it sometimes to try selling cacao, because of the meaning it has for us compared to the value they want you to sell it [for]. So that’s why cacao has been like a cycle. It’s there, we grow it, we treat it traditionally, like [it’s] sacred. And it’s been [produced] more like that.

[We use some cacao for] tourism and to share with people that come from outside and want to see and learn a little bit about cacao, or for an activity or an event, we bring cacao and share with people. We are not trying to market it. It is just the way that Bribri people are, like so warm-hearted, so they bring the fanciest thing you can bring to share at an event, the cacao drink. So it’s been having a lot of different uses, [but] it’s been always in that cycle. It hasn’t been a crop that we’ve been getting a good chunk of income out of or we’ve been investing a lot of time and production in, because of the meaning it has and because the meaning compared to the price people want to buy it for does not make sense for the Bribri people. The only way that I think it would go out of the cycle a little bit to make a little more income from it, [would be] because of its value in the culture.

SN: Do you want to say a little bit about the current ways that people are selling cacao and what the price is? Who is paying that price, and what’s happening to that cacao?

MOO: So, Costa Rica is a country that tries to be sustainable. All the cacao goes mainly to downtown San José and throughout the country. [There is not a lot of] exportation, like [with] pineapple, for example, which goes all over the world, or bananas. One reason is because of the price. And so it’s mainly been [sold] just in the country. There are a few [foreign] companies, for example APTA, [which] I think is an international company from Germany or somewhere in Europe. But they are the only company that buys it from us. And the cacao price has been always the [smallest]. It’s way in the bottom, like, so cheap, like, less than a dollar [for] one kilo of dried seed. For the Bribri people, with everything that I’ve mentioned before, less than $1 for one kilo of cacao does not make sense.

SN: Would you say a little bit about all the work that goes into making one kilo of cacao?

MOO: Sure. So basically, my routine when I was growing up was, number one, pick a Tuesday before a Wednesday, because we sell it on Wednesdays. So you pick a Tuesday, wake up in the morning at 6 a.m., get your bag, get your…how do you call this—it’s a long stick with a knife that you can cut the cacao with. It’s like a tool. It’s like a long tool with a knife at the tip. So you grab your tool to get cacaos. You go to the cacao farm, and if it’s raining, you’re going to be risking yourself to fall from the branch of the cacao. So that’s risking your health and your well-being. Or if it’s too sunny, being in the sun. And if the cacao trees have a lot of wasps, getting a lot of stings from the wasps. [These are some of] the risks you take. Like, you’ve got to be mentally prepared for this.

You go from one farm to the other. You collect the cacao, cut the cacao, the cacao falls to the ground, you pick the cacao up, put it in a pile and split them up with a machete and collect the seeds into your bag and then go to the next tree. And that’s how it goes. As many trees as you have, you have to go to all of them. Sometimes it takes a whole day. Sometimes it takes three or four days to go through them, depending how much [land] you have for cacao. And sometimes we go as a group, like a family. You go with your mom, your sister, your nephew. So it’s a big task. And then after you get home, you collected all the seeds, so you wait for the next day. If you want to sell it for cheaper, like 400 colones, which is almost a quarter dollar, you can just grab your bag of cacao and go to the nearest shop and sell it for a quarter dollar. We usually collect maybe one sack of cacao, which is around 23 kilos. So you get a little bit. [But you have to take] into account the walking distance, because you cannot collect 46 kilos, [which would be] two big bags of cacao, because you are never going to be able to bring it all the way down, [since] we don’t have transportation, we don’t have cars, we don’t have trailers or anything. So [you have to take into] account how much you can hold in your back.

SN: So it might be like a couple of days’ work for a couple dollars.

Split cacao pods with pulpy seeds ready for transport.

Yes, correct. And that is only if you want to sell it wet, we call it like wet cacao beans. If you want to dry it up to at least have like 100 colones more, so more like almost a dollar each kilo, you would have to take eight days. Costa Rica is very tropical, so you don’t know when it’s going to rain, when it’s going to be sunny. So you’ve got to pick eight days before selling your seed so you have enough time to put your seeds into the sun so all the beans get sun dried. That’s the traditional way. We don’t put it in an oven. We didn’t put in anything, it’s 100 percent organic. So you just sun dry them all, [put them in a] bag, and try to bring it to the closest shop.

SN: And you have to ferment them?

MOO: No, when you want to sell it dry, you just put it in a big table and then spread a big mat and you throw the beans on top. So you don’t go through the fermentation part, but you just go straight to drying it up.

SN: So then that’s still at least eight days of work, correct?

MOO: Yeah. And then you sell it for less than a dollar each kilo. So all the work that you have to do, like walking distance, you have to walk like one hour or two hours down the road to get to the closest shop to be able to sell your seed. And also cacao production happens depending on the species of the cacao. So one species [ripens in] May, another species June. That also makes it hard for people. I cannot promise that I will sell just one species of cacao, because–that’s not going to happen. You’re not going to collect a certain amount of cacao to be able to sell like that, only that species of the cacao, because [what if you] have ten trees out of 30. It doesn’t make sense. So people [collect] all the species together in a bag, all the beans. And it’s 100% organic because we grow it usually alongside other trees like bananas, pineapples, soursops. Everything is [grown in a] polyculture. So there’s a variety. [That’s] the traditional way, so the land is always fertile. Otherwise, the land will just die [with] just one single type of compost.

SN: What a weird disconnect between the value of the cacao culturally versus, like you said, what people will pay for it. [It seems like] the work isn’t valued.

MOO: There is one thing to mention that is important. In general, let’s say like 80 percent of the people don’t have a need to sell the cacao, because of what it means for us and the culture. The 20 percent of the people that sell the cacao sell it because it is 100 percent leftovers. Like, people don’t need it for anything else. They have plenty for their house, they have plenty for their family, they have plenty for the community. So they’re like, okay, so this company is getting the cacao almost for free, but let’s sell it because we have leftovers. You know, it’s more like that. So, the 20 percent of people that sell cacao, it’s because it’s leftovers.

SN: It’s not their main business.

MOO: It’s not their main business. And why if the cacao [could be] sold for a really high price and really worth it price, I think it will be something that people will take more into consideration. So it comes back to the comparison of what it means for us compared to the price that they are buying the cacao for. [Since] it means a lot more for us than for [other] people, we try to keep it for us. It doesn’t make sense to put a lot of work into the cacao when it means so much for us and it takes a lot of time and a lot of work, to just be giving it away almost for free.

SN: Yeah.

MOO: So it doesn’t make sense. And so APTA, the company that buys the cacao, does it like twice a month or so, but really cheap. They also don’t expect to buy a lot because of the price–of course, they know that the price is not good. And also, cacao exportation is not one of their major exportation programs or projects. So they just take it somewhere in the country that buys cacao for different purposes, like making chocolate. For example, Brit is one of the biggest companies that buys [cacao] when the beans are outside already. When the beans get to San José, a lot of companies buy it from them.

SN: Is there anything important about the history of the cacao trade in Costa Rica, or other historical forces that affect how the cacao is being grown today or used or sold? I was thinking especially about the stories about monilia, and the stories about the hybrid cacao strains that people started growing in order to be resistant to the fungus.

MOO: Yeah. So, thanks to the cultural importance and thanks to the cultural value, cacao has been preserved in the culture and preserved in the territory as one of the main seeds of consumption we have, or for basic use. But yeah, it was affected. The first impact was the monilia, which actually came from the use of a lot of chemicals in the banana plantations when they came. It was a fungus that specifically affected one of the species of cacao that was the softest cacao that you could find in the territory. The seed texture was a little softer than the other ones. And so the monilia got into those first, and created a fungus, and then that started contaminating the rest of the cacaos.

That was one of the historical impacts of cacao, which also led a lot of farms to go down and close the business. It [caused people to] not be interested anymore in cacao, because we had to be dealing with all this monilia and funguses not only contaminating one species anymore, but all the other ones, because [it was being spread as the bees] pollenized from one to the other cacaos. [Or spread via] a lot of different natural factors that sometimes happen for the good. But in this case, it started impacting the other species of cacao. Cacao was well preserved, even well taken care of by the people so that we [wouldn’t lose] the different species we had. But it was really hard work to keep what we have right now, species-wise. The monilia impacted a lot. And also, like I said, we have polyculture farms, [so] we were afraid of having a lot more species of trees get contaminated. For example, soursop was close to the cacao, so we didn’t know if it was going to somehow get this monilia. So it was a big thing that we had to keep all the cacaos we had in control.

SN: That was in the eighties?

MOO: It was around the eighties, or the nineties. I would say in the nineties it was also a big [problem], even when I was born and when I started [working with cacao] in 1998 or 2001 or so, we still had some monilia problems. And then, in answer to the monilia problem, the government and the people outside the territory, the scientists, had an answer. What would happen if we make hybridized cacao to make it stronger so it doesn’t get monilia? And then, after [the initial trials], people were like, oh yeah, it works. And there was a big program or company called CATIE. So CATIE brought this idea of combining the cacao as an answer to [the question of how to make it more resistant] to monilia. It’s fine, and people got into that. But culturally, it was altering the cacao seed, altering the nature of it. And also, it changed the focus [beyond] the actual answer to the monilia. It was like wait, so what if we can mix them up, or combine them up, and make them more fruitful and have more of a mass production? It’s something science figured out that we can do.

A lot of people started doing cacao farms of this combined cacao, not with the [intention] of fading the traditional organic way we do the cacao, but more like, Oh, does this mean the cacao can, instead of producing ten cacao pods, [now it can produce] 20 or 30, you know? So it changed the direction for the producers and the farmers, because it meant that we could make more money out of one tree. Instead of saying that, yes, we found the answer [to the monilia], [and instead of] just reinforcing the cacao and making one species to be strong and then fixing the other species to be strong, they were like, no, we can actually mix all of them up.

All of these processes and projects and experimenting got to be the answer, somehow, to the monilia. It got to be a little more stable. Farmers were producing cacao, getting control back of the monilia. The cacao trees were stronger, and all that worked fine. But then they started altering the production of cacao and the way which we traditionally have the cacao to be just one tree. And for us it was not 100 percent organic anymore, because it has some cells and some things injected in the cacao branch to be able to grow. So it was altering the nature of the cacao, which for the Bribri people–she’s our sister and we’ve got to respect [her].

You know, it goes back to all the knowledge and all the spirituality of it. [So it was] kind of like violating the nature of the cacao. And that’s why [it would be better to] preserve or just to reinforce what we have, and not make a whole farm of cacao combined with other different species into one tree. [And] it started to be a vibe [between] people farming cacao traditionally and people doing experiments with cacao. And so at traditional events, [some people] were like, oh, we cannot use hybridized cacao because it’s not pure anymore. It’s injected and it has, like, weird mixtures from different trees or different species, it’s not 100 percent cacao as we say we have. It’s kind of [an issue of] keeping our word. We want to do something 100 percent organic. If I tell you it’s organic, that’s because there is 0.0 chemicals or injection or cells into it.

SN: Do you have thoughts about how cacao fits into ecological responsibility or taking care of the land? Because this is something that I feel like I was hearing from different people there, too, about the diversity of the farms and having all those different types of fruits growing together helps it be healthier and is better for the jungle, better for wildlife and everything. And I thought that it also protects it a little bit from, you know, disease and Monilia and stuff like that.

And, would you talk a little bit about the traditional ways of physically growing the cacao and how the cacao can fit into being responsible ecologically? I’m thinking of the diversity of the farms and having all those different types of fruits growing together.

MOO: Yes, actually, that’s a really important question. [We had to fight a battle one time] against a company that offered to buy cacao for a good price, but the condition for the good price was monoculture farming of cacao. So you’re not allowed to have a laurel; you’re not allowed to have a cedar; you’re not allowed to have any other tree or plant in your cacao farm. And that was a 100 percent “no” for the tribe and for the people growing in the territory. We are never going to do monoculture cultivation of the cacao, because we are always focused on nature and the well-being of the earth and the ground and whatever we use for [our] daily needs. So if we think about mono-farming cacao, so tomorrow, what are we going to eat? Are we going to eat cacao? No, you know, we have to eat plantains or bananas or different vegetables that we can also grow. For hundreds of years, we’ve grown everything together, and that’s the best way it works.

I would say that Native people, by nature–it’s not by science or by studies, just by nature–Native people, Bribri people at least, are 100 percent aware of the ecosystem and having everything be ecological. As much as we can, we have the land’s well-being as our priority. As a simple [example], for our own needs, we need to plant corn. We’re not going to clear out the same lot every [year], because we’re going to kill it. The properties the dirt has and the ground has to grow, it’s going to run out if we don’t take care of it. So what we do is, one year we clear this property, and another year we clear the other property, so we can bounce around between [them]. But [we are] not using them all the time, because [the] properties of the earth and the ground are going to die, and it’s going to be useless for planting anything else. That’s the reason why we have polyculture farming, because we have a big awareness of that.

[We know] that the best compost you can ever get is banana stems, cacao leaves, and others—we can make a whole list of compost ingredients. So that’s why, with the old cacao leaves under the cacao trees, you just make a pile and you don’t burn them. For us in the culture, it is illegal to burn the cacao leaves or branches, because of the sacredness of it and the value of it, and also because everything around us is just like us: compost. Like I die, I’m compost, you know? So that’s the ecological knowledge that we have. Even by nature. We are not educated, but we know how important it is to have a variety of plants and trees all living together. A lot of different properties come to the ground from the leaves and from the seeds and from everything that falls down, the branches. That’s the compost. The earth needs that to be able to produce and be fertile.

If you take that out and use chemicals, that’s going to kill the earth. So I think that’s something that happens naturally in the culture, and we have always tried to promote that responsibility through the generations. That we have to beware and always take care of nature as if it were our mother. That’s how we call it, Mother Earth. So we treat it with respect. We try to be as connected to it as possible. Like working in the same team, kind of thing. Like, I don’t want to be here and alter your lifestyle. I want to come here and be in your lifestyle, you know? That’s how our philosophy teaches us to see nature and land and earth as our mother. So you’ve got to take care of it. You’ve got to be always aware and conscious of what you’re doing with it. And that goes with everything.

Like I said, all the trees are our older brothers; you’ve got to have a reason to cut them down, or have a reason to take up monoculture farming, because that’s violating the philosophy of taking care of the land. So stuff like that I think is really something that we take ownership of all the time, by nature. But it’s through the generations and everyone is aware of that. And I think that was one of the biggest conflicts when there was a big company from outside, the exporter of cacao. They were like, hey, we want only cacao, and if you’re going to sign this document with us, we can charge you if you have different plants and trees and whatever in your lot of cacao. So that’s a 100 percent “no” because that’s not the way we grow it. That’s not the way it works for us.

Traditional cacao drying process at Finca Dilä. The beans take about eight days to fully dry.

SN: That’s so interesting. I think it’s interesting too that you talk about it like it’s just self-evident that things should be grown in a polyculture. I’m from a place where people grow corn and soy–two crops only–and people think land should be neat and tidy, and that means you should only grow one thing at a time over the whole landscape. Do you remember, growing up, how that value was taught to you, or was it just kind of obvious?

MOO: Mm hmm. Like for planting stuff?

SN: Yeah. Like the idea that you should have biodiversity when you plant stuff. Like, it seems to me that Minnesota farming culture, the way we see things, is that farms should be really simplified and not have too much complexity. I feel like, scientifically, we’re starting to realize that’s bad. We’re catching up. But why was that known so easily [in your culture]?

MOO: I think it’s just because of the knowledge of elder people. There just happens to be hundreds and thousands of years that they were like, this is the way we’re going to do it. And because the land allows it, and we see the reaction. Like I said, there is a strong connection between Native people or people that are connected to nature–that’s the world I want to say, people that are connected to nature. So you can see, as your mother, the reaction. Through hundreds and thousands of years, our elders maybe realized how she reacts when we plant one thing only, you know. I think it just came to be something very culturally known for my generation, maybe.

But it was discovered by elders. That’s why one of the main values we have to practice every day is to listen to elders. Respect the elders. Because the knowledge they provide, it is not something that they realized yesterday, but something that had been taught to them years ago from someone who learned it years ago. It comes like that, from generations. It just happened to me. To me, it just happened to be the way we see, the way we think, that we are always aware of Mother Nature and always taking care of it. Otherwise, we can see how that can affect her.

For example, my dad always told me, hey, why are you clearing that [field] up if we’re not going to use it this year? We used it last year. So simple things like that teach you. And if you ask the question why? If we used it last year, it’s fine when I use it this year. But no, that’s not how it works. So if you planted corn on this property last year, you’re not going to plant corn anymore here. You’ve got to plant something else. Or you have to always have a mixture of whatever you’re going to plant. Otherwise, you’re not going to have enough compost, and whatever you’re going to grow is not going to grow all the way, or it’s not going to be a good harvest, you know. So it’s like, oh, that’s why–so if I plant twice in the same plot, this year I’m going to get a good harvest, and next year I’m going to get half, you know. So it makes sense. It just came to be something very [much a] part of my culture, and just thrown out there for you. Like, hey, this is not how we do it, kind of thing. I think it’s just by knowledge.

SN: Is there a Bribri word for compost?

MOO: Hmm. We don’t use a word for compost, but we would just say, Kā. Kā is like dirt. So it’s just Kā. So, yeah, I think it just comes by nature, and we’ve just realized over the years how important it is to plant different things. And so you can get different compost, different properties. Um, you say properties, right, for the ground? So it can be fertile for next year.

SN: Do you worry about climate change or other threats to cacao growing or Bribri agriculture in general?

MOO: Hmm. Actually, we were so remote in the jungle that climate change is not even heard of, almost, in the tribe. So for us, [as far back as] I can remember, it’s just been a cycle. It’s just been like sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset. Living the day. Like we say here, living the dream. So it’s just like, you are not attached to the time. You have control of the time. You are not running for the time. But you are working alongside the time.

SN: Whoa, that’s deep.

MOO: We have a lunar calendar that we respect and use. That is something that helps us to have everyday activities. So for farming, for fishing, for hunting, for all these activities we do in the culture for a living, thankfully, we haven’t seen any change in that cycle. In the cycle of everyday, our lifestyle, our culture, our sunrises and sunsets, our lunar calendar, our crops and plantations and farming and everyday lifestyle, we haven’t seen an alteration or change that we can say, wait, this is impacting us somehow. But even without having a huge knowledge about climate change the way it’s known here and how people explain it here, we do know that climate change is not just like climate change, but it’s kind of like we are heading to the apocalypse. It’s causing earthquakes, causing melting of thousands of glaciers and a lot of tsunamis around the world because we have more water in the ocean, and a lot of big picture things, like a lot of factual impacts that climate change has done here that we can see and learn from the outside.

But culturally, we do have the knowledge of [respecting] nature. We come to the same topic. Because we know if we, for example, take a whole mountain down, what’s going to happen? Number one, we’re killing the ecology. We’re killing the whole ecosystem, the insects, the moss, the trees and plants that grow under big trees [that need] a certain temperature, and different species of medicines and plants.

[In fact], we’re not allowed culturally to take down a whole forest because we know that if you take down a whole forest, there are little springs, there are little sources of water that make the Earth have plenty of humidity to be able to plant and to be able to sustain life, to have life in it. So if you take down the whole forest, that’s going to die. And the little springs or the humidity you have on that property is going to go away. So you’re going to be killing a whole ecosystem if you take down the whole forest. So that’s the bigger picture in our perspective as native people. So we are aware not to. And that is something that was taught thousands of years ago when Sibö was here.

There is one lesson that says you’re going to cultivate; you’re going to use; you’re going to be part of; you’re going to be a cycle of; but never think that you’re going to be the owner of. Right? Because everything that works, everything that was created by Sibö, is our relatives. We were created by him, too. So from there, the culture and the philosophy brings us to think of being selfish. So if you take more than you need, if you take and you use more than you need, that’s selfish. So we have to have a balance. So why are you going to take down a whole forest? If what you farm and have already is plenty for your family, there is no need to take down a whole forest. There is no need to kill a whole ecosystem because of your selfishness. That was taught to our ancient elders since the very beginning.

That’s the mindset when it comes to being aware of climate change as a broad term. But on a smaller scale, we have that value. If you think about it, it connects to climate change somehow. Just by nature, we were taught, and we know that. Because, for example, if we take down all the tribe’s land, that’s like taking down all of Costa Rica’s lands, and that’s going to kill the whole ecosystem, that’s going to kill the whole nature we have and all the springs. And also, a lot of the forest where we have properties and lands are up in the mountains, and that means there are a lot of creeks and rivers, they grow from underneath that mountain, and that’s going to dry [up] if you take down the whole forest. And when I was actually in college, I was learning about climate change, and I was like, wait, we already do this! You know, how can you prevent climate change? They would ask us questions like, how do you as a student prevent climate change? I was like, easy! I know! I have done that. You know, just not take down the forest, that’s preventing climate change. My elders have taught me already. But there are things, like I said, that are not fully taught to us about the bigger picture of what climate change actually means. But we do have that knowledge of preventing climate change.

SN: Does your personal experience growing up in a cacao growing community affect how you buy or consume chocolate in the US?

MOO: Yes. So I’ve got to be honest with this one. Number one, I don’t buy a lot of chocolate in the U.S. because I know it’s processed, and I got used to having organic cacao. So that’s one thing that I’ve realized throughout my years in the U.S. I’ve realized how processed cacao can be, [to the point where] you are like, wait, this doesn’t taste like cacao anymore. You know, it’s just a way different texture. And when I think about it, it blows my mind, because for a little bar of cacao, like a small, one inch chunk of cacao, you have to pay around seven dollars, you know, and that’s one of the cheapest cacaos you can buy in the market. So the pricing is one.

But mostly the disconnection it has is to what it actually means to me. I’m used to seeing cacao as a bean or cacao paste or cacao butter. When I see these different textures and flavors of cacao, it just blows my mind. And also, pricing is something that  has restrained me from buying cacao. It’s super expensive and it’s not 100 percent organic.

SN: Like, I could grow something better than this?

It’s like I can go to my home community, grind some cacao and get 100 percent chocolate made with my own hands, you know? But one thing that I’ve realized is that the value, the spiritual value of cacao as it is, hasn’t changed. Cacao, like we have some here [on the table], has the same value for me in its spirituality [as it has] in my culture. Like, the fanciest thing you can offer me is a piece of cacao [as chocolate], you know, that’s how I take [understand] it. That’s how it is for me, you know? It doesn’t matter. The value will always be the same for me as it was taught to me when I was a kid.

SN: Interesting. So symbolically, it represents the same thing.

MOO: Yeah, the same thing. It’s cacao.

SN: Yeah. And I think cross-culturally people do use it that way. It’s a special thing to show love or show care. I haven’t even thought about that. It is true. That’s crazy. Listen, it’s something that does not only represent physical things, but represents deeper things. Like feelings. Like you said, for, like, for Valetine’s Day, people offer chocolate. Right. Why? Because it means a lot. It just is something that means a lot.

But there’s the paradox then, too, of like, okay, everyone living in the northern latitudes, we all love cacao. We want to give it on Valentine’s Day. And if you buy it in the store, most of it’s not going to be from a good source. And so how to do it in a responsible way. Do you have thoughts about that?

MOO: That’s a good question. I would say that it would be nice to kind of [dig into] the roots. Meaning, understanding what cacao is, what is the story of the cacao? What does it mean, not only for the Bribri people, but what does it mean for Native Americans? What does it mean for Europeans, since we have, you know, a big European community here? What does cacao mean in general for the market in the U.S.? And then also, if we’re going to buy or trade or export or import cacao, it would be nice to know where it comes from, and what does it mean for that community or that people? What does it take to plant, to grow, to take care of, to produce, to export cacao? [Understanding] all of those components will allow us to calculate, okay, the value of cacao [is] this much because of this, and this is the story of our own business or the story of our own structure and the reasons why we sell cacao for this much.

I know it’s challenging for a lot of people, and it’s easier to buy from a secondhand or middleman kind of person. But, [buying from a middleman] disconnects you so much from the meaning and the actual value of it. And if you buy it from a middleman, you don’t know if you are supporting peace behind the scenes, or supporting war behind the scenes, you know? You’re just putting your money out there without knowing the rest of the story. Why? Because the cacao production [involves] slavery in some places. I know that’s a really harsh term, but producing cacao in a massive quantity can be a lot of work. I just want to put it that way. So we don’t know if we are supporting people to have, you know, the right amount of income or right amount of recognition for their time and paying for their time and for the jobs and what they need. Knowing the story and knowing the steps of how much it takes to go from zero to hero, like people say, you know, getting all those put together, we can have a better judgment of how to sell, import, export, buy, or support cacao companies. That’s it.

SN: Would you like to share about your efforts and plans to create a cacao business or about any other hopes or dreams you have about how Bribri people can benefit from growing cacao in the future?

Roasting the beans before grinding into chocolate.

MOO: Yes. So number one, I would like to support cacao growers and to show an impact to the community, and show and teach the value of the cocao nowadays and also the meaning of cacao in our culture, as well as supporting cacao farming. Not monoculture farming of cacao, but polyculture cacao farming. And I would like to support the value of cacao itself for selling or for sharing or for the value it has in the culture, first. And then one of my goals or hopes is to be able to compensate or to export or import the cacao from Costa Rica to Europe or to San José or to the U.S., taking into account all the main steps we talked about, all the processes of teaching and with a huge awareness of cacao and its meaning and its value and the history of it. And also to [help] people have a better understanding of what they are supporting, of where the cacao is from and how it’s produced, how it’s taken care of, and all the steps to get the cacao all the way here. [I want to help people understand] the value of the cacao for the place we are going to buy it from and what it actually means for the sellers and the people who cultivate cacao. And also the ecological awareness of how cacao works.

SN: So partly doing the educational side of it.

MOO: Yeah. Doing the educational side of it. And in the communities, you know, recognizing and buying for a really fair amount of money to be able to support the communities and to actually pay what the cacao should be paid for.

SN: If people want to talk to you about either buying cocoa from your company or hiring you to do education about it, can they get in touch with you?

MOO: Yes. [This is] not just a bait for buying cacao [from me], but I would like to share from my own cultural perspective as a Bribri person my personal experience and personal value of cacao. [This could be] either as a speaker or via cultural awareness lessons or in an interview.  [I would like to] share what cacao means for us, for my culture, and the people in the Bribri tribe.

SN: Okay. Thank you.

MOO: Thank you. Thank you, Sara, for taking your time.

1Chocolate is processed from raw cacao. Chocolate, cocoa, cocoa butter, and more, are produced from the seeds (often incorrectly referred to as beans) harvested from pods growing from the cacao tree.

Mainor Ortiz Ortiz is a polylingual educator and mentor from the Bribri tribe of Costa Rica. He is passionate about sharing his cultural philosophy and cosmovision through  technology and education. He is a computer programmer living in Minneapolis. He can be contacted at

Mainor Ortiz Ortiz

Sara Nelson is an ecologist who works for the St. Paul nonprofit, Great River Greening. Her family operates Squash Blossom Farm chocolate, which produces chocolate bars from cacao grown by small farmers in Costa Rica. Sara can be contacted at

Some cacao projects to visit in Costa Rica:
Finca Integral Dilä, Suretka, Costa Rica
Ancel Mitchell:

Buyer Beware:

For lists of chocolate not produced with child or slave labor:

Understanding Our Chocolate List

A Note About Purchasing Chocolate
Chocolate is a complex product. In addition to the production issues discussed by Mainor in this interview (cacao sourcing, direct trade vs. middlemen, organic purity, labor issues), other ingredients used to produce chocolate can add complexity. For example, palm oil is often an ingredient used in chocolate making (as well as a stunning range of other products such as soap, shampoos, cookies, toothpaste). Chocolates made with “conflict palm oil” contribute to the degradation of rainforest ecosystems. Per the Rainforest Action Network nonprofit, “Palm oil plantations are pushing into the heart of some of the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse ecosystems. Conflict Palm Oil is driving iconic species like the Sumatran orangutan, tiger, elephant and rhino to the brink of extinction. Conflict Palm Oil perpetuates massive human and labor rights violations, as palm oil companies forcefully remove Indigenous Peoples and local communities from their land for new palm oil plantation development. Child labor, modern day slavery and other forms of worker exploitation are common occurrences on plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia.”

The bottom line? Change in the cacao trade and chocolate-making will only happen with consumer awareness and then thoughtful consumer purchases, and vocal consumer requests.

For lists of chocolates not made with palm oil

How to read product labeling. Your product may contain palm oil or a derivative, but you would not know by reading the label.