Contradictions in Cacao: How a plant belies its complex origins

To gaze upon a cacao plantation is to overload the senses: a dense canopy of green filters light into dappled shadows, a thick layer of leaf litter covers the ground, and brightly-hued pods hang from small cushions on the trunks and larger branches of the cacao trees (see Figure 1). Yet, this visually rich and colorful image of the cacao plantation belies the power dynamics that went into shaping it (Mitchell 43). From speculation around cultivated cacao’s origins and the meaning behind its given scientific name, to the plant’s perplexing genome and reliance on intensive labor, cacao has been at the center of tumultuous social and political forces. Cacao, from its plant form to final chocolate product, disguises a complex history that impacts how contemporary consumers view and value it today.

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour
Figure 1: A cacao plantation evokes a vibrant, colorful scene, yet its picturesque appearance  masks the complex social and political forces that led to its formation.

To discuss the origins of cacao is to reconcile a story of multiple beginnings. On one hand, there is the genetic source of the tree; on the other hand, there is the start of its cultivation and role in the chocolate-making process (Coe 25). As a biological entity, the cacao tree originated between the northwest Amazon basin and eastern slopes of the South American Andes. The initial cultural significance of the cacao tree was for its fruit pulp, rather than its seeds. In fact, the cacao tree’s bounty was not used to make chocolate during pre-Columbian times in South America (Coe 25, 37). The consensus is that, by 1800 BCE, it was Mesoamerican innovation that led to the development of the intricate process of transforming cacao beans into chocolate. Yet, there is contention regarding exactly how a wild tree from the Amazon appeared in Central America and Mexico to become a cultural and economic juggernaut. One explanation is that the ecological range of wild cacao was as far-reaching from the Amazon to southern Mesoamerica. Another possibility is that the tree was domesticated in South America for its fruit and transported to Mesoamerica via coastal trading routes (Coe 25, 37). The precise chronology of how the cacao tree became domesticated for chocolate production remains ambiguous.

The enigmatic qualities of the cacao tree are further confounded when considering its scientific name. When European colonizers arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, one of their objectives was to name—or, more aptly, “re-name” what native people had bestowed—plants according to the prevailing classification systems of the time. Carl von Linné, an 18th century Swedish scientist, gave the cacao tree a name that happened to capture the tension between the two worlds (Coe 18). The use of a Greek term for the genus, Theobroma, evokes a sense of heritage—which is fitting for the cacao tree’s long history—but is misleading about the cacao tree’s South American origins. Moreover, Theobroma translates to “food of the gods,” demonstrating how the European invaders recognized how treasured cacao was in Mesoamerican society. Yet, the decision to relegate the more accurate designation cacao to the specific name captures how colonizers viewed the New World as second-rate, lagging behind Europe. When put together, the designation Theobroma cacao simultaneously identifies and obscures the origins of the cacao tree. Just as its paradoxical scientific name persists nearly three hundred years later, the ability of the cacao tree to not conform to imposed classifications continues to this day. While cacao does not have a large genome as compared to other food plants, it resists standard categorizations based on form, color, and flavor when examining the transfer of genes from one generation to the next (Presilla 61). Modern research is still working to uncover the direct links between the genetics of cacao and how they are expressed in the physical morphology of the plant (Martin, Feb. 2018; see Figure 2).

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour
Figure 2: The genes that influence the shape, color, and flavor of cacao pods between generations are the subject of contemporary research on cacao.

The botanical structure of cacao also subverts the notion that, because it is a cultivated food plant, it must be easy to propagate en masse. The cacao tree is, in fact, difficult to grow, with a very specific set of ecological requirements. Only in areas within 20 degrees north and south of the equator, at altitudes where temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and under conditions of year-round moisture, does the cacao tree thrive (Coe 19). Cacao also exemplifies “biological inefficiency taken to the extreme” as only one to three percent of flowers bear fruit (Coe 21). Furthermore, the plant does not employ any dispersal mechanism for its seeds: animals intervene in the wild while humans perpetuate cultivated cacao by opening the pods and distributing the seeds (see Figure 3). The cacao tree’s need for intense and direct intervention has engendered a body of knowledge of expertise and skills, a material culture, a set of rituals, and a network of economies, that further elevate cacao’s cultural importance. Yet, this need for intense labor and involvement is not necessarily conveyed when viewing a cacao plantation (Mitchell 43). The opposite experience is even evoked with imagery of lush green canopy and rustic exoticism. While appearing idyllic, the form of a cacao plantation does not expose the exploitation of child labor or that only three percent of the final chocolate product’s economic value is allocated to the cacao farmers (Martin, Jan. 2018). How the contemporary consumer views production and how the producer experiences production are two opposing tensions that are tied to the cacao tree once again.

Workers harvested cacao…at the Monterosa plantation in Choroni, Venezuela in March
Figure 3: Direct human intervention is necessary for cultivating cacao and has led to the creation of an interconnected web of technical knowledge, cultural celebration, and economic exchange.

In short, the ambiguity of the origins of cultivated Theobroma cacao and the difficulty of classifying it, whether genetically or taxonomically, is significant for how cacao is framed and valued. Naming an object and establishing its genesis imbues it with importance and provides clues for how to derive meaning from its role in society. When cacao’s origins are unclear, end consumers may not be able to place it within a structure of similar meanings and, as a result, may lack a moral responsibility towards cacao’s source and production. The situation is exacerbated further when the seemingly picturesque appearance of a cacao plantation masks the inequality and struggles that go into shaping its formation. When viewing the landscape of modern cacao production, the question becomes: can consumers be made aware of cacao’s complex history in such a way that will empower them to action for social justice?


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” 24 Jan. 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” 14 Feb. 2018. AAAS 119x, Harvard University.

Mitchell, Don. “New axioms for reading the landscape: paying attention to political economy and social justice.” Political economies of landscape change. Springer, Dordrecht, 2008. 29-50.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.

Multimedia Sources

All Pods Unite.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Costa Rica. On the Chocolate Tour.” By Everjean is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kohut, Meridith. “Workers harvested cacao…at the Monterosa plantation in Choroni, Venezuela in March.” The New York Times. “In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness,” by Simon Romero. 28 July 2009.


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