Awaking. The sun is about to rise and the sky is a fragile blue. The scent of cacao being roasted. The sound of a wooden spoon turning the cacao beans in the pan. The sound of a chicken being slaughtered somewhere nearby. The cicadas stand guard in the fog that still covers the forest. I look around. Jose and Maria Suzanna is sharing a hammock. Sipping coffee. She has been up for a while and he is slowly getting ready for the long uphill hike to the cacao fields, the cacaotales.
I love that there are bright, wild colours everywhere I look, because they show me what Mexico is all about: diversity. A beautiful jumble of diverse cultures and traditions. Take the villages where we work: indigenous villages with 2 different indigenous cultures, respectively Zoque and Tzotzil. The Zoque are descendants of the Olmecs, an ancient civilization that left residue of theobromine (cacao) in 3800 year old ceramic vessels, and the Tzotzil are descendants of the ancient Maya, who fell under the spell of the cacao fruit and depicted the mother of one of their greatest kings, King Pakal, as a human-cacao chimera. Actually, this small Tzotzil village isn’t far from ancient Olmec and Maya ruins.
The indigenous Zoque and Tzotzil – and before them their forefathers, the ancient Olmecs and Maya – have used cacao as a sacred ingredient in their culinary traditions for 4000 years and cacao is an essential part of their cultural and ecological heritage. And they have always grown cacao in biodiverse home-gardens that are perfectly integrated in the Selva Zoque rainforest, home to such major cat species as the Jaguar, Ocelot and Oncilla, and the Spider and Howler Monkey.
Despite the region’s ancient cacao culture, cacao cultivation has experienced a decline in recent decades. The local indigenous families have lived through decades of low cacao prices and poverty. Facing poverty and few opportunities in the small villages, many young villagers decide to migrate to the larger cities. Luckily for us, the local families won’t give their Tabasqueño cacao away easily, since they use it daily for nutritious drinks and spicy sauces, but the migration of young men and women weakens their indigenous traditions and languages. The ancestral land of the Zoque and Tzotzil in the Selva Zoque is also under pressure: pristine rainforest areas are converted to cattle pasture and the biodiversity losses are immense. Fortunately, large forest areas are under the customary ownership of the indigenous communities that keep the wilderness intact with their traditional lifestyle and gentle management of the forest that they call home.
It has been a long day in the cacaotales and I find my way to the smoked kitchen and greet the chef, Maria Suzanna, squatting with a pile of beans in front of her. I am served a light chicken soup with warm yellow tortillas and a small dish of tiny silvery river snails with tomatillos and chili that she has prepared for our arrival. The dish is like a painting of the diverse, colorful land that surrounds us.
Photos by: Jacqueline Dersjant – PHTGRPHR