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The Art of
Cacao Gardening

A Journey into indigenous wisdom

When it comes to harnessing indigenous wisdom in planting a cacao forest, it's not just about specific techniques. Biodiversity restoration, pathways to sustainability, regenerative practices, or social responsibility – all are crucial, yet they don't delve into the heart of the matter.
It's not merely about celebrating rituals or uttering certain prayers. This is about embracing a completely different worldview, one that can only be comprehended by opening our hearts to this alternative reality. Are you ready to allow that?
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Where we come from: The Western Mindset

Our Western Christian culture is characterized by materialism. In our scientific view, the earth was created by the Big Bang – a product of chance, a lifeless rock flying through infinite space. The emergence of life on earth is considered mere coincidence, and humankind is viewed as the result of random mutations, with its history unfolding as a progression of technical advancements toward an increasingly comfortable life.


The Christian myth of the creation of the earth indeed posits an intentional creator God who designs the world and paradise, complete with plants, animals, and Adam and Eve. However, this God banishes mankind from paradise, severing their connection to nature. Consequently, they must earn their sustenance by the sweat of their brow and endure the pain of childbirth.

Changing Perspectives


Indigenous cultures harbor a fundamentally different view of reality. Unlike us, they reject the notion that they exist on a lifeless lump of rock. They also don't believe in the idea of being expelled from paradise. Take the Kogi, for example, an indigenous tribe from the north of Colombia; they claim to live in the “heart of the world”. This is how they call their homeland, the region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world.


For the Kogi, Aluna is the spiritual world, an invisible, living space where everything was created with thoughts before manifesting in the physical world we know. According to their belief, the material world was “bequeathed” to humans by Aluna in a specific way.

“When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you, it is you who belong to this land.” — Native American Wisdom.

There is no separation between man and nature in their worldview. Humans are perceived as an integral part of nature, and the earth is considered a single living body with many parts – continents, seas, rivers, volcanoes, mountains, plants, animals, and people. Every blade of grass and every stone is alive, possessing the right to exist and a designated purpose.


Viewing the world from this perspective reveals that the land on which one might want to plant a spirited Cacao forest is alive itself. It's not one's land, even if acquired or inherited with all the necessary documentation – no, the land belongs to itself. It's a living entity, and the only meaningful connection is for individuals to belong to the land by taking care of it.

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The Wisdom of the
four Indigenous Sierra Nevada Tribes

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, four indigenous tribes—Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo—refer to their homeland as "the heart of the world." According to their belief, their responsibility is to maintain harmony in the land, encompassing both the physical and spiritual universe. The relationships among people, nature, and the universe are guided by the Law of Origin, emphasizing a comprehensive understanding of the territory as a singular living body—from the sea and rivers to rocks, mountains, and snow-capped peaks.


These ancient tribes share a profound perspective: just as our body feels the beat of the heart, they believe that the earth also senses the rhythm of her heart. The interconnectedness of everything in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a core principle in the indigenous world, where every occurrence is believed to resonate throughout the world.

Through many years of dedication, the spiritual leaders of the community, the Mamo (male) and the Saga (female) acquire skills and sensitiveness to communicate with the snow-capped peaks, to connect with the knowledge of the rivers, and to unpuzzle the messages of nature. With ancient wisdom, they weave threads of energy between mountains and rocks, lagoons, rivers and wetlands, trees and plants. These connections form a living exchange that breathes vitality into the entire earth.

Permission – Forgiveness – Gratitude

Whatever you intend to do with and on this land, three principles should guide you: ask for permission, seek forgiveness, and express gratitude. This applies whether you're strolling on a meadow or cultivating a spirited Cacao forest, encompassing every step from preparing the soil and planting cacao beans to harvesting the fruit.

Requesting permission demonstrates respect for the other beings. It serves as a reminder that you are engaging with living entities, not merely utilizing them as means to an end, as is often the case in Western society with many inanimate “things.” Indigenous thinking encourages an approach to the land and plants as if they were sentient beings—because, indeed, they are.

In the middle of Sierra Divina, where our spirited Cacao forest flourishes, there exists an ancient path that once connected the sea to the mountains. During a walk, our partner Ricardo recollects that it was on this path where he conceived the initial idea of planting cocoa. “I was walking along this path at the time and wondered what I could do with the land. Suddenly this thought popped into my head: cacao, cacao is just the thing.” — Juan, son of the Kogi shaman Miguel, stands beside him and concisely responds: “Yes, the land has spoken to you. It has given you the task of planting cacao.”

The second step involves seeking forgiveness. Whatever actions we take will inevitably cause some degree of damage and entail destruction. To enjoy cacao, we must pluck a fruit from the tree or collect it from the ground, essentially "stealing" it from the forest's animals. Additionally, we need fruits and seeds to plant trees, and cultivating the soil disrupts insects and other small organisms.

Seeking forgiveness shouldn't burden us with guilt. Instead, it reminds us that all our actions have consequences, and we are intricately connected to the world. What endures is an inner disposition of humility.

Finally, expressing gratitude: Those who have taken the initial two steps will naturally arrive at this third stage, experiencing an inner sense of joy. Your heart will leap with delight – how wonderful to receive what you requested, how beautiful to be forgiven. Now you can proceed with your plans filled with energy.

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During the Pagamentos, Kogi shaman Mama Miguel sits for hours at the Pagamento place and mumbles to himself. Perhaps he is saying a prayer? I ask his son Juan what exactly he is doing. The answer: “He is healing the country from abuse*.”

This encapsulates the essence of “asking for forgiveness.”

* Before our partner Ricardo acquired the land, the previous owners had deforested it and engaged in extensive cattle farming, leading to soil degradation.

The Layout of the Forest –
Finding Harmonic Order

© Nefronus | Creative Commons

When the ancients constructed temples, they first observed the stars and then mirrored the order of the universe on the earth. This sacred geometry, visible in various plants like the cacao flower with its five petals, should guide the creation of a spirited Cacao forest. Everything has its natural place, and it is the gardener's task to discover and arrange it.


Begin by locating the energetic center of the site and establish a space for prayers and offerings. This becomes the heart of the area, from which you can identify additional energy lines running through the land like veins in a body. Progressively, you'll discover more energetic points.


All of this aligns with the Chinese harmony theory known as Feng Shui, or "kanyu" in its historical context, meaning "looking at the mountain and the land," "observing the sky and the earth." Harmonizing elements brings assistance from the spirits of the elements.

The Cacao Gardener tree at the entrance to Sierra Divina, planted by Serap Kara, Ricardo Leyva and Mama Miguel. This small tree will also grow into a guardian of the land, just like the Gardeners.

When Kogi shaman Mama Miguel first visits Sierra Divina, he seeks a place to pray. A palm tree next to the nursery becomes a seat made of stones where he consistently performs his rituals. This marks the energetic center of the forest. Mama Miguel also identifies other crucial energetic landmarks: a specific tree, a cluster of stones atop the hillside, and the old path across the site. All these places should initiate a dialogue with the land.

Pagamento – A Ritual of the Kogi

One of the Kogi's vital rituals is the Pagamento. The Spanish word can be translated as “payment”. This is at least one meaning that the ritual can have: When you take something from Mother Earth, you offer something in return—your gratitude and a gift.


The gift is inherently symbolic because everything ultimately belongs to Pachamama. Nevertheless, a Pagamento and the inner attitude associated with it balances the energies of receiving and giving, ensuring equilibrium in the exchange of energies, a state known as “Ayni.”—Ayni, from Quechua, the language of the Q'ero in Peru, signifies the exchange of energy based on reciprocity. In simple terms, whoever takes something should also give something, creating an elevation in the energy of each individual. Ayni reminds us that we are co-creators of this world.

The Pagamento is related to the conception that one is born from Mother Earth, that she gives us everything we need: water, air, and food, and therefore there is a commitment to caring for the natural world. Caring for the earth is a way in which we also take care of ourselves." 
— Ricardo Leyva.

In its deeper meaning, a Pagamento is associated with the vision of the perpetual motion of energy. Immersed in all the movements of nature, the origin of this ritual and its practice is considered essential for the development of life.

A Pagamento is a form of spiritual communication with animals and plants, with the earth and the elements. It is the acknowledgement that humans are part of the body of the earth, that they have a responsibility, a task. But more on that later.


Mama Miguel led three Pagamento rituals at Sierra Divina. The first one was done before taking the first cacao seedlings from the nursery to the field, the second one was done at the establishment of the first nursery funded by the Cacao Gardener initiative, and the third one was done to receive blessings for the Cacao Gardener initiative and all its community. These three Pagamentos are sacred moments for the project; nevertheless, the Pagamento is a constant state of mind that needs to be nourished at every moment.

The Honorable Harvest

The concept of the Honorable Harvest seamlessly extends from the principles of permission, forgiveness, gratitude, Ayni and Pagamento. Again, it is about perceiving the land and the plants as living beings, as subjects. They are partners in a mutual exchange that should take place with respect and gratitude. If this is the case, sustainability happens all by itself – and nature remains in balance.


Principles of the Honorable Harvest

- Know the way of life of those who care for you so that you can also care for them.

- Introduce yourself.

- Acknowledge that you are asking for life.

- Seek permission before taking; listen to the answer.

- Never take the first thing. Never take the last thing.

- Only take what you need.

- Take only what is given to you.

- Never take more than half.

- Leave something for others.

- Harvest in such a way that you cause as little damage as possible.

- Use it respectfully.

- Never waste what you have taken.

- Share.

- Express gratitude and leave a gift for what you take.

- Sustain those who sustain you, and the earth will remain forever.


Quoted from Robin Wall Kimmerer: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

The Purpose of Man: Being Gardeners

If rivers fulfill their duty by transporting water from the source to nourish plants, animals, and ultimately the sea, if fire finds its purpose in bestowing warmth, light, and the transformation of energies, and if the lark dutifully welcomes the sun each day—what then is our distinctive role as humans?


Answers to this query may be as diverse. But whatever we do – we have the extraordinary gift of consciousness. It grants us the capacity to act deliberately, to infuse actions with meaning and purpose. We possess the ability to embody love and gratitude, or conversely, to embrace their opposites. Thus, at its core, our purpose is deeply intertwined with our inner disposition.

“I have promised to sing for the birds, to dance for the trees, to ring for the rivers. What is your mission, what have you promised?”
— Kogi Shaman Mama Shibulata at a lecture in Germany in 2022.

The Kogi belief that humans are inherently meant to be custodians of the earth—akin to gardeners. This implies establishing a conscious and loving relationship that extends between the realms of land, plants, animals, and humanity.


This sacred communion initiates with wonder and observation: the rustle of the wind through the trees, the sun's radiant embrace reflected in the water. Those attuned to the enchantment of the earth rekindle gratitude and resume a dialogue with the living beings that share this interconnected tapestry. It is from this wellspring of connection that a commitment to land stewardship naturally springs forth—a commitment that not only nurtures the land itself but radiates harmony to all beings dwelling upon it.


The responsibility of shaping this relationship cannot be outsourced to an indigenous tribe or a shaman performing rituals on our behalf. It is a collective and individual responsibility. Embracing the role of a Cacao Gardener in a spirited Cacao forest emerges as a tangible and beautiful expression of this profound love.


The Pagamentos in the Sierra

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a unique and mystic place on planet earth, where the wisdom of nature converges with the indigenous people to create beauty and exuberance unseen elsewhere in the world. The magnificence of its snowy peaks, mountains, rivers, beaches, forests, wildlife, soils, foods, and habitants awakens profound reverence. This magical place it´s also known as “The Heart of the World” and has been, for more than a thousand years the home of one of the oldest pre-Columbian civilizations: the Tayrona culture.

Living in Relationship with the Land

On November 30, 2022 UNESCO acknowledged the "Ancestral System of Knowledge of the Four Indigenous Peoples, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, Kogui, and Wiwa of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta" as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The nomination for inscription on UNESCO's Representative List was initiated by the four indigenous peoples themselves. I have been working for and with UNESCO for eight years and I have never seen or read anything like this file. It was both a captivating and a humbling read and I believe it will have an impact on various levels. 

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