Bringing Back Cacao, The Great Healer

Teake Zuidema /A member of the Playon Chico cacao project with a small cacao tree, a local variety, that grows under a shelter to provide some shade.

Bringing Back Cacao, The Great Healer

“At the beginning of time, mother Goddess Nana and father God Baba came together to create the Guna people,” says Domingo Diaz, the leader of Playon Chico’s cacao project. His face turns sad. “Unfortunately, the Guna suffered from all sorts of diseases. That’s why Nana and Baba decided to give us the cacao tree, to fight off diseases and to make us spiritually stronger.”

Teake Zuidema /The farmers of Playon Chico still have some cacao trees on the mainland, but most of the trees have died or produce very little due to diseases.

And so it happened. For centuries, while the Guna people planted corn, coconuts and yucca in the tropical forest on the coast, and caught fish and lobsters in the water of the Caribbean sea around their islands, cacao was the spiritual cornerstone of their society. They didn’t just consume cacao to stay healthy, they also used it to chase away evil spirits and to send their deceased safely on their way back to Nana and Baba.

Teake Zuidema /A healthy cacao pod with the cacao seeds.

But then cacao itself got sick.

“It began some forty years ago,” Diaz says. “Our cacao trees got weak, and year after year the production went down.”

Teake Zuidema /One of the diseases that hits the cacao is called Witches’ broom. It manifests itself by the wild grow of branches and kills the cacao pods.

In fact, in those days, many of the cacao producers of Latin America got hit by two diseases: witches’ broom and frosty pod. Witches’ broom is a fungus that causes deformation in the cacao trees. Frosty Pod, also a fungus, slowly destroys the pod that holds the cacao seeds.

“When I was a young boy,” Diaz says, “we drank madun every day. It kept us healthy.”

Guna women make madun by boiling bananas and then adding cacao butter. The Guna are convinced the older generations lived long and healthy lives because of madun. Nowadays, since there are not many healthy cacao trees left, the yellow-brownish beverage is only made on special occasions.

Teake Zuidema /Eufrosina Avilar and Elena Gonzalez prepare madun, a healthy beverage that is a mixture of boiled bananas and cacao.

Medicinal plants

Luis Layons, a man in his 60s who is both the political leader of Playon Chico and a healer, sings a tune in the Guna language. Meanwhile, he swings a two-year old girl gently back and forth over the smoke of smoldering cacao beans. The girl has a fever, and Layons knows the cure. Illnesses like this are caused by evil spirits, and the smoke of the cacao will chase them away.

“I collect medicinal plants in the forest on the coast,” Layons explains. He uses these plants to fight every imaginable disease, from the flu to epilepsy to cancer. “Before I use these plants, I hold them in the smoke of the cacao. And then I sing to the beans to remind them they were sent to earth to heal people and that they have to empower the medicine that I have gathered.”

Teake Zuidema /Chryselda Valdez feeds an orphan baby parakeet by letting the bird eat banana pulp from her mouth, just like a parakeet mother would do.

Chryselda Valdez, Layons’ wife, is sitting next to him in the courtyard of his home. She’s wearing the traditional dress of the Guna woman with brightly colored abstract patterns. Valdez chews bananas and lets an orphaned baby parakeet eat the banana pulp straight from her mouth, just like a mother parakeet would do.

“Nana and Baba put us on this world to take care of it,” Layons says. “Besides, my wife loves these little birds.”

The Bridge

A concrete pedestrian bridge, five feet wide and 400 feet long, connects Playon Chico to the mainland. It’s an umbilical cord between the small-overcrowded island and the fast interior of Panama with its mangroves, rivers, forests and mountains. On the coastal side you will also find the village school, the cemetery, a concrete airstrip and the gardens and fields where the Guna grow coconuts, yucca and bananas.

Teake Zuidema /Playon Chico seen from a small airplane. The island is so overpopulated that the beaches have disappeared and the houses and huts seem to spill into the sea.

It’s also the home of the cacao project.

Under a 200-foot long plastic roof held up by wooden poles, five Guna men are filling small, plastic bags with a mixture of earth, rotten leaves and the excrements of ants.

Teake Zuidema /A Guna man, participant in the cacao project, fills plastic bags with a mixture of earth, dead leaves and the excrements of ants. In a few weeks he will plant cacao seeds in these small bags.

“In this compost we shall plant some 10,000 cacao seeds,” Diaz says. “When the trees are a couple of months old, we’ll have to graft them and set them out in the field. Then, in the third year, we hope we’ll be able to harvest the cacao pods.”

The cacao project of Playon Chico is supported by the government of the semi-autonomous region of Guna Yala. An American company, Cocoa Well, has promised to purchase the organic cacao. Success or failure will largely depend on the willingness of some 40 men and women too dedicate themselves to the care of the trees.

Teake Zuidema /A group of Guna travel in a cayuco canoe made from a tree trunk) from their home on Playon Chico to their gardens and fields on the mainland.

“We hope for a little bit of extra income,” Diaz says. But more than that, it will be a cultural and spiritual revival.

The seeds will have to come from elsewhere. The local cacao varieties have little or no resistance against diseases. In a couple of weeks a small group of men and women from Playon Chico will travel to Bocas del Torro, in the north of Panama, to purchase seeds and bring them back to Playon Chico. Since Nana and Baba specially created this tree for the Guna, it will feel like cacao is coming home again.

Playon Chico is one of 40 inhabited islands that make up Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas), a nation that is, according to many observers, the most autonomous Native American nation in all the Americas. There are predictions that the rising sea level will make all the island of Guna Yala uninhabitable. The Guna of several islands already have plans to move their villages to the mainland.

Teake Zuidema /Nemecio Estosel shows the fields on the mainland where the Guna of Playon Chico plan to build a new village when the rising sea level will make their island uninhabitable.

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