Religious Conversion and the Decline of Environmental Ritual Narratives


  • Erik Stanley Eastern New Mexico University



Ritual, Cacao, Monilia, Chocolate, Mopan Maya, Protestant Christianity, Development, Agriculture


Religion has a major impact on human–environmental relationships as evidenced by cultural responses to agricultural disease. In Belize, Protestant conversion has transformed traditional Mopan Maya environment relations and paved the way for the commercialization of formerly ritual crops. The changes in the spiritual importance of cacao and nature are reflected in farmers’ responses to the emergence of Monilia (Moniliophtora roreri), a fungal disease that attacks the fruits of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), the botanical source of chocolate. Traditionally, Mopan cacao farmers relied on ritual offerings to nature spirits to cure diseased trees. However, the widespread adoption of Protestant Christianity by many Mopan has led to the discontinuation of cacao rituals, the demystification of nature spirits, and increased reliance on agro-technical disease management. The decline of Mopan ritual offerings speaks more broadly to the transformation of indigenous environmental relations in the context of Protestant conversion and capitalist agricultural development.

Author Biography

Erik Stanley, Eastern New Mexico University

Erik Stanley, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Applied Archaeology
Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, USA.


Abrams, Ira. 1973. Cash Crop Farming and Social and Economic Change in a Yucatecan Maya Community in Northern British Honduras (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Anderson, Eugene Newton, Felix Medina Tzuc, and Pastor Valdez Chale. 2005. Politi­cal Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community (Tucson: University of Arizona Press).

Ausdal, Shawn Van. 2008. ‘Development and Discourse among the Maya of Southern Belize’, Development and Change 32.3: 577-606. Doi:

Baines, Kristina. 2012. ‘Good Men Grow Corn: Ecological Heritage and Health in a Belizean Mopan Community’ (PhD diss., University of South Florida).

Cook, Guillermo. 1997. Crosscurrents in Indigenous Spirituality: Interface of Maya, Catholic, and Protestant Worldview (Leiden: Brill).

Danziger, Eve. 2013. ‘Conventional Wisdom: Imagination, Obedience and Inter­subjectivity’, Language and Communication 33: 251-62. Doi:

de Heusch, Luc. 1986. Sacri?ce in Africa: A Structuralist Approach (Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press).

Descola, Philippe. 1996. ‘Constructing Natures: Symbolic Ecology and Social Practice’, in P. Descola and P. Gisli (eds.), Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Routledge): 82-102. Doi:

Emch, Michael. 2003. ‘The Human Ecology of Mayan Cacao Farming in Belize’, Human Ecology 31.1: 111-31. Doi:

Escobar, Arturo. 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Durham: Duke University Press). Doi:

Faust, Betty. 1998. ‘Cacao Beans and Chili Peppers: Gender Socialization in the Cosmology of a Yucatec Maya Curing Ceremony’, Sex Roles 39.7/8: 603-42. Doi:

Faust, Betty. 1999. Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent (Westport: Bergin & Garvey).

Fink, Ann. 1987. ‘Shadow and Substance: A Mopan Maya View of Human Existence’, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 7.2: 399-414.

Fulton, Robert H. 1989. ‘The Cacao Disease Trilogy: Black Pod, Monilia Pod Rot, and Witches’ Broom’, Plant Diseases 73: 601-603. Doi:

Gregory, J.R. 1972. Pioneers on a Cultural Frontier: The Mopan Maya of British Honduras (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press).

Hanks, W.F. 2010. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Hubert, Henri, and Marcel Mauss. 1981. Sacri?ce: Its Nature and Functions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Ivakhiv, Adrian J. 2002. ‘Towards a Multicultural Ecology’, Organization and Environment 15.4: 389-409. Doi:

Ivakhiv, Adrian J. 2012. ‘Religious (Re)Turns in the Wake of Global Nature: Toward a Cosmopolitics’, in C.M. Tucker (ed.), Nature, Science, and Religion: Intersections Shaping Society and the Environment (Santa Fe: SAR Press): 213-30.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetishism in the Mission Encounter (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Latour, Bruno. 2002. ‘Morality and Technology: The End of the Means’, Theory, Culture and Society 19: 247-60. Doi:

Latour, Bruno. 2009. Politics of Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

McAnany, Patricia, and Satoru Murata. 2006. ‘From Chocolate Pots to Maya Gold: Belizean Cacao Farmers Through the Ages’, in C. McNeil (ed.), Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Gainesville: University of Florida Press): 429-50. Doi:

McNeil, Cameron. 2006. ‘Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica’, in C. McNeil (ed.), Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press): 341-66. Doi:

Osborn, Anne. 1982. Socio-Anthropological Aspects of Development in Southern Belize (Punta Gorda, Belize: Research and Development Project).

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Doi:

Red?eld, Robert, and Alfonso Villa Rojas. 1934. Chan Kom: A Maya Village (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Robbins, Joel. 2005. ‘The Humiliation of Sin: Christianity and the Modernization of the Subject among the Urapmin’, in J. Robbins and H. Wardlow (eds.), The Making of Global and Local Modernities in Melanesia: Humiliation, Transformation and the Nature of Cultural Change (Farnham, UK: Ashgate): 43-56.

Robbins, Joel. 2011. ‘On Enchanting Science and Disenchanting Nature: Spiritual Warfare in North America and Papua New Guinea’, in C.M. Tucker (ed.), Nature, Science, and Religion: Intersections Shaping Society and the Environment (Santa Fe: SAR Press): 45-64.

Sahlins, Marshal. 2005. ‘The Economics of Develop-man in the Paci?c’, in J. Robbins and H. Wardlow (eds.), The Making of Global and Local Modernities in Melanesia: Humiliation, Transformation and the Nature of Cultural Change (Farnham, UK: Ashgate): 23-42.

Schackt, Jon. 1986. One God—Two Temples (Oslo, Norway: Department of Social Anthropology).

Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. ‘Monocultures of the Mind’, Trumpeter 10.4: 1-11.

Steinberg, Michael. 2002a. ‘The Globalization of a Ceremonial Tree: The Case of Cacao (Theobroma cacao) among the Mopan Maya’. Economic Botany 56.1: 58-65.

Steinberg, Michael. 2002b. ‘The Second Conquest: Religious Change and the Erosion of the Cultural Ecological Core among the Mopan Maya’, The Journal of Cultural Geography 20.1: 91-105. Doi:

Tedlock, Barbra. 1982. Time and the Highland Maya (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press).

TCGA [Toledo Cacao Growers Association]. 2010. Annual Report (Punta Gorda, Belize).

TMCC [The Maya Cultural Council]. 1997. Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books).

Thompson, John Eric Sidney. 1930. Ethnology of the Mayas of Southern and Central British Honduras (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History). Doi:

Thompson, John Eric Sidney. 1956. ‘Notes on the Use of Cacao in Middle America’, Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology 128: 95-116.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

van Genep, Arnold. 1909. The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Vogt, E. 1976. Tortillas for the Gods: A Symbolic Analysis of Zinacanteco Rituals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Wainwright, Joel. 2008. Decolonizing Development (Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing). Doi:

Weber, M. 1905. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London and New York: Routledge).

White, Lynn. 1967. ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, Science 155.3767: 1203-207. Doi:

Wilk, Richard. 1997. Household Ecology (Tucson: University of Arizona Press).



How to Cite

Stanley, E. (2020). Religious Conversion and the Decline of Environmental Ritual Narratives. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 13(3), 266–285.