Independent journalist Martha Pskowski tells us how chicle production allows local Maya communities to preserve their forests while earning an income. Martha is based in Mexico City and she covers environmental politics, gender, and urbanism stories in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
Chicleros (natural gum producers) continue an ancient Maya tradition of producing and selling natural gum as competitors peddle the synthetic materials.
The Tres Garantías cooperative, sells chicle to the Chiclero Consortium, based in nearby Chetumal, the capital of the state of Quintana Roo.
The consortium will process the chicle into organic gum that will be exported to 30 countries. By maintaining this ancient tradition, chicleros are helping to sustain local indigenous communities and the rainforest. When the Mayans ruled the Yucatan Peninsula, they extracted the sap of chicozapote and turned it into gum. The practice continued after the collapse of the Yucatecan Mayans in the ninth century.
Chicle was only consumed locally until Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna introduced it to American businessman Thomas Adams, who began importing it to the United States in the 1870s. Adams produced the first of many chewing-gum brands to follow.
80 years later, during World War II, gum was included in the rations of U.S soldiers, both increasing demand from U.S. companies and spreading the gospel of gum to new countries. In the early and middle 20th century, chicleros, organized in the Federation of Chicle Cooperatives, were the economic engine of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Gerardo Ramírez Aguilar, an agronomist from northern Mexico who is the production director of the Chiclero Consortium, says that during the peak years, 25,000 chicleros worked across the peninsula, and Mexico exported 6,300 tons of chicle a year.
But the advent of synthetic gums in the 1950s precipitated a slow decline. Meanwhile, as part of agrarian reform, the federal government was giving property in the sparsely populated Calakmul rainforest to landless peasants.
Tres Garantías is one of these communities created in the agrarian reform, known as ejidos, where land is owned cooperatively. The federal government designated the land for Tres Garantías in 1943, but there were no roads to reach the vast parcel of over 100,000 acres.
Ejidatarios set up chicle camps in the rainforest, where they would live for weeks or months at a time. It was not until the 1970s that the ejidatarios began building homes and brought their families.
Ramírez got his start in the chicle camps. So did Raymundo Terrón Santana, who now serves as president of the Tres Garantías chicle cooperative and is one of the founders of the modern chicle industry.
By the 1980s, the Federation of Chicle Cooperatives had fallen into mismanagement. With the cooperatives in disarray, a long chain of middlemen took most of the profits, leaving the hard-working chicleros with only a few pesos for each kilogram.
In 1993, Santana and Ramírez Aguilar were on the team that devised the Chicle Pilot Plan, a government program to reinvigorate the industry.
“[During the 1990s] we opened doors that used to be closed,” Ramírez Aguilar says, sitting in the air-conditioned offices of the Chiclero Consortium. Adjacent to the offices is the production plant that processes 10-kilogram bricks of chicle into packaged gum.
In 56 communities across the peninsula, over 600 chicleros, many of whom are indigenous Mayans, now sell to the consortium.
The first production plant opened in 2007, the same year they received organic certification. Chicza is sold in 30 countries around the world, with half of the sales in Germany alone. Chicza is sold in Mexico, but Ramírez Aguilar says the price point is a challenge to growing the Mexican market. He explains that because the chicozapote tree naturally regenerates its sap, chicle production is symbiotic with the ecosystem of the tropical rainforest. The consortium also runs a nursery to grow chicozapote trees to transplant in communities.
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