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Chewing Chicza - organic rainforest gum

To collect the latex, chicleros make z-shaped cuts into the bark which zigzag down the tree (Fulvia Eccardi)
To collect the latex, chicleros make z-shaped cuts into the bark which zigzag down the tree
Fulvia Eccardi

Using only a rope and spurs to scale the tall Chicozapote tree (Manilkara zapota), and a machete to cut the bark, extracting chicle latex is a dangerous occupation that requires physical strength and skill. For millennia, the Mayan people of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula have chewed chicle gum to keep teeth clean and ease digestion. Their ingenuity led to a global phenomenon when, after failed attempts to make rubber products from chicle in the late 19th century, Thomas Adams, an American, instead added sugar and began selling chewing gum.

Prized for its unique non-toxic latex, chicle was an essential ingredient in chewing gum for over a century. At the height of the "Golden Age", between the 1950s and 60s, over 5,000 chicleros (chicle farmers) tapped latex in the forest. By the 1990s numbers had crashed to 300, due to the introduction of synthetic chicle substitutes, political interference and competing labour demands from nearby tourist destinations. Now, however, this sustainably produced natural gum is making a comeback, as a new, biodegradable and organic chewing gum.

Sticking together

To revitalise their industry, the remaining chiclero cooperatives have formed a consortium - Consorcio Chiclero - to develop their own brand of chewing gum: Chicza. In so doing, they are also bucking a trend of illegal forest exploitation, which has afflicted a number of Mexican states, following attempts to exclude people in the name of forest protection. In comparison, "Yucatán has the best kept forests because of the presence of these communities," Pablo Muñozledo, the spokesperson for the Chicza initiative explains. In recognition, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has certified their management activities; in 1995, Noh-Bec was the first community to receive certification, and the first, worldwide, to be certified for sustainable non-wood forestry.

After being boiled, the chicle latex is stretched and kneaded (Mayan Rainforest Co)
After being boiled, the chicle latex is stretched and kneaded
Mayan Rainforest Co

In each Ejido (a legally recognised form of land tenure, which can be leased, but not sold and is passed from father to son), every chiclero keeps an inventory of his Chicozapote trees. The latex is extracted by making z-shaped cuts into the bark, which zigzag down to the base of the tree. Here a bag is placed, which slowly fills with the dripping sap. The trees are carefully managed, producing on average five kilogrammes of latex per tapping, after which they are left for six to seven years to heal.

The latex is then boiled before being stretched, kneaded and shaped into marquetas, or 'chicle bricks'. Each marqueta is then marked to ensure traceability. To make Chicza, the marquetas are melted together with natural waxes before being mixed with organic sweeteners and natural flavours. This processing, and the subsequent packaging of Chizca, has allowed women and young people from chiclero families to become involved in the industry for the first time. Previously, the work was confined to men, due to the physical strength required to extract and prepare the latex.

Reaping the rewards

Made up of over 50 cooperatives, Consorcio Chiclero represents about 2,000 chicleros. The creation of Chicza was just the first in a series of challenges the consortium has faced: being pioneers in direct trade was, according to Pablo Muñozledo, "the most challenging part of the journey." To export and distribute Chicza in the UK, the consortium established the Mayan Rainforest Co Limited; this subsidiary, fully-owned by the chicleros, now trades directly with companies such as Waitrose, a leading UK supermarket.

By adding value to raw chicle, chicleros are now making up to six times more income (Mayan Rainforest Co)
By adding value to raw chicle, chicleros are now making up to six times more income
Mayan Rainforest Co

As members of the Consorcio Chiclero, the chicleros are making between three and six times more income than when they simply supplied chicle to chewing gum manufacturers. However, financial rewards are not the only benefit. For Manual Aldrete, managing director of Consorcio Chiclero, capacity building and technical support have also been key. "Whether it's administrative and accounting support or training, management of forest resources or quality control, we look at what the individual cooperatives need and then seek to supply it to them cost-effectively." Muñozledo agrees that empowerment of the communities has been a major benefit: "They have the administrative, managing and business skills to do their business not only in Mexico, but also to export to Europe," he explains. The consortium also funds health care, life insurance, education, and pensions.

Hope for the future

Members of the Consorcio Chiclero believe that the success of Chicza will restore pride and a sense of belonging to the Maya. In a world plagued by political, environmental and social crises, Chicza's success has given them belief in a brighter future, as Pablo Muñozledo confirms: "It is a very clear demonstration that it is possible to do things in harmony. Not only in harmony with nature, but also between humans. We have been able to understand each other, set up a project together, work on equal terms and get things done." In time, he hopes their success will draw other Mayan families back into the forest, swelling the ranks of chicleros up to the numbers of the Golden Age.

Date published: July 2009


Have your say

Currently Chicza is only available in the UK. But to keep up... (posted by: producers of the New Agriculturist)

How can we get this gum in the USA? (posted by: Mx)


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