Eco-Exchange - August-September 2001 - Sustainable Mezcal: Helping Communities Maintain an Income Source Seeped in Tradition While Protecting Wild Agave


August - September 2001

Sustainable Mezcal: Helping Communities Maintain an Income Source Seeped in Tradition While Protecting Wild Agave

Too much tequila is causing headaches for biologists concerned about the survival of wild species of agave, a plant native to the dry forests of southern Mexico. Tequila is made by baking the heart, or piña, of Agave tequilana, a succulent plant grown to produce the potent spirit. During the 1990s, tequila´s popularity unexpectedly soared, leaving producers without sufficient supplies of cultivated A. tequilana to meet demand. An agave must be at least eight-years-old before it produces a sugar-rich piña. So to keep the liquor flowing, bottlers are mixing in other distilled agave species, including the wild varieties used to make mezcal. Now there's not just a shortage of A. tequilana but species of wild agave also are in jeopardy.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')
Illustration by Allan Núñez ("Nano")

Further threatening wild agave, called maguey in Mexico, is the growing demand for mezcal. Mezcal's rich, smoky flavor is produced by roasting the piñas over charcoal in pit ovens that are covered by palm fibers and soil. The smoldering charcoal comes from local trees, usually oak, so mezcal production also increases deforestation.

A Mexico-based organization called the Environmental Studies Group (GEA, in its Spanish acronym), is tackling the ecological problems caused by the tequila and mezcal industries, which are economically vital to rural farmers. Through a local growers' organization called Sanzekan Tinemi, GEA helps rural farmers in Guerrero state learn how to sustainably farm a wild species, Agave cupreata, and to plant more native trees that will eventually provide firewood for mezcal pits.

GEA and Sanzekan Tinemi, which means "we continue harvesting together" in the Náhuatl language, are working in 19 indigenous and mestizo communities in four Guerrero municipalities. GEA biologist Catarina Illsley notes that the region is one of the poorest in Guerrero, whose most famous Pacific coastal town is glitzy Acapulco. "About the only resources these people have," she says, "are non-timber products" from Guerrero's dwindling dry forests.

Six years ago GEA began working with Sanzekan Tinemi to market products from palm trees, which grow in abundance in the area. Palm fronds are sold nationally and internationally, but at very low prices. Farmers make just $6 a month from the palm leaves they harvest, dry, and braid. "Now it's clear that the resource with the most economic potential is maguey," Illsley says.

Farmers are eager for GEA's help in designing a sustainable management plan for maguey, because, she explains, "they have seen that wild agave is disappearing right before their eyes. There are communities that have been producing mezcal for 50 years, and now no plants remain."

She points out that up until some 15 years ago, it was illegal to produce artisan mezcal, a law she thinks had less to do with protecting tequileros than with discrimination against indigenous communities whose traditional cultures have been intertwined with agave brews for centuries. Once production became legal, however, the local and national trade quickly developed. "People form clubs that have contacts with someone who knows someone else in a community who has a good mezcal," she says. "It's almost an underground market, but a fast-growing one."

With help from GEA, the Sanzekan Tinemi mezcaleros created seven community nurseries that yield more than one million plants each year -- both maguey and native trees for firewood. The 40,000 liters of mezcal they produce annually require some 300 tons of firewood. Illsley notes that at first it was harder to convince farmers to plant trees for firewood, since there have always been sufficient trees. But if deforestation continues at its current rate, she worries that erosion and deterioration of water quality will become serious problems. As part of a maguey management and research project, she hopes to establish experimental firewood plantations. Meanwhile, the communities have set aside seven protected areas, ranging in size from 25 (10 ha) to 250 acres (100 ha), where cattle and all harvesting of flora and fauna are banned.

Albino Tacotempla Zapoteco, coordinator for Sanzekan Tinemi, says that GEA's work is particularly effective because the group closely collaborates with the local farmers. "Catarina and her colleagues are sensitive to the way these farmers do things," he says. "They make an effort to transfer the academic knowledge that they bring and place it in the hands of the rural producers, so together they form a practical, technical team."

Another GEA project goal is to learn more about Agave cupreata ecology in the wild, such as how many plants remain, where nursery-grown seedlings should be planted and under what conditions. Illsley also hopes to identify the plant's pollinator. While farmers point to a moth or bee, the biologist strongly suspects the plants are pollinated by nectar-feeding, long-tongued bats (Glossophaginae), known to be the chief pollinators of other agave species. Since there are numerous superstitions and ominous local legends about bats, she knows she will have to present clear evidence -- an undisputable photograph -- if her hunch is correct.

The bats have more than just an image problem. Nectar-feeding bats are in serious decline due to loss of habitat and diminishing food sources, and agave production is partly to blame. To produce tequila or mezcal, piñas are cut from agaves before they can flower, which deprives the mammals of an important food source. By setting aside forest reserves where wild agaves are allowed to flourish and flower, the Sanzekan Tinemi communities are also helping bats.

The GEA project has a $45,000 annual budget and is supported by Mexico's National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity and the National Reforestation Program. In addition, Illsley was just awarded a Kleinhans fellowship, a research scholarship managed by the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit conservation group that also publishes Eco-Exchange.

Recently, the Sanzekan Tinemi farmers formed the Association of Magueyeros y Mezcalereos de Chilapa, after the village in the central mountain range of Guerrero where a particular agave plant they call papalote de Chilapa grows wild, on just one mountain slope. Tacotempla claims that the mezcal it produces "has a very special taste." Association members cultivate the plant using only organic fertilizers and hope to eventually market the mezcal locally and internationally under a registered label called Mezcal Papalote de Chilapa.

Contacts in Mexico:

Catarina Illsley
Group for Environmental Studies
Allende 7 Colonia Santa Ursula Coapa
México, CP 04650, D.F.
Tel-fax: 5/617-9027

Albino Tacotempla Zapoteco
Sanzekan Tinemi
Tel: 75/171-351

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index.

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