The world market for chewing gum is dominated by manufacturers of a product that is actually synthetic rubber, but there remains a demand for the real thing, luckily for some 2,000 Maya families in Quintana Roo.
In fact, the production of gum made from natural chicle is seeing strong growth, writes Eduardo Torreblanca in El Financiero.
Chicle is a natural gum that has traditionally been used in making chewing gum and other products. It is collected from several species of Mesoamerican trees, including the Chicozapote (Manilkara zapota), which is the most common source in Mexico.
The word chicle comes from the Nahuatl word for the gum, tziktli, meaning “sticky stuff,” although it could also have come from the Mayan word tsicte. Chicle was well known to the Aztecs and to the Maya, and early European settlers prized it for its subtle flavor and high sugar content.
Chicozapote plantations and the commercialization of chicle in the Yucatán peninsula state of Quintana Roo date back generations, although early in the 20th century Japanese interests controlled much of the market.
There was strong demand for natural chewing gum during World War II when the United States government supplied its military personnel with generous amounts of it, sourcing the product from Quintana Roo growers.
It was around that time that the Chiclero Consortium began operations, albeit inefficiently. It stumbled along aimlessly for some 50 years before state governor Mario Villanueva ordered an inspection of nearly 1.3 million hectares of Chicozapote rainforest which by then — in 1997 — had been virtually abandoned.
Villanueva was following the advice of Manuel Alderete, who also suggested he rehabilitate the consortium.
Today, Alderete is the executive director of the Chiclero Consortium, an enterprise that in the intervening 20 years has become a success story and a source of income for many of the state’s indigenous people: 70% of the company is owned by the local Maya community.
The Consortium provides a living for around 2,000 local families, many of whom have been working on the same Chicozapote farms for generations.
During the last four years, sales of the consortium’s main product, natural chewing gum, have been increasing at an average annual rate of 25%, with buyers in 45 European, Asian and American countries. Paradoxically, the domestic market is their weakest.
The growth is at odds with international consumption of synthetic chewing gum, which has been declining due to a perception that it is unfashionable and concerns over its sugar content, according to the consultancy Euromonitor International.
Meanwhile, Mayan chicle producers continue to work their 1.3-million-hectare Chicozapote plantation, which has the capacity to be expanded to more than 5 million hectares; another 1,000 are expected to be incorporated into the production process this year. Its gum has also been certified as organic.
The consortium also intends to diversify by including crops naturally related to the Chicozapote tree, such as rainforest pepper (Capsicum baccatum) and Ramón-nut, or breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum).
There is no shortage of reports offering evidence that many of Mexico’s indigenous people suffer from being sidelined and marginalized, but the story of the Mayan chicle producers is not one of them.
Prior to the overhaul of the gum-producing consortium at the end of the 1990s, farmers were left with just 45% of the value of their product. Today, they receive 85% and are beneficiaries as well of social security programs and savings funds and have access to college scholarships for their children.
Source: El Financiero (sp)