It is fascinating to see chewing gum makers, or Chicleros in the jungle. Their relationship with the chicozapote trees is an intimate and respectable one. It demonstrates that men and the environment can interact and sustain one another.
“Unlike other regions in southeast Mexico, in the state of Quintana Roo, the ownership and exploitation of the forests is in the hands of peasants, with a well-defined forest section for each community.” As we walked through the forest in the town known as Tres Garantías in the southern region of the state, Piporro mentioned that this “has created awareness among the community. We are interested in the conservation of the forest,” he said, “my grandfather and my dad were both Chicleros, and here I am in the same place making chewing gum. We have 108,726 acres of land and own half of the forest, an area that is known as the permanent forest reserve. Livestock raising and cultivation is prohibited. We make chewing gum from wood, but we must know how to do it.”
This way of looking at things has its history. At the dawn of the 20th Century, when foreign companies were given concessions to exploit these forests, peasants were hired as labourers with very low wages for both the shopping of the wood and the extraction of the gum. These companies did not care about forest conservation; they never planted a tree, or respected the resting time required for gum extraction in the chicozapote tree. Herman Konrad, a Canadian researcher who studied the region’s history for many decades, estimates that during that period, in the state of Campeche, 20 percent of the trees were not able to recover, and up to one million trees disappeared between 1929 and 1930. The old Chiclero settlements gave rise to the new forest communities, which currently protect the forest productive reserves in the Yucatan peninsula.
Concessions were withdrawn in the 1930s, transferring the ownership to the local communities. This change brought immediate positive results to the quality of life of peasants; the income from gum sales increased 300 percent and several small settlements were organised and local communities established. Schools were also built and health brigades were formed until they finally they had access to running water. In a few years, these communities began to take over the entire chewing gum development. That was how the first producer’s cooperative was formed. However, in light of the decrease in demand for natural chewing gum in the international market, the industry suffered a severe decline : out of the 20,000 Chicleros active in 1942, the number was reduced to only 1,000 in 1994.
That same year, and in the middle of the crisis, activities were restructured with the creation of a Chiclero Pilot Programme in the state of Quintana Roo. This programme was developed based on direct input from producers, whose objective was to promote a new model of productive and commercial organisation. In 2003, the Chiclero Consortium was formed as an inclusive social company, which resulted in the merging of cooperative societies and the rural production in the states of Quintana Roo and Campeche. “We have reached a balance point between the selling price and the production costs”, says Manuel Aldrete, the consortium’s executive director, “with a more equitable distribution of the benefits and a greater participation of the growers in the decision making process.”
After four years of privately funded research, the consortium obtained six different formulas at the experiment level for the production of base gum as well as chewing gum. At the beginning of 2007, the consortium installed a pilot plant for the production of chewing gum and was able to adjust the formulas to produce, at the craftsmanship level, a gum made with at least 40 percent organic certified latex, mixed with scent, flavouring and natural additives, thus consolidating an appropriation process of a natural resource that has been marketed as a raw material for one hundred years.
The Chiclero consortium, which oversees the production, logistics, commerce and financing, has demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a sustainable gum harvest, produce Chicza and build a profitable business. Five years after it began, the journey to provide added value and transform the gum’s raw material into chewing gum, courage and perseverance has produced results: today, this elaborated product represents an income six times greater for a Chiclero. Each person who tries a stick of Chicza gum in any part of the world, will contribute personally and directly to the wellbeing of the gum producers in the tropical forests in southern Mexico, helping to keep the Mayan Forest alive.
We don’t know for sure if the ancient Mayas consumed chewing gum, but the Aztecs (or Mexicas) surely did. It is known that prostitutes would use it to distinguish themselves in public life, and that it was also given to children at home to clean their teeth.
According to legend, an American by the name of Thomas Adams, after failing to vulcanize latex as rubber substitute (an activity commissioned by Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna), had the genius idea to cook the latex adding flavour and sugar in order to sell it. This was the first successful attempt to market what we now know as chewing gum. But it was not until World War II when American soldiers, who used to chew gum to lower tension, were able to spread it to every corner of the world. The extraction of latex reached its peak in 1943 when Mexico exported 8,165 metric tons of natural gum to the United States.
After the war, oil-based synthetic substitutes were found, which caused the gum production to fall dramatically and only a few companies kept using natural gum. The Asian market was a big consumer of American-produced chewing gum, and the rise of synthetic gum created a need to develop their own formulas for the production of natural chewing gum, which brought their attention to the Great Peten forest.
Among its objectives, the gum consortium includes the generation of economic benefit for its members, restoring degraded areas and managing forest resources looking for their preservation for future generations. Managing of degraded areas will be done through the creation of commercial forest plantations with fast-growing native species, which are expected to generate revenue within a period of time no greater than 10 years.
The consortium has the infrastructure to produce 2,200,000 plants from different forest species to place them in commercial plantations and future maintenance.
The consortium has nearly 5,000 acres to establish and maintain its plantations with fast-growing forest species such as the breadnut, the Xiate palm tree, allspice, as well as the chicozapote tree.
The project includes the production of 660,000 chicozapote trees (Manilkara zapota), 770,000 breadnut trees (Brosimun alicastrum) and 770,000 allspice plants (Pimenta dioica) as well as the creation and servicing of a surface of almost 5,000 acres. This will contribute to diversification of productive activities of the forest resource in a land grand (ejido) surface, thus guaranteeing the protection, restoration and conservation of the environment, and contributing to a better quality of life by generating income for producers and the communities that participate in the project. The project would generate 2,000 direct jobs and 4,000 indirect ones.
Between 2008 and 2009, together with HSBC Foundation, the consortium invested 4.6 million pesos to retake 56,834 acres.
I want to actively participate in this change of consumer habits and go natural. I use social media to get in touch with my friends. I am part of the Chicza Tribe.
It is fascinating to see chewing gum makers, or Chicleros in the jungle. Their relationship with the chicozapote trees is an intimate and respectable one. It demonstrates that men and the environment can interact and sustain one another
Chicza is a 100% natural chewing gum. It is sustainably harvested from the chicozapote tree in the Mayan Forest. It is an organically certified and biodegradable gum, produced by a consortium of cooperatives under a fair trade scheme.