Rainforest Gum Gets Global Market

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Mexico is home to the second largest rainforest in the Americas after the Amazon jungle. But the country’s forests face serious threats from logging, cattle ranching and agriculture. As much as 80 percent of Mexico’s original forests have already been lost.

A group of Mexican farmers is now using sophisticated product marketing to preserve their income, and the 1.3 million hectares of rainforest as well. They are called chicleros and they harvest the gum needed to make natural chewing gum, a once-booming industry laid waste by the arrival of synthetic chewing gum in the 1950s. Their story is an excellent example of how a declining industry can turn things around with a smart plan and sophisticated marketing.

A collection of 56 cooperatives comprising 2,000 chicleros – called Consorcio Chiclero – is now making, marketing and selling its own brand of chewing gum: Chicza (http://www.chicza.com/index.php). The chicleros are supporting a community of 10,000 people across the three states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo.

Gum has been chewed in Mexico to clean teeth as far back as the ancient Mayan people in the second century AD.

The gum harvesting business was dying out and young people, put off by the low pay, were leaving for jobs elsewhere. The adminstrators of the chiclero co-operative created Chicza Rainforest Gum brand to save the industry. They made a deal with Britain’s Waitrose supermarket chain, which specializes in fair trade products, and the gum is being launched in 100 stores.

The brightly coloured packages of chewing gum are now being sold as organic and a way to preserve the forest. Frustrated by the decades of decline and attendant poverty and community decay, the chicleros decided to take matters into their own hands. Five years ago they decided to avoid the middlemen who would buy their raw gum products, and instead manufacture and market the chewing gum themselves. And it is paying off: by adding value to the raw product, each farmer’s income has grown six times higher than he would earn as a mere provider of raw material.

The gum comes in three flavours: wild mint, heirloom lime and spearmint. Future flavours will blend tropical fruits, herbs and spices.

The Consorcio Chiclero coordinates the production, the logistics, the trade and the finances for the manufacture of gum from the chicozapote tree (Manilkara zapota).

Certified organic, the Chicza gum is completely natural and free of synthetic ingredients and also biodegrades when it is discarded – a boon to city governments who hate the mess and cost of traditional gum left on sidewalks.

The farmers work in the rainforest at the southern end of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucat%C3%A1n_Peninsula), bordering Guatemala and Belize. It is a place with one of the most bio diverse ecosystems in the world, and an environment the farmers are in harmony with. The chicle gum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicle) is harvested from chicozapote trees – some living for more than 300 years – by hacking z-shaped cuts into the bark of the 100 foot trees. The harmless cuts zig zag down the tree and a bucket is placed at the bottom to collect the dripping sap.

Once collected, the sap is boiled, dried and made into a sticky paste, which is then kneaded and shaped into bricks called marquetas. Each marqueta is carefully marked by its maker. Since the sustainable management of their rainforests is certified by FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) (http://www.fsc.org/), these marks contain relevant information that tells the name of the chiclero who harvested it, and the exact location of the harvested tree in the rainforest. Few products offer such perfect traceability.

“I started following my dad around the rainforest when I was 10 and working when I was 12,” farmer Porfirio Banos told The Guardian newspaper. “I am a chiclero to my core.”

Working in a remote area of rainforest jungle with just spider monkeys for company, the chicleros are paid by the amount of chicle harvested

“We don’t kill the trees like farmers do when they clear land to grow corn or graze cattle,” says Roberto Aguilar, 60. “We leave a wound, it’s true, but eight years after it is healed and producing chicle again.”

The chicleros face two main risks while doing the job: falling from the trees if their rope gives out; and being bitten by poisonous snakes.

Chicle was once the basis of all commercial chewing gum. Beginning in New York 141 years ago, it was the only source for chewing gum until the 1950s, when synthetic substitutes destroyed the industry.

It was the economic desperation of a Mexican general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, living in exile in the United States in 1869, that gave birth to gum-chewing as a global practice. Working with a local inventor, Thomas Adams, he tried to use the chicle to make a rubber substitute. But when this failed, Adams added sugar and flavouring, making chewing gum.

Apart from being a great chew, the natural gum’s unique selling point is saving money: local governments tight for cash are looking for other ways to deal with the menace of chewing gum on pavements. A small fortune is spent every year trying to keep streets clean of gum. The British alone spend over UK £150 million every year trying to clean their streets of chewing gum.

And despite the global recession, the chicleros are optimistic they can do well: during the Great Depression of the 1930s, chewing gum was an affordable treat and sold well.

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