Mexico: Chicle Gum from tree sap keeps cultural tradition alive

Porfirio Baños takes the measure of the chicozapote tree that he is
about to tap for its resin. He winds a rope around himself and the
tall, straight trunk that stretches towards a glimpse of sky through
the foliage above. He starts to climb. “I started following my dad
around the rainforest when I was 10 and working when I was 12,” the
50-year-old says as he cuts through the bark with a razor-sharp
machete. A bright white sap called chicle runs down the wound in the
wood, prompting a smile. “I am a chiclero to my core.”

The location is
remote, the practice old, the tools rudimentary, and the chances to
chat with spider monkeys high. But this is no world apart. Men like
Baños were at the root of one of the great consumer phenomena of our
time: chewing gum. Produced only in the jungle that straddles the
southern part of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, northern Guatemala and
Belize, chicle was the basis of chewing gum, from the little balls
first sold in New York 140 years ago to the sticks included in GI
rations during the second world war. Then in the 1950s came synthetic
substitutes that shrank the industry to a shadow of its former self.
But just as it was beginning to look as if the chicle industry would
fade away altogether, Mexico’s chicleros may be on the threshold of a
comeback: they are about to launch their own brand of certified
organic chewing gum, which is expected to go on sale shortly in
Waitrose. The epic tale of chicle goes back to 1869 when a Mexican
general called Antonio López de Santa Anna was living in exile on
Staten Island trying to raise money. He enlisted a local inventor
called Thomas Adams to test out his idea that chicle, long chewed by
Mexican soldiers in unprocessed form, could be transformed into a
lucrative rubber substitute. When vulcanisation failed the general
moved on, but Adams, left with a tonne of the stuff to shift, came up
with what turned out to be a brilliant idea. He added sugar and
flavouring, and chewing gum was born. Within a few decades the sap
once used by the ancient Maya to clean their teeth had become a symbol
of modernity. Michael Redclift, author of Chicle: Fortunes of Taste,
calls it “the American product for the American century”. Alfonso
Valdez caught the tail end of the chicle fever that invaded the still
largely virgin jungle during the boom years. “The chiclero camps were
like small towns and there were dances every weekend,” the 69-year-old
says, reminiscing about the communities accessible only by small plane
and lots of walking. “Nobody dared leave before the season was over,
and if they tried to walk out alone we would find their torn-up
clothes and assume they’d been eaten by a jaguar.” Valdez now runs a
much more modest camp at the end of a logging track on the edge of the
Calakmul rainforest reserve where Baños and another nine veteran
chicleros have lived since July and will stay until February. The job
itself has changed little, with each chiclero fanning out into the
forest at dawn alone and earning according to how much chicle they
bring back to camp at night.
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Comments (1)

Rose SheaDecember 22nd, 2009 at 1:49 pm

How to I order consorcio chiclero gum?

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