Today about 2,000 chicleros live in small villages like Tres Garantias, a collection of modest wooden homes whose 800 residents mostly live off forestry and chicle.
The chicleros climb several trees in a day and wait hours for the latex to fill a bag at the foot of the tree, producing up to 200 tonnes of chicle per year.
After a tree is sliced, it takes seven years to heal and be ready for harvesting again during the rainy season, between August and February.
“It is the cycle of life,” said Raymundo Terron Santana, the gray-bearded 68-year-old president of the Tres Garantias chiclero cooperative.
“When a woman gives birth, she is in pain, and when the chico zapote gives resin, it is also in pain when a chiclero slices it,” he said.
After rappelling from the tree, Rodriguez headed to a jungle camp used by the chicleros to ferment the stuff over a wood fire.
He poured a large quantity of the white chicle into a cauldron and cooked it for four hours, stirring the whole time as blue butterflies flew by and howler monkeys growled in the distance.
After taking it out of the fire and stirring some more to cool the chicle, he poured it onto a cloth and molded it into a brick, ready to be sent to the Consorcio’s small chewing gum factory.
Rodriguez made 13kg of chicle, earning 810 pesos (US$62) for two days’ work, compared with the 100 pesos he can make working in the fields.
“I get to live together with nature and make money for my family,” he said.
He has climbed sapodilla trees since he was 15 years old, falling twice. Seven years ago, he broke a rib and suffered deviated discs in his spinal column. The injury sidelined him, but he is climbing again.
“God has other plans for me,” he said.