Daredevil gum makers stick to Maya chicle

After nearly being wiped out when US manufacturers switched to synthetic ingredients, small producers of organic chewing gum are making a comeback

By Laurent Thomet  /  AFP, TRES GARANTIAS, Mexico

Sun, Dec 02, 2012 - Page 14

The milky latex bled from the Mexican rain forest tree as Alfredo Rodriguez Arzate swung his machete, climbing the trunk with a rope around his waist and spurs on his boots.

Built like a featherweight boxer, the mustachioed 50-year-old tree climber was careful not to make a wrong move, like accidentally slashing the rope, which could have sent him into a bone-breaking fall.

“You can’t make a mistake in this line of work,” Rodriguez said as he hacked off bark about 7m above the jungle floor, creating a zigzagging trail for the chicle resin to run down the trunk and into a bag.

This is a risk taken by chicleros since the late 19th century to extract the original ingredient for chewing gum from the sapodilla tree, which has been harvested since the ancient Maya ruled the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula.

The men who dodge poisonous snakes, run into jaguars and climb 30m-high trees nearly met their demise when US gum makers switched to synthetic ingredients following World War II.

However, like the sapodilla trees, which can live for hundreds of years, the chicleros have stuck around and made a comeback thanks to Asia’s continuing appetite for chicle and soaring demand for the real thing in Europe.

For the past three years, chicleros have produced their own organic chewing gum, selling mint, spearmint, lime and cinnamon flavors in more than 15 nations, mostly in Europe, but also in Australia and Israel, under the brand name “Chicza.” Japan still imports chicle to make gum.

The Consorcio Chiclero, a company that groups 56 chiclero cooperatives, says chicle sales have jumped 47 percent, from US$1.2 million last year to US$1.8 million this year.

“If you chew Chicza, you bring the jungle to your mouth, and you also contribute to conservation,” Consorcio Chiclero director Manuel Aldrete Terrazas said, adding that the business is an incentive to keep trees standing.

Emily Segal, director of the Australian firm Organic Imports, said sales have kept growing since she first imported Chicza six months ago, spreading to a network of 3,000 organic stores and independent supermarkets.

“Upon first chew, we loved the texture and flavor of the gum and were so impressed with the pure ingredients we realized that this was something the Australian market was crying out for,” she said.

The Mayas and the Aztecs are believed to have chewed chicle to clean their teeth and stave off hunger, though historians say they likely used different techniques to extract the resin from the sapodilla (also called chico zapote) tree and make gum.

The modern chewing gum was created by US scientist Thomas Adams in the 19th century after former Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna introduced him to chicle, hoping to export it as an alternative to rubber.

Since chicle failed as a rubber substitute, Adams decided to turn it into chewing gum, said Jennifer Mathews, author of Chicle. The Chewing Gum of the Americas: From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley.

Chicle’s heyday was during World War II, when US soldiers distributed sticks of gum across the world. There were 20,000 chicleros and 5,000 tonnes of chicle produced per season at the time.

Its decline came when US companies switched to synthetic ingredients.

“It was basically abandoned by the 1970s,” Mathews said.

The Consorcio Chiclero was created to save the industry after bad management nearly ended chicle production in the early 1990s, with only 1,000 chicleros still climbing trees.

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.