By Jo Tuckman
The Guardian, Calakmul, Mexico
Porfirio Banos 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,” Banos says.
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 Banos 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 Yucatan 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 the UK supermarket chain Waitrose.
A bonus of the new gum is that it will be biodegradable and start to break down almost immediately after use, potentially saving millions of dollars in pavement cleaning bills.
The epic tale of chicle goes back to 1869 when a Mexican general called Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was living in exile on Staten Island, New York, 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 vulcanization failed the general moved on, but Adams, left with 1 tonne of the stuff to shift, came up with what turned out to be a brilliant idea. He added sugar and flavoring, 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 Banos and another nine veteran chicleros have lived since July and will stay until next month.
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.