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Deforestation threatens the ancient Mayan practice of making natural chewing gum

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The Sierra Club talked to a family that makes gum in the Mayan rainforest. Photo: Sierra Club

Despite the odds, local cooperatives and a special consortium have succeeded in securing a future for the chicleros of the Yucatán Peninsula, reports the Sierra Club.

At 56, Alfredo Ramírez has been harvesting chicle, a natural byproduct of the chicozapote tree, for 40 years.

Chicle is a natural chewing gum that dates back to the ancient Maya civilization.

“We can tell when the tree is ready to produce,” Ramírez told a Sierra Club journalist. “It takes around seven years after a harvest to produce the right kind of sap, and then we can harvest again.”

Extracting the sap doesn’t permanently damage the tree, making this a sustainable way to make a living off the forest. Chicle production allows local communities to preserve their forests while earning income.

But the Yucatán Peninsula is “a hot spot of deforestation in Mexico, due to pressures from palm oil, cattle ranching, and soy cultivation,” according to the U.S.-based environmental watchdog group.

Global Forest Watch found that in 2016, the three states making up the Peninsula lost 95,000 hectares of forest.

Ramírez is a member of the Tres Garantías cooperative, which sells to the Chiclero Consortium, based in nearby Chetumal. The consortium processes the chicle into organic gum that will be exported to 30 countries.

Chicle was only consumed locally until Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna introduced it to American businessman Thomas Adams, who began importing it to the United States in the 1870s. Adams produced the first of many chewing-gum brands to follow.

Read more at SierraClub.org.

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