• Monday, December 22, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    MEXICO: Agave Sweetens Economic Prospects of Indigenous Women

    By Emilio Godoy* – Tierramérica
    EL CARDONAL, Mexico, Feb 5 (IPS) With a wooden spoon in hand, Hortencia
    Rómulo briskly stirs the amber-coloured liquid cooking in an enormous
    steel pot.

    "It has to reach a heavy boil so that the water evaporates, leaving
    the syrup," Rómulo, 45, an indigenous Otomí woman, told
    Tierramérica, explaining the process for turning the nectar of the
    maguey, or pulque agave plant (Agave atrovirens), into something the
    consistency of honey.

    Rómulo is one of the founders of the cooperative Milpa de Maguey
    Tierno de la Mujer, made up of 22 women and one man who harvest this
    spiny-leaved plant in the community of San Andrés Daboxtha from a
    73-hectare field, located about 120 kilometres northeast of Mexico City.

    The pulque agave products have become the leading source of revenue for
    the Otomí indigenous peoples in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo,
    complemented by maize crops, sheep ranching and ecological tourism.

    "It has been a long process and they have learned about many areas.
    They have received training and have strengthened the organisation. The
    women themselves do the marketing," said Jocelyne Soto, delegate of
    the non-governmental organisation Enlace Rural Regional (Regional Rural
    Link, ERRAC), founded in 1988 to promote productive initiatives in
    impoverished areas.

    ERRAC, which also has a presence in the states of Querétaro, in
    central Mexico, and Oaxaca, in the south, has backed the cooperative since
    1989, when efforts began in this arid zone to replant with maguey and
    lechuguilla agave.

    The maguey, which does not need much water to grow, is cultivated
    primarily in Hidalgo and the neighbouring state of Tlaxcala, on about
    6,000 hectares for a total of 12 million plants, according to figures from
    the Secretariat (ministry) of Agriculture and the National Institute of
    Statistics and Geography.

    The maguey nectar, made with the "aguamiel" (honey water)
    extracted from the plant, is a sweetener 1.4 times stronger than refined
    sugar and is rich in fibre and proteins. In addition, the plant's
    fructose does not stimulate insulin production like other sweeteners do.

    The agave nectar was widely consumed by the native peoples of the region
    prior to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. They also considered it
    an energy-giving cure.

    The indigenous communities used most of the aguamiel to make the beverage
    later substituted by the Spaniards with sugarcane.

    "For many years, maguey has been an important source of income,"
    Francisco Luna, an expert with the Technological University of Valle del
    Mezquital, told Tierramérica.

    There are approximately five million families in Mexico working in the
    rural economy, according to the National Institute of Statistics and
    Geography.

    By 1995, growers were looking for better crop options, because pulque, the
    alcoholic beverage traditionally made by fermenting the juice extracted
    from the heart of the maguey, had been displaced by other alcoholic
    drinks. So they learned how to extract the aguamiel and to make the maguey
    syrup.

    Incorporated since 2000 and with a "green seal" from the German
    Certification of Environmental Standards, the women operate a plant with
    the capacity to produce one ton per week, with stoves run on solar energy
    and natural gas. Most of their products are sold in central Mexico and the
    northern state of Sonora.

    The juice can be extracted from the plant after 10 years of growth. Each
    plant can undergo scraping to extract the juice twice a day. The nectar
    taken in the morning is made into syrup, and the afternoon nectar is made
    into pulque.

    Ten litres of aguamiel produce one litre of syrup. Each day, the members
    of the cooperative cook 400 to 500 litres of the raw material.

    "These days, we haven't received any orders, but we have the
    product stored and it can be sent as soon as they tell us," said
    Rómulo, who also grows maize, oats and beans.

    Several maguey-growing cooperatives have emerged in Hidalgo, focusing on
    the added-value potential and making the most of an expanding market.

    The advantage of the maguey is that the entire plant can be utilised, from
    the fibres of its long, pointed leaves, to the sweet aguamiel.

    "We need more infrastructure. Despite our efforts, the project is not
    yet sustainable," said ERRAC's Soto. The cooperative hopes to
    expand this year, requiring an injection of about 13,000 dollars.

    The Swiss organisation Globosol provided soft credits in 2006 for 15,000
    euros (20,130 dollars at today's exchange rate) to install the solar
    mirrors, which made the cooperative the first to use solar energy in food
    processing.

    "There are only a few industrial initiatives (for maguey). The
    government's support is not enough, and we could take better
    advantage of the market," said university expert Luna.

    (*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that
    are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a
    specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United
    Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and
    the World Bank.)

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