Chinese agave, a natural resource overexploited and on the verge of extinction

While there are 3 or more mezcal agaves, the one that captivated the palate of the region was the Chinese agave (Agave cupreata) also known as papalote, wild plants overexploited to the point of near extinction.

Chinese agave, a natural resource overexploited and on the verge of extinction
Chinese agave is an overexploited and in danger of extinction. Image: Wikipedia

Agave is the scientific name given to the maguey by Carlos de Linneo, the Spaniards used the Caribbean word maguey to name it. For the Aztecs or Nahuatl it is known as metl or mexcalmetl, in Otomí it is called uadá, in Zapotec doba and akamba in Purépecha, among others. In Mexico, we can find up to 150 species of agave, 69% of which are endemic.

Agave is exploited to produce fermented beverages such as pulque and distilled beverages such as mezcals or to extract fibers, fodder, food, etc.  Archaeological evidence indicates that they have been used for more than 10,000 years. In the centuries before the conquest, the agave was associated with fertility, eroticism, and death, and was, therefore, the central element of festivals and ceremonies.

Emphasizing in the elaboration of mezcal, between 28 and 39 species of agave have been traditionally used to elaborate mezcal in at least 26 states of the Mexican Republic. There are, therefore, a large number of mezcals depending on the species or combination of species, and the instruments and elaboration processes change from one region to another.

In 1995, mezcal obtained the Denomination of Origin, currently, under strict compliance with Mexican Official Standard NOM-070, the states of Durango, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán have been registered as protected territories and exclusive producers of mezcal.

This does not mean in any way that the quality and flavor are pejorative, on the contrary, Michoacan mezcals possess unique characteristics in flavor, when tasting the flavor between species and being made on a low scale by artisan methods, each vinata is imprinted with a select taste, just as an artist with his work, defends its authenticity, it is a similar situation with each Michoacan mezcal, the conditions that together make possible the tasting pleasure makes it art.

Presumably, its raw materials "the agaves" are obtained from wild plantations, or crops with totally organic management, for the benefit of those who consume it with moderation and better yet preserving the endemic flora and fauna of their environment, contributing to the preservation of soils.

Importance of the Chinese agave in Michoacán

In the state of Michoacán for 400 years, mezcal has been exploited in an artisanal way in several of its municipalities; however, it was not until November 2012 that it was recognized in 29 municipalities within the denomination of origin of mezcal. Although there are 3 or more mezcal agaves, the one that captivated the palate of the region was the Chinese agave (Agave cupreata) also known as papalote, wild plants overexploited to the point of near extinction.

It is naturally distributed in the Balsas depression, between 1220 and 1890 meters of altitude, in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán. It grows between ravines and slopes of pine-oak forest, naturally propagated only by seed. Despite the state in which it is found, it registers high genetic variation, greater than that present in other agaves, associated with the fact that it does not accept pollen from the same plant due to spatial, temporal, and biochemical barriers to prevent crossing between close relatives or by itself.

The tradition and flavor of regional mezcal

The mezcal growers were able to achieve that the mezcal standard allows the use of the different agave species, as long as they are not used as raw material for the production of other beverages with the denomination of origin in the same state and that they are cultivated in the states, municipalities, and regions indicated in the General Declaration of Protection of the denomination of origin in force.

This allows the mezcaleros, forgers of the tradition and knowledge obtained by generations -currently cultural heritage- who have been the creators of the different beverages, to use the varieties and species that are most appropriate for them to achieve the preparation of musts with organoleptic characteristics that personalize the beverage. Michoacan agaves, through a good artisan distillation, have come to be considered a sorcery-made liquor.

According to a publication by Social Communication of the Government of Michoacán, on October 28, 2013, in Michoacán, there is a census of close to 300 Mezcal producers, distributed in 66 communities and there is an estimated production area of temporary mezcal agave of 3 thousand 218 hectares and an established area of commercial mezcal agave of 587 hectares.

This allows for an annual harvest of 556,500 kilograms of mezcal agave pineapples, which are processed in 45 established wineries to produce 230,000 liters of mezcal per year, which in turn generates approximately 3,250 direct jobs per year. The State Government, through the Secretary of Economic Development, has allocated economic resources to benefit 36 producers through the Mexican Mezcal Quality Regulatory Council (COMERCAM).

The establishment of seed plantations is less than 15 years old; it is a system strongly influenced by the form of cultivation used for blue agave, characterized by being predominantly monoculture and intensive, environmentally unfriendly, and soil contamination due to the application of agrochemicals has been reported, Soil loss due to rain erosion and burning of weeds, closely related to the degree of slope, eradication of accompanying flora and fauna, which leads to loss of biodiversity, decreased soil water retention, increased solar radiation, temperature, transpiration, and evaporation, among others.

Plants under these factors are affected in their development and may be subject to a greater presence of pests and diseases. The way to grow naturally, healthy and in harmony with the pine-oak forest has not been assimilated yet, for the sake of the environment and the quality of health of the mezcal generated from wild plants, it is necessary to listen to the older people of the region, later some aspects of how to let nature continue to provide us with plants of the same quality, greater quantity and under small changes in the environment are addressed.

Recommendations for its cultivation

Return it to the same environment, making thinning in the pine-oak forest or the low deciduous forest, allows them to exploit averages of 1500 plants per hectare or more and conserve part of the forest. Using integrated management, the forest will provide us with plant, soil, and water conservation, biodiversity, wood for baking, and among many other benefits, the use of agrochemicals is avoided to the maximum.

In areas where the forest was eradicated and agave crops are currently established, it is necessary to establish polyculture or agroforestry systems that allow the exploitation of other annual resources in the first five years of the plantation (example: cempaxúchitl, corn, beans, broad beans, etc.) or perennials of the region (example: pines, oaks, etc.) or introduced (fruit trees: walnuts and fruit trees in general suitable to the climate).

The density of trees per hectare can range from low levels of 60-80 trees per hectare (for hardwoods) to double or triple the density for fruit trees of smaller sizes. Harvesting and tillage in these systems is solved by planting in rows and leaving access corridors for tillage. This system reduces the density of agaves (1000 to 1500 individuals per hectare) but favors the size of the plants, soil conservation, biodiversity of individuals (plants, animals, and microorganisms), and the exploitation of other plants in the short and long term.

It also decreases the presence of pests and diseases despite the common thought by the advocates of monoculture, favors organic farming, and most importantly, ensures that the agave crop is maintained and inherited healthy to their descendants.

Recommendations for conservation

The plantations could indirectly help in situ conservation of the populations, as long as they supply the high demand for the production of artisanal mezcal. In very disturbed sites it is necessary to allow reaching the terminal stage of sexual reproduction and release of seeds of a certain number of plants, this will guarantee that every year there is the possibility that new individuals are integrated or recruited in the sites to be conserved.

The collection of seeds to establish plantations are not so disturbing, because they leave some plants to fructify, maturing the fruits below, a fact that causes that enough seed escapes to the environment, thus allowing the recruitments. The change in land use and the collection of plants at the beginning of flowering for the production of an artisanal mezcal are some of the actions that most disturb wild agave populations, since both eradicate individuals from the environment without allowing them to reproduce and leave offspring in the population, for which it is necessary to establish management and conservation systems.

Otherwise, this resource will be eradicated in a few years, particularly in the state of Michoacán, where its use and actions on plants are extremely aggressive for their survival. It is necessary to generate payment mechanisms for the conservation of agave and deteriorated forests until sustainable management can be established.

As an additional concept for integrated management of agaves, in its main use, which is the production of mezcal, it is recommended to analyze the possibilities of using the waste generated by this practice, i.e. the technification in the use of vinasse and bagasse that can be used for their high content of cellulose and various substances, such as biofuels, bio-plastics, composts, cosmetics, among others, which could be marketed, thus avoiding the generation of waste that in excess represent a pollutant.

Written by Jure Teresa Toral Paz and Alejandro Martínez Palacios.

Jure Teresa Toral Paz and Alejandro Martínez Palacios are researchers at the Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Research, Michoacán University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo.

Source: Michoacan University