Cochineal cultivation, eco-friendly activity for economy and community welfare

13/11/2020

Dressed in red, a unique prehispanic activity arrives at our days: the cultivation of the cochineal grana and the extraction of carmine and carmine acid from the dry bodies of a Mexican insect: the cochineal grana or cochinilla fina, known to science as Dactylopius coccus Costa.

The red of the grana cochineal has dyed textiles, papers, and furniture for centuries with its bright, saturated tone, as documented in the Mexican Red catalog. The grana cochineal in art, published by the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature. It also registered the history of diverse Mesoamerican towns in codices such as those of the Mixteca: Bodley, Nuttall, and Selden; and during the Colonial era, it inked religious texts, executions, and choir books.

Europe also wrote with grana the codices of the Borgia Group and those of the Vatican, among others, and the same carmine gave prominence to the Japanese print.

Its range of reds crossed the seas and nourished the European sacred and profane art for more than three centuries, which for the Spanish Crown represented a wealthy vein when the ships arriving from New Spain unloaded three treasures: gold, silver, and carmine. Mexican red, catapulted to the spheres of political and religious power, then penetrated regal palaces and showed off its splendor in majestic garments.

The great painting masters of the 17th and 18th centuries, and even the 19th century, such as Titian, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Velazquez, Zurbaran, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt, assessed its quality and displayed in masterpieces "the red color of wine, warm and alive as wine", as expressed by Van Gogh.

The use of carmine declined in the early 19th century due to the rise of synthetic pigments, but it revived and underpinned the creations of impressionist painters in the second half of that century.

Today, several branches of the industry demand the carmine of the cochineal, the same for the elaboration of cosmetic products that for processed foods, like sausages and red meats; to dye cells in pathology laboratories; also syrups and pills, as well as textile fibers and soft drinks.

This demand prompts Mexico to continue cultivating the cactus parasite called cochineal or cochineal grana, the same as the cactus that feeds the insect, in order to extract carminic acid when they crush the already dry body of the female, a material to which they add substances of different acidity to create brilliant, saturated and rich tones, ranging from light pink to intense purple.

From the Mexican insect cochineal, carmine is extracted and printed on universal masterpieces and Mesoamerican and European codices; but crafts are also pigmented and diverse industrial branches are colored.

The ancestral tradition of indigenous textiles reaches our days through the application of the cochineal grana in popular art. The artisans preserve old techniques and original recipes, or, they incursion with new techniques in their creations of maque: linaloe boxes, jícaras, and trunks, furniture of the fine invoice, crafts that Purepecha and nahuas have dominated from the Virreinal time.

The cultivation of the cochineal and cactus grass brings environmental, economic, and social benefits, which can be seen at Nocheztlicalli, the Ecological Museum of Grana Cochinilla, and Nopal, which is located in Santa Lucia del Camino, Oaxaca, in the urban area of the capital of Oaxaca.

In this site, you can learn about the benefits of these activities: generating jobs, exporting the insect, recovering eroded or eroding soils, recovering flora with the establishment of cactus gardens with a triple purpose: vegetables, forage, and cochineal production, and preserving a millenary, pre-Hispanic activity of Oaxacan origin.

Nocheztlicalli has a greenhouse where you can observe the organic cactus stems hanging with insect broods that can be observed with the help of magnifying glasses. There, the process of obtaining color and its different shades is demonstrated, as well as how the threads are dyed to make the wool rugs.

It is also possible to get to know the dye in powder and liquid in different shades, and also to acquire the dry grana per kilo or in powder, among other products, or simply to color or create drawings with the grana to take them as a souvenir.

Schools from elementary to high school can organize visits for children and young people to learn about the insect and the use of its acid. Talks are also given to municipal authorities with the purpose of encouraging the production of cochineal grana to benefit their communities.

Students from various institutes in Michoacan, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas have come to receive advice on the cultivation and breeding of the insect and exchange information to promote production.

Nocheztlicalli has obtained state and national recognition for the quality of the grana it cultivates and for the research, it has carried out on obtaining shades and their application. In addition, it has trained young people, women, and farmers in the breeding, use, and management of this cactus parasite, and offers courses and workshops to entrepreneurs and small producers, as well as to establish cactus gardens, and gives workshops and dyeing courses for the development of micro-enterprises producing natural dyes.

Producers from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, and countries such as Ecuador and Panama have been advised for the breeding of the insect, as well as for the elaboration of the thesis on the subject and for the purchase of fine cochineal in breeding grounds.

With all this work, Nocheztlicalli seeks to develop this agro-ecological activity on a large scale to create jobs in the capital of the state of Oaxaca and be able to export the insect and carminic acid.