Cochineal cultivation, an agro-ecological activity that looks good for the economy and community well-being

Dressed in red, a unique pre-Hispanic activity has come down to us: the cultivation of the cochineal grana and the extraction of carmine and carminic acid from the dried bodies of a Mexican insect: the cochineal grana or cochinilla fina, which science knows as Dactylopius coccus Costa.

For centuries, the red of the cochineal grana has dyed textiles, papers and furniture with its bright, saturated tone, as documented in the Mexican Red catalogue. The grana cochineal in art, published by the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature. He also recorded the history of various Mesoamerican peoples in codices such as those of the Mixteca: Bodley, Nuttall, and Selden; and during the Colonial period, he 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 into the spheres of political and religious power, then penetrated royal palaces and displayed its splendour in majestic garments.

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

The use of carmine declined at the beginning of the 19th century in the face of the rise of synthetic pigments, but it revived and underpinned the creations of the Impressionist painters in the second half of that century.

Today, several branches of industry demand the carmine from the cochineal, both for the manufacture of cosmetic products and for processed foods, such as sausages and red meat; for dyeing cells in pathology laboratories; also syrups and pills, as well as textile fibers and soft drinks.

This demand means that in Mexico they continue to cultivate the cactus parasite called cochineal or cochineal grana, as well as the cactus that feeds the insect, 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 bright, saturated, rich shades, ranging from light pink to intense purple.

The ancestral indigenous textile tradition 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 manufacture, crafts that purépechas 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 Cochineal and Cactus, which is located in Santa Lucia del Camino, Oaxaca, in the urban area of the Oaxacan capital.

In this site, one 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 millennial, pre-Hispanic activity of Oaxacan origin.

Nocheztlicalli has a greenhouse where you can see 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.

By Mexicanist