Copal. Purifying and sustainable aroma

Copal is a must for the Day of the Dead, as it is believed that the aroma will guide the spirit to its altar. The community of San Miguel Mininaltepec in Oaxaca is working to make the sale of this non-timber forest product profitable and benefit the family economy.

Copal. Purifying and sustainable aroma
It is believed that the aroma of copal will guide the spirit to its altar. Image: National Forestry Commission

On the Day of the Dead, copal is an element that should not be missing, it is believed that the aroma will guide the spirit to its altar. Copal resin is extracted from a hot earth tree. In Oaxaca, the San Miguel Mininaltepec Community works so that the sale of this non-timber forest product is profitable and benefits the family economy.

Copal is not just any scent. It has been used for centuries in different cultures because it is considered to purify the environment and ward off evil spirits, and it is also used as a thanksgiving or offering in different rituals and religious events, mainly during Holy Week and the Day of the Dead.

The pleasant smell is released when burning the resin, which is obtained from the bursera copallifera commonly called copal. The tree, which measures from 4 to 30 meters, grows in hot lands in states such as Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.

The use of copal dates back to pre-Hispanic times and has lasted until the present day. The demand for this resin increases during religious festivities in states such as Oaxaca, whose celebrations are of great importance for the communities where there is a mixture of indigenous roots with Christianity.

More for the living

With a cold climate in the highlands, but a hot land where it lives, the Community of San Miguel Mininaltepec, municipality of San Juan Quiotepec, Oaxaca is inhabited by Chinantecos and is rich in copal. They have within their reach this tree from which they extract the resin and use it in their altars in every way because they not only place it but also sell it and the profits are usually used to pay for the necessary materials to make the most beautiful and colorful altar of the place.

Lucas García Otero, a member of the community located in the Sierra Norte, in the district of Ixtlán de Juárez, explains that sometimes each family sells up to 100 kilos of resin, the proceeds of which are used exclusively for this purpose. However, a few years ago he was part of the Commissariat, he, along with other people have dedicated their efforts so that the sale of copal benefits the families more, instead of it is for those who have already left.

Not only have they tried to raise awareness among the population about the business it can be, but they also insist that it must be done in a sustainable way to guarantee the raw material. The National Forestry Commission (Conafor) has provided the community with support such as Community to Community Seminar, Community Forestry Promoter, Environmental Services, and support for the preparation of the Non-Timber Forest Management Program.

With this last support, one of the actions is that, in order for it to be useful and not an exploitation of their natural resource, they choose an area where they cut trees about 15 cm in diameter in the shape of a "V" and extract the resin. The following year they choose another area to let the first one recover and the third year they return and so on. Doing it this way, the tree lasts from 15 to 20 years being productive, therefore it is not convenient for the population to mistreat or cut it.

The resin is extracted only three months per year because at the end of October, November, and December the tree begins to throw the leaves and this makes it dirty, which makes it difficult to sell at a good price. They also invite the population to reforest the species so that the transfers are not so far away looking for the burseras that have grown wild. Being a fast-growing tree, it can be harvested after three years of age.

He explains that the sale of this non-timber forest product could be a real economic option for the population and thus reduce the migration problem they have, as he assures that almost 60 or 65% of the community has emigrated due to lack of work. This would benefit the young population so that they remain in the area, but also the women who have already done work because for a time they added value to the resin with handmade clay, but in the same way, due to the lack of a fair market, they have postponed it.

For a fair market

After finishing his term on the board of directors, Lucas continues his work to prevent the community from selling to middlemen who pay much lower prices. He explains that when they sell directly to the market it represents, by far, better earnings because while the kilo to the middlemen ranges between 180 and 190 pesos, offering it to the final customer the price is 550 pesos, which implies a fair price for the costs of transportation, cleaning of material, choice of the same and to cover the cost of the actions that must be done to reduce the ecological impact to forest areas.

Copal aroma.
Copal scent.

To sell the copal directly to the buyer, he packs it in bags of 50 and 60 grams that he sells for 25 pesos in the capital of Oaxaca, but he is still looking for a stable market. Lucas asks society, in general, to value the work and effort made by the community to offer a legal and sustainable product and invites them to buy the resin directly from the producers.

Source: National Forestry Commission