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Excerpt: 'Chicle'

While a few major manufacturers in the United States were making millions on chewing gum, they were also having a major impact on the chicle extraction industry of Latin America. The majority of chicle was coming out of Mexico and was controlled primarily by the William Wrigley Jr. Company, Beech-Nut Packing Company, and American Chicle Company. Although Guatemala also commanded large chicle resources, its remoteness and transportation costs made Mexico a cheaper, more reliable source for foreign producers. Belize (British Honduras) had similar access to a high-quality product, but to increase yields chicle collectors often mixed it with inferior grades and varieties, making it less desirable to North American corporations that were concerned with quality control. The raw product was purchased directly from brokers and native producers and was often the sole source of income in some Maya towns. Workers in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize became highly dependent on North American corporations buying their product, and fluctuations in the prices and rate of purchases had a huge impact on their countries, economies. This unsustainable industry set into motion another so-called collapse of Maya civilization that continues to have an effect today.

The tumultuous relationship with the U.S. manufacturers started early on, beginning with bad weather that struck southern Mexico and Central America in 1904, resulting in a chicle shortage. This led to a dramatic spike in prices on top of the 10 cent per pound duty already being paid to the U.S. government, and caused the corporations to rethink the importation process. Within that same year, roughly 90 percent of the raw material used by U.S. gum companies was imported into Canada, processed, and then imported into the United States so that duty costs would be reduced. As a result of the increase in cost, Wrigley's and Beech-Nut attempted to procure large stands of virgin forest in the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala. In the Mexican state of Campeche, North American companies, including the Laguna Corporation, Pennsylvania Campeche Land and Lumber, and Mexican Gulf and Lumber were controlling roughly 800,000 hectares of forest.

The Mexican government had only recently regained control of Quintana Roo, which had the largest stands of sapodilla trees, after nearly a half century of Maya resistance. During this Caste War (1847-1901), Maya dissidents had successfully retained power over much of the interior of the peninsula, in part because they provided timber to the Belizean government in exchange for supplies and weapons. Mexico (under the leadership of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz) and Belize (ruled by Queen Victoria) approved the Mariscal-Spencer Treaty in 1889, which prohibited the trade of ammunition and firearms to the Maya and defined the border between the two countries. By the turn of the century, Porfirio Díaz was encouraging foreign investment and wanted to squelch the perception of Maya rebels as an obstacle to development. In 1902, the government formed the territory of Quintana Roo, and put the military in place to help control the Maya living in the region. The local population was extremely small, numbering only 9,100 people according to the 1910 Mexican census. Nonetheless, the Maya continued to maintain control of the central part of the territory, and their leaders negotiated the price of any chicle purchased from the area. As a result, the extraction of chicle was generally concentrated in the northern and southern portions of Quintana Roo. However, in 1915, the Mexican Revolution interrupted the production of chicle in Mexico and subsequently Guatemala, as it caused many of the chicleros and loggers in the bordering Petén region to move out of the area. Guatemalan chicle production was further reduced in 1916, when forces working against the tyrannical Guatemalan president Manuel Estrada Cabrera demolished the successful logging and chicle company known as Arthes and Sons. The shortages caused U.S. corporations to begin seeking out new sources of chicle in Panamá, Honduras, Venezuela, and Colombia. For a few years these countries exported thousands of pounds of raw chicle. However, this plan was soon thwarted by the inferior quality of the latex as compared to Mexican and Central American chicle, high production and transportation costs, and labor conflicts. . . .

During the early 1930s, Mexico contributed 77 percent, or fourteen million pounds, of the chicle used by U.S. manufacturers, while Guatemala exported around 22 percent, with the remaining 1 percent coming primarily from Belize. By the mid-1930s, however, serious concerns were arising about the sustainability of extraction, as careless tapping was estimated to have killed 25 percent of the sapodilla trees in Mexico. In 1942 nearly four million kilos of chicle was extracted just from the Yucatán Peninsula and sold to Beech-Nut, Wrigley's, American Chicle Company, and Clark Brothers. Although the Tropical Plant Research Foundation had undertaken a major study in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize in the mid-1930s to attempt to improve tapping methods of the sapodilla tree, overtapping was occurring. This was compounded by the fact that chicleros were paid by the pound, and they were inclined to obtain the greatest harvest in the shortest amount of time. This meant that they often disregarded sustainable methods for harvesting the crop and tapped trees when they were too young, or retapped before proper healing had occurred (generally less than three to eight years). This made the trees susceptible to attack by insects, bacteria, and fungus, often resulting in death. Researchers working for the Chicle Research Project under the auspices of the Tropical Plant Research Foundation conducted small-scale studies in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico to try to find new sources of latex to replace the sapodilla tree, but yields of other species were consistently lower. They also sought to find out whether sapodilla trees would respond like rubber trees by increasing their yield if they were tapped daily. The unhappy findings were that sapodilla trees were unresponsive and could not be tapped to the same level of rubber trees. These factors combined with the high demand for raw chicle sparked the speculation that the intensive scale of extraction in Latin America could not be maintained for more than another twenty-five to forty years without totally depleting the forests.

By the early 1940s, under the guidance of President Lázaro Cárdenas, the Mexican state controlled and suppressed the Maya rebels and began regulating the manufacture of chicle through the use of cooperatives. Most sapodilla trees were located on ejido (communally owned) or federal land, making them common property. Previously chicleros had access to these regions based on tradition and personal influence, but were now under government regulation through the cooperative system. The cooperatives, which included approximately twenty thousand workers, were run under the auspices of the Agricultural Ministry and the Banco de Comercio Exterior. In 1943, representatives from the Mexican chicle cooperatives traveled to the United States to "discuss and defend the price of chicle, one of the most appreciated wartime materials in the United States." During their meetings they emphasized that the Mexican government had added small airstrips in the Yucatán Peninsula that shortened the time needed for transport of shipments to the coast, where they could then be loaded onto boats and transported to the United States. However, their attempt to control the price of chicle ultimately hurt them.

Some North American companies, out of fear of chicle shortages and increased prices, purchased large areas of land in Latin America and propagated chicle plantations. This was despite the fact that the yields would take years because of the need for trees to reach bearing age. Gum manufacturers also sought out new regions outside of Latin America for raw materials to use in gums, such as jelutong and gutta siak latexes from British Malaya and the East Indies and wild fig latex from Africa. This greatly worried the chicle-collecting industries in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, as this had been one of their largest industries. Additional threats to the Latin American chicle harvesting industry came about in the mid-1940s with an increase in U.S. import and export taxes, and with the development of petroleum-based synthetics as a substitute for chewing gum base. Although the exact recipes of synthetic gum bases are generally kept as trade secrets, they commonly include a mixture of natural latexes such as jelutong or chicle, paraffin wax or beeswax, and polyethylene, polyvinyl acetate, and stearic acid. The need for large amounts of low-cost gum base was further inflated during the Korean War (1950-53) after the U.S. military continued to include chewing gum in the rations of soldiers.

From Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley (C) 2009 The Arizona Board of Regents.

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Jennifer P. Mathews