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High Demand for Tequila Puts Mexico's Dry Forests at Risk

by John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 14, 2001
 
Since the late 1990s, tequila has moved to the front of the shelf as one
of the world's most popular alcoholic drinks. Behind the scenes,
however, the trend is threatening tropical dry forests of Mexico.

The key to preventing that may lie in a bottle of mezcal, a close cousin to tequila, which is produced in limited quantities and is gaining ground as new premium alcohol.

Tequila is made from the fermented sap of a certain agave plant that is grown on plantations in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. When the popularity of tequila rose in recent years, commercial growers of the plant were caught short.


Seven years ago, faced with an apparent overproduction of the plant, they had turned their fields over to other crops. Because it takes eight to ten years for the agave plant to mature, the sudden rise in demand for tequila met with a shortage of the drink's essential ingredient.

To make up for the shortfall, tequila producers have turned to tropical dry forests in other regions of the country, such as the state of Guerrero. They pay peasant farmers a premium for other varieties of agave (also known as maguey) that grow wild in the forest and use them as a supplement for their tequila.

"This has been very dangerous for biodiversity," said Catarina Illsley Granich, a researcher at the Group for Environmental Studies in Mexico City. "If you take too many plants out, you wipe out a population. The species can become extinct very quickly."

Conservationists have come up with a plan that would reduce harvesting of the wild agave plant to more sustainable levels, thus sparing the forests from the ravages of the tequila shortage. The plan would also provide a better quality of life for indigenous people who have cultivated the plant for centuries and used it to make mezcal for local consumption.

Indigenous Mezcal

The people of La Montaña de Guerrero have been using local maguey plants since the early 16th century to make mezcal. They use timber from the area's forests, mainly oak, to stoke the fire pits in which they bake and distill the maguey into an alcoholic drink with a distinct, smoky flavor, Illsley explained.

Locally produced mezcals like this one, called single-village or artisan mezcals, have trickled onto store shelves in the United States alongside tequila, said Dave Ozgo, an economist with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States in Washington, D.C.

The agave that grows in Guerrero is unique to the area and produces a distinctive mezcal, according to Illsley. "The flavor is very different," she said. "We are trying to recognize the value of this mezcal, the knowledge people have developed over the years to create it, and put it into the marketplace."

In 2000, Americans consumed 18.3 million gallons of maguey-derived spirits, a 50 percent increase over 1995. Tequila dominates the market, with more than 300 brands available, compared with 15 brands of mezcal, said Ozgo. Del Maguey of Rancho De Taos, New Mexico, introduced the first premium mezcals in the United States in 1995.

"Tequila opens the way for mezcal," said Illsley.

Toward Sustainable Production

The indigenous people of La Montaña de Guerrero, according to Illsley, know how to manage and sustain wild populations of the region's unique agave, which is an important forest product for local people.

"Dry tropical forest is not very interesting for loggers," said Illsley. "The economically important species are non-timber or non-conventional species. Among these, maguey [agave] is perhaps potentially the most important."

Encouraging sustainable production of the plant and giving local people control of the commercial product they make from it may help to prevent overexploitation in response to the tequila shortage, she said.

In June, Illsley will begin a three-year, U.S. $30,000 Kleinhans Fellowship from Rainforest Alliance in New York to implement a plan for the sustainable production and marketing of artisan mezcal from La Montaña de Guerrero.

She hopes that the artisan mezcal, which will be sold under a trademark that belongs to the people of La Montaña de Guerrero, will fetch a similar price as a premium tequila. Profits from sale of the mezcal will go directly back to the community, a portion of which will be marked for social programs such as alcoholism treatment.

Sabrena Rodriguez, who manages the fellowship for Rainforest Alliance, said, "We believe that the project [has] the ability to transform the local mezcal industry, making it more ecologically sustainable and more socially equitable."
 

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