The maguey pulquero (Agave atrovirens, salmiana or americana), is a characteristic plant originating from Mexico. Its main product is aguamiel, which is used for the artisanal production of pulque, a drink that is part of the Mixtec people’s cultural tradition. Magueys, or Yaavi ndidi, as they are known in the Mixtec language, grow in the semiarid Mixteca region of Oaxaca, where the soil is low in organic material content, shallow and eroded by the torrential rains of recent years.
The project, together with the local organization Mujeres Millenarias, has planted 20,000 maguey pulquero plants, arranged as living barriers over the soil conservation works marking out contour lines, over an area of 80 hectares. To do this, the ancestral technique of growing maguey was used, interspersing the plant with the milpa system, avoiding the loss of nutrients from the soil and facilitating soil formation, retention of residual moisture and the preservation of local biodiversity. The sustainable use of maguey strengthened food security and sovereignty of the families involved (through the use of maguey in the milpa system) and generated economic income through the sale of maguey products (such as pulque and aguamiel) on the local and regional market. Furthermore, links have been strengthened with the Slow Food network, with buyers, companies, news agencies and also with local, regional and national institutions, thus increasing the promotion of the product and creating a useful system of relations for the future of the Presidium.
In an area where young people migrate due to a lack of opportunities and where maguey and its products are eaten increasingly less often with the arrival of junk food, we spoke with a young Mixtec woman, Bibiana Bautista Gaitán, Coordinator of the Oaxaca Mixteca Agave Presidium, to tell us what alternatives they are putting in place to meet these challenges.
What was your community like 10 or 20 years ago?
Twenty years ago, the land was worked more in the Presidium communities: young people, both boys and girls, were supported in their work in the fields and in the home, but in the absence of income from agriculture they began to migrate to other cities. The maguey was used and products made from it were consumed mainly within the communities; they had no value on the market and pulque was traded for beans or maize for personal consumption.
Do you have any funny stories from the project?
Something that ended up being funny was when, with a colleague from Oaxaca Slow Food, I got lost on a dirt track during a visit to the Participatory Guarantee System in the town of La Unión Libertad. At first we were afraid, but we trusted our other colleagues would look for us, so we decided to sit in the rain and enjoy the landscape of the Oaxacan Mixteca. We did not appear in the photographs, but we learned that when we go out into the field we must stick together.
What is the most important change or changes that this project has brought about?
The project has led to an increase in reforested areas with maguey, with soil conservation projects. The participants have been able to add new economic, social and cultural value to maguey pulquero products. Sales of pulque and aguamiel have increased, as has the quality, and we have been able to reach the regional and state market. We have managed to publicize the activities carried out in the Presidium in various media. Now new people are interested in joining the Presidium or exchanging experiences with us.
Which activity is most representative of this process?
The organization and coordination of producers from 3 municipalities for the revival and conservation of maguey pulquero, respecting traditional knowledge and practices related to reforestation and good practices of using and producing aguamiel and pulque.
How do you think the community will continue from now on?
The communities will continue with their maguey pulquero reforestation activities, producing and selling pulque on the local, regional and state market; promoting the participation of young people and women. Now, with the support of the Slow Food network, we are confident and certain that we have a good, clean and fair product. There are lots of people, organizations and institutions that want to know about how we work.
Has Covid-19 affected Project activities, and how have they been organized in response?
With the restriction on the movement of people, sales and consumption of pulque and aguamiel have fallen. The priority has been keeping families healthy and paying attention to cleaning and continuing reforestation. As soon as people are allowed to move around we have planned a regional fair, exchanges of experiences and the launch of a project for the conservation of maguey seeds.
How do you feel as part of the Slow Food network? What would you like us to do together in the future?
In the future we would like to have a nursery for the production of native agaves for aguamiel production, construction of a regional pulque museum to show the history, the production process and the worldview around pulque, and to obtain new food products derived from maguey pulquero.
How do you imagine your community in 10 years?
I imagine the Presidium communities with extensive plantations of maguey pulquero with agronomic and agro-ecological management, with a processing plant where new maguey pulquero products are made to offer sources of employment for young people and women, so that maguey becomes part of their economic, social and cultural life. Being model communities in environmental conservation.