What’s Chicle Got to Do with Sustainability?

We believe that consumers can make a big difference in determining the fate of the earth. A good starting point is to learn where products come from and how they get to other parts of the world. Here’s the story of one such product: chicle.

Chicle and Sustainability by Glee Gum

We don’t think it will be possible to exploit the earth’s natural resources indefinitely without facing disastrous consequences. An alternative is sustainable development— economic practices that create a balance between ecology and economics, providing jobs and expanding regional development in a way that sustains the environment. This is a vision that can be supported by conscientious consumers and by the thoughtful sourcing of products. Sustainable economic systems are committed to ensuring that the products being harvested will continue to exist in the future.

For example, sustainable logging projects call for specific trees to be cut down according to a long-term plan, while engaging simultaneously in reforestation projects. Sustainable economics in forestry also focus on generating markets for non-timber forest products, such as medicinal plants, oils, nuts, waxes, and resins, like chicle.

Chicle, the sap that is used in the gum base of Glee Gum, comes from the sapodilla (ironwood) tree. Sapodilla trees grow in the forests of southeastern Mexico. Chicle is important in the forestry economy there, second only to lumber. The Mexican states of Campeche and Quintana Roo produce an average of 300 tons of chicle a year, enough to help support over 2,700 farming families (campesinos). The skilled farm laborers who harvest the chicle are called chicleros. Because there is a market for chicle, and because the sustainable harvest of it provides an economically viable way to make a living, chicleros have good reason to invest in the maintenance of the forest.

In the past (and in some places even today), chicleros had to take out loans to support themselves and their families throughout the harvesting season. Loans were typically granted by middleman contractors, known colloquially as “coyotes.” The contractors would later buy the raw chicle from the chicleros and then sell it to big companies capable of processing the chicle into gum base (a marketable commodity). These loans created a system of dependency, obliging a chiclero to work until the contractor determined that his loan had been repaid. But with chicleros mainly working to pay back loans, they rarely made enough money to cover their other expenses. Harvesting chicle was similar to indentured servitude.

Dissatisfied Mexican chicleros eventually rallied into regional cooperatives. In 1994, the cooperatives came together to create the Pilot Chicle Plan (PPC, or Plan Piloto Chiclero) –- a financial and organizational system intended to grant chicle-growing communities autonomy. This in turn led to the formation of the Natural Chicle Producer’s Union, designed to represent the interests of the chicleros and to increase sales of natural chicle. The Union’s main goal is to enter the global market and sell chicle directly to gum producers in Europe and Asia. By getting chicleros a fair price for raw chicle and increasing the demand for chicle internationally, the Union eliminates the need for middlemen. The cooperatives in turn receive higher prices for their product, and have a greater incentive to protect the forest that sustains them.

Communities living and working in the forest are often the best equipped to protect it. Sometimes conservation projects focus so much on protecting the land that they can be detrimental to the people who depend on the forest for their livelihoods and basic survival. On the other hand, commercial extraction projects that focus solely on removing forest resources may ensure temporary income for forest-dwellers, but they also can endanger the present and future stability of the forest. That’s why the National Chicle Producer’s Union, taking environmental, human, and economic factors into account, tries to empower chicleros to become stewards of the forest.

The problem is whether there is a sufficient market for sustainably harvested products. Without a market for chicle, the chicleros can’t earn a living. Enter Glee Gum! By using natural chicle in our gum base, we’re increasing the natural chicle market, securing valuable employment for chicleros, and supporting sustainable practices in the rainforest. Of course, we can buy chicle and make gum all day long, but we can only chew so much of it ourselves. We need a market for our product too! That’s where YOU and other responsible consumers come in. By purchasing Glee Gum, you too are supporting chicle-growing communities, and, in turn, providing incentive for the continued protection of the rainforest. And that is something we feel Gleeful about. Thank you!