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Yucatán Rainforest Gift to the World: CHICLE LATEX

Unlike other latex-producing trees, the M.zapotahas never been successfully cultivated in plantations. Thus, chicle harvesting has always taken place within the forest. For thousands of years, the Mayan people have chewed on chicle, enjoying its naturally sweet taste and sticky texture. During the zenith of the Aztec civilization, prostitutes attracted customers by snapping their chicle as they chewed it.

The dream of converting chicle into rubber fueled the “discovery” of this material by Western industry. In 1867,  the exiled Mexican leader Antonio López de Santa Ana approached Thomas Addams, an inventor in New York City, with the hopes of vulcanizing chicle to yield a stable material. When Addams failed, he was left with nearly two tons of chicle in his lab. Remembering from Santa Ana that chicle was popular for chewing, Addams tried his hand at making gum, which in the United States at the time consisted of sweetened paraffin wax. He thus invented modern chewing gum (as well as machines for dispensing gum balls to the public).

An industry was born, and several North American manufacturers dominated the chicle business for decades to come, paying the local chicleros low wages to harvest the material in the forest and process it into blocks of raw material for export. After synthetic gum base was invented in 1944-45, the market for chicle rapidly declined. Today, small amounts of natural chicle are still used in gum, and there is a growing interest in organic, natural variants of the product, as well as in the health benefits of chewing gum. Chicle is a nontimber forest product that can be sustainably harvested while boosting local economies. Because the M. zapota tree grows in the forest, protecting these trees also helps protect the surrounding ecosystem.

Visit www.nature.org for more information on The Nature Conservancy Exhibit Design a Living World


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