Fiber Extraction Remains Second Most Important Activity Associated with Maguey in Oaxaca
Rarely do we consider the spirits that we drink as the (agri)cultural products that they are, their impact on producing communities, and on the environment.
In the state of Oaxaca, only 9% of the land is suitable for agriculture because of its mountainous terrain, meanwhile, a staggering 90 percent of all mezcal produced is made in that state.
Predating its distillation into spirits by thousands of years, the succulent was domesticated by Mesoamerican civilizations for its utility. It was used for building materials and natural land barriers, fashioned into rope for hammocks, shoes, and fishing nets. And was consumed for calories once oven-cooked.
The first clues of agave fiber use date back to twelve thousand years from the Guila Naquitz cave, the same site where the oldest domesticated maize (teosinte) was identified in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys.
Today, fiber extraction from the leaves of the plant (shown here) remains the second most important activity associated with maguey, however it is an activity that is labor intensive and undervalued.
Because only the heart of the plant is used in the making of mezcal, the leaves are, more often than not, left in the fields to compost. However, in increasingly larger quantities exacerbated by growing global demand of the spirit, they threaten to cause ecosystem imbalances.
In my, Food Futures: The Anthropocene, class with professor Stefani Bardin at New York University last semester, I argued for the bolstering of the activity since the natural renewable fibers present in these leftovers can reduce the need for the extraction of new materials while generating additional economic pathways for fiber artisans and technicians while closing an important loop in the mezcal making process by recovering and diverting these underutilized materials.
There are people working in this area. In April, I visited an artisanal paper maker in San Agustín Etla, El Artesano Taller De Papel. They process an array of natural fibers into gorgeous labels for spirits brands and other uses. The agave fibers that they use come from the mezcal industry- from the bagasse as well as fibers from the leaves- and can be colored with natural dyes like indigo and cochineal.
And Hermano Maguey is a social impact project working with an Indigenous community in Oaxaca to empower women and strengthen the practice of weaving with agave fibers.
You can learn more on their website linked here: https://www.hermanomaguey.com/
Once I had maguey leaves in my possession, my home fiber extraction process included heating the leaf to break down the cellulose, the removal of the sharp spines, and the separation of the fibrous structures that do tear apart pretty easy.
After soaking in water, I removed by hand the remaining pulp (easy but super tedious) from the strongest fibers and was left with this bundle (on the right). The cleaner the fibers are the more tender they are, so an additional cleaning is necessary to be able to make them into thread or yarn. And I did not have enough fuel in my home gas tank to facilitate creating a pulp for paper from my own left overs.