In Mexico, plants from the Agave genus are called maguey in Spanish, metl in Nahuatl and yaavi in Mixtec. When these large succulents reach maturity—after 7 to 25 years—they produce a sap called aguamiel. Extracted and fermented, it becomes a nutritious and slightly alcoholic beverage known as pulque.
Over thousands of years of evolution, the agave has adapted to arid and semi-arid environments. During the night, the plant “breathes,” producing water, and during the day the pores close, creating a waxy covering to trap the water. Even 7,000 years ago, the inhabitants of what is now central Mexico already knew how to recognize the plants with the highest sugar content. They would chew the flesh and drink the sap, a life-giving substance in an area with little water.
This ancient plant has long been an essential element of the economy and culture of many indigenous and mestizo peoples in Mexico, who use it for food, beverages, medicines, fuel, animal feed, decoration, construction, fiber and fertilizer. Agave is also a vital part of the landscape, helping to reduce desertification, preserve soil nutrients, keep moisture in the soil, mitigate strong winds and ensure food security for the local communities. Sadly, however, a series of sociocultural and economic factors mean that different local varieties of agave are now rapidly being lost, along with the traditional knowledge associated with them.
In Oaxaca’s Mixteca region (between La Cañada and the state of Puebla), particularly in the Nochixtlán district, a few producers are managing to continue the traditional cultivation and processing techniques for obtaining aguamiel and pulque, which are sold regionally. In this semi-desertic area, with soil poor in organic matter, the population lives on subsistence farming. The region has high rates of poverty, marginalization, unemployment and, as a result, emigration towards other parts of the country or abroad.
In this context, El Almacén, a small hamlet in the municipality of Santa María Apazco, still enjoys a certain level of fame for the excellent quality of its pulque. The local indigenous people, particularly the mixtecos, have preserved the agave’s biodiversity and the culture, traditions and religious ceremonies associated with it. Agave-based Mixtec rituals are performed at important moments in the life of the community and the individual producers; when a child is born, an agave is planted and the placenta is buried next to it. Ceremonies thanking Mother Earth are held to ensure a good harvest, or during weddings, baptisms and community celebrations.
Twelve varieties of Pulquero agave (the agave used for the production of pulque, Agave salmiana and Agave atrovirens) are cultivated in the Nochixtlán microregion, and it is estimated that in every municipality in the area, at least 40% of the plants belong to an endemic variety.
Presidium supported by
IFAD – International Fund for Agricultural Development
Mujeres Milenarias A.C.
In collaboration with
Comida Lenta A.C.
With the assistance of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Slow Food has been active in the Nochixtlán area since 2018, working with indigenous Mixtec producers organized in the Mujeres Milenarias association. The aim of the Presidium is to protect and promote endemic varieties of native Oaxaca Mixteca pulquero agave for the production of aguamiel and pulque.
Various problems need to be resolved, from technical issues like the presence of parasites, plant diseases and soil erosion, to social challenges like the abandonment of the land by young people and the resulting loss of knowledge. Marketing is also difficult, given the lack of commercial channels that recognize the true value of the plant’s products (aguamiel and pulque, but also flowers, seeds, fiber, syrup, plants for reforestation, the leaves used in traditional cuisine and edible worms).
The Presidium intends to reforest the Nochixtlán area with 20,000 agave plants. The next step will be the development of activities to revive ancient traditions linked to the use of agave and its products. At the same time, courses will be held on good hygiene practices for all the producers. Labels will be created, and the packaging improved. Lastly, promotional activities will be organized for the local and national markets and the producers will participate in the activities of the Terra Madre Indigenous network.
El Almacén, Santa María Apazco municipality; El Fortín el Alto and San Miguel Chicahua, San Miguel Chicahua municipality; San Pedro Quilitongo, Santiago Ixtaltepec and La Unión Libertad, Asunción Nochixtlán municipality; Nochixtlán district, Oaxaca state
50 families of Mixtec producers organized in the Mujeres Milenarias association