REPORT #408 July 2001

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Some notes on this tropical crop of the Yucatan and the country of Belize.


Henequen "Green gold of the Yucatan Peninsula"

The following information is guaranteed to be either true, not true, or almost true, as the people of Mayan descent, being of a rather friendly and courteous nature, would rather invent details than disappoint their visitors by saying they don't know. The following report is based on conversations with local people during several trips to Chunkanan , which is near the town of Cuzama, which is near the city of Acanceh, which is not far from Merida in the great state of Yucatan which is found on the central portion of the peninsula of the same name located in the southeast of the republic of Mexico.

We start our adventure from Chunkanan on a small flatbed of wood, formerlly used to bring the henequen in from the sometimes far-off fields.

Across fields of henequen that are still harvested on a regular basis,we ride on the hard wooden platforms, pulled by a skeletal horse on narrow-gage railraid ties.

As the "campesino" struggles to keep the"""truck" on the uneven rails, he talks to me about his town of 50 families or so and explains the production at the hacienda.

The harvest takes place three times a year, he explains. At this time, the owners of the land will cut from 3 to 5 leaves off each plant. Some of the greedy ones have cut more, thus killing a plant that has taken 7 years to reach the maturity to be harvested. A properly cared-for plant will produce for 15 to 20 years.

The "leaves" are gathered together into bunches of 40. These bunches are then sectioned off into piles of 25, constituting a "millard." They will be stacked onto a flatbed like the one we are riding, and taken to the local "casa de maquinas," the machine house, or fiber-processing factory.

The harvester will be paid according to the net weight of his "defibered" leaves. Good quality henequen will produce 25 kilos for each "millard," lower qualities only 22. At current prices of 4 pesos a kilo, a millard can bring a worker from 88 to 100 pesos. An average worker harvests about 50 millards off his part of the land in one harvest, thus earning between 4400 and 5,000 pesos. There are three harvests in each year, so the average income is around 14,000 for the year-- around 1,300 US dollars.

Owned by a land magnate in colonial times, the factory and much of the land has been redistributed to the local people. The manager of the factory is elected to a term of 3 years; the current manager has been in charge for 8 years, because everyone thinks he is "doing a good job." It is the job of the manager to supervise the plant, hire workers, and find the best buyer for the finished fibers.

At one time the plants were run by steam, so smokestacks are an easy way to spot haciendas from a distance. Now the machinery is mainly run by gasoline-powered equipment, remniscent of the days before electric lines were brought out to the small towns of Yucatan.

As more leaves are brought in from the fields, the workers struggle to keep up, feeding leaves to the noisy machines and then gathering up the green fibers.

The waste, a worm stick green goo, is drained into pits that run away from the factory, while the odiferous solids are carted off in "vagos."

The fibers are then taken off to fields of drying racks to be bleached to a white color in the hot Mexican sun. The racks are sectioned off for each farmer.

Some of the fibers will be taken next door to be wound into rope or twine, which will be sold locally.

"Henequen is the past and the future of Yucatan," according to Jose Pinto Gonzalez, plant manager of the huge Cordemex henequen factory -- largest of the three henequen factories left around Merida. Here, the raw fibers from the henequen cactus are shredded, pulled, wound together made into rope that varies in size from fine strands used for making hammocks, twine for baling hay, to hawsers the size of a man=s torso that tie ocean freighters to docks around the world. Individual strands are sewn together to make burlap bags. The factory produces 50,000 burlap bags a day, operating in two shifts, 6 AM to 2 PM and 2 PM to 10 PM, employing 500 workers. This is down from 5,000 during the 1980's, when it was run by the government. The factory was privatized in 1990. Before privatization, workers were paid, even if they there was not enough work for them to do.

Sr. Pinto may be a little prejudiced, considering that his livelihood comes from the "green gold", as the plant was called in its heyday. I found no one else who agreed with his assessment of the importance of henequen to the Yucatecan economy. In fact, Dr. Othon Banos Ramirez, director of the Unidad de Ciencias Social of the Centro de Investigaciones Regional who is acknowledged as the foremost authority on the subject, told me that it is a non-growth industry, although he does have some ideas for its future. Sr. Failure, whose family has owned Yaxcopil, once a magnificent henequen plantation, for generations has stopped raising it commercially. "There's no future in it," he said. The family hacienda has been turned into a museum and offers a brief glance into the faded past. If you stop here on the road to Uxmal, you'll get a feeling for the days of henequen's former glory.

Henequen (which has no relationship to hemp, although many people connect the two), comes from the agave cactus and looks like a green yucca. Other varieties of agave are used to make tequila. Henequen was used by the Mayas to make string, hammocks, crude clothing and rugs -- not much has changed. The henequen boom, like the silver boom, transformed barren plots of land into acres of Eden. It wasn't until the 1800's that it came into its own. Factories were established and the end product was exported to the world. By the 1880's, Yucatan into was one of the richest states in Mexico (although Yucatan has always considered itself apart from Mexico). Henequen made vast fortunes for the hacendados who cultivated it past the turn of the century. Yucatan produced ninety per cent of the rope and burlap bags used worldwide. The hacendados lived lives of wealth and privilege, like the silver barons in mountainous Mexico. Like silver, the industry declined after the first World War, due to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution and the economic and political unrest of the period. It made a comeback during the second World War, but never got back to its prewar heyday. The advent of synthetics and the cultivation of the plant in Brazil, Madagascar, Tanzania and Manila combined to bring the industry to its knees.

Reviewing the stats of henequen production is like looking at a chart of a Wall Street or Bolsa bear market. 140,000 tons were produced in 1960 -- the crescendo of modern henequen production in Yucatan. 73,00 tons were produced in 1970. 76,000 tons in 1980 came from 135,000 hectares. In 1990, 35,000 tons were produced from 55,003 hectares.. Current estimates put Mexico=s henequen production at about 28,000 tons. The cost of fiber increased forty-five per cent in 1994-95, but the price of the final product did not. The first fiber was imported from Brazil in 1989 and in 1994 8,000 tons were imported. This was due to a decline in productivity in the campo (there are about 6,000 mostly small growers) and an increase in demand. This year, there have been no imports from Brazil, due to three factors: it is politically unpopular, factories must pay in dollars, which is harder to do since the devaluation, and local production increased.

A new use for the fiber of sisal (another name for the plant) was developed in the 1970's. It was made into rugs, but their colors faded and they were scratchy. A factory near Cordemex still turns the stringy fiber into what they call rugs, (alfombras) but are really wall hangings (tapetes). There must be some sort of trade secret there, because, it was the only factory which refused to let me in.

Ing. Manuel Vadillo Ramirez general manager of Fabrica Mayapan, took great pride in showing me the operation. He said, "Mayapan es una empresa joven y sisal un empresa antiqua." The building is one of the oldest henequen factories in Merida and the company is the newest, founded in 1993. The new owners have completely remodeled the interior, installing machines made by the British manufacturer, James Mackie, to turn the raw fiber into finished product. It employs 185 people, pays more than the minimum wage, offers benefits to its workers and produces about 6,000 tons of finished products. November to May is the highest production period, because of demand in the United States for agricultural use.

The process takes four steps. Inside the airplane hanger shaped factory it sounds like a tunnel with a roaring locomotive. Man-sized bundles of raw, yellowish fiber are fed into machines that shred and sort the matted, stringy fibers. These are rolled into coils and dumped into multicolored fifty-five gallon drums, manhandled by sweating, burly workers onto an overhead conveyer that carries them, swaying and creaking, to the next level of separating machines that reduce the fiber to finer strands. As it moves up the chain in fineness, so does the air of the factory. At first the suspended fine dust, is like a light fog. Workers wear bandannas over their noses and mouths. By the end of the process, the air is breathable. At the last thrasher, metal teeth have sorted the tangled web into distinct strands of what will become twine, rope or burlap bags. It is labor intensive, as workers must constantly monitor the machines and often stop them in order to straighten out the wiry strands. After the stranding process is complete, the individual strands are fed into machines that wind them around to the desired thickness. Hammock use four or five strands; twine, ten or more, depending on the thickness; burlap bags are woven together using giant sewing machines. I couldn't count the number of strands used to make the hawsers for ships.

Henequen's attraction is its toughness and resiliency. It is strong enough to hold heavy items, and allows enough play that it will not break under conditions that snap synthetic ropes. The John Deere company has been one of the world's largest buyers of henequen since it first became available. Its use for baling hay is unsurpassed. Attempts were made to use wire and nylon ropes, but cows ate the nylon and got sick, or cut their gums on the baling wire, or small pieces of it ended up in the cows= stomachs. It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Henequen's future? While there will always be a demand for henequen products, new ones are unlikely. To cash in on the current trend towards Natural fabrics, clothing and rugs could be developed on a commercial scale -- if a method were found to make the fiber finer and to hold color better. Dr. Banos, suggests two ways it can become a viable industry. Industry needs to find a way to raise the price of the fiber. This would seem to be difficult considering the worldwide competition. One problem is the low production in the campo. It would take an annual production of 36,000 to 40,000 tons annually to supply demand and a living wage for them. Since the individual producer shares very little in the profits of the industry, an incentive might increase production. If they formed cooperatives to sell directly to the international markets, which would encourage more production. This is likely to face strong opposition from the factory owners who argue that they are barely making a profit as it is.

Perhaps the best use of the henequen plantation today is to serve as a gateway to the romance of Yucatan's history. Kancabachen, a magnificent ex-hacienda twenty minutes from Merida, puts on a show that is like a festival day on one of these fiefdoms. It has its own chapel, rodeo arena, zoo and families that work the fields. Employees operate a Rube Goldberg setup on the lawn that turns the raw fibers into twine and weaves these into ropes. Bloodless cockfights with betting, folkloric dances and a tour of the old hacienda with elegant archways, rocking chairs on the cool veranda, glorious paintings and faded photographs and decaying books in French, Spanish and English give you the feeling of the elegance and the pomp that was henequen's heyday. Mayaland Tours (PH: 46-2331) can arrange a visit. If you really want to know more about the industry, Dr Jeff Brannon of UT El Paso has a comprehensive book called, Agrarian Reform and Public Enterprise in Mexico.

This message sent to the Bz-Culture Mailing List from "Don E Wirtshafter":

Before I answer Peter's positing about hemp and henequen, I better introduce myself. Some consider it an important courtesy on these listserves for new participants to say hello before jumping in. I have been a lurker on this list for a couple of years, intimidated mostly by this self-imposed barrier.

Like Susan, I am an attorney. Instead of litigation, I fight the beast running the Ohio Hempery. I am considered one of the earliest of hemp pioneers. My roots in Belize date from 1969 when my family hosted Dorothy Tucker as an exchange student for a year. I spent a couple years helping Peter and Rhonda Dutton homestead outside San Pedro Columbia in the Toledo District in the 70s. In 1985, with a group of friends including Connie on this list, we bought Russell Turner's property upriver from Columbia and established the Belize Agroforestry Research Station. I still serve as chairman of its owner, the Tropical Conservation Foundation, one of those do good and tie up land entities that Peter always trashes. We try! I remain active in the BARC project, though I have not been able to travel there since 1994.

You can check out our program at Forty of us contributed toward building BARC facility. We pooled our money to buy the land and have each covered all of our own expenses. We have gotten one small grant, the rest is out of our pockets. We've built a classroom, kichen, library and dormatories. The facility is mostly used by college and other groups, and mostly in the winter months. This month we are hosting the Sierrra Institute. We have a large tree nursery and give away a lot of trees to our neighbors. We have been experimenting with permaculture ways of using milpa for longer than 18 months. As long as you are planting your corn and rice, you might as well plant your bananas, papayas, coconuts and long term cover. We experiment with madre de cacao and luecena terraces. We maintain 20 acres of shade grown cacoa.

But for ten years, I have been obsessing on hemp. I started making products and offering them on our 1-800 BUY-HEMP phone line. I traveled the world researching hemp cultivation and hemp processing equipment. A few activists catalyzed what has become a world-wide movement. A lack of financing has kept my company on the cutting edge, but always broke. I am close to merging it into another business right now. The momentum all moved to Canada, where this industry is encouraged. The US was the epicenter of this industry but chased the industries away.s

Things are now getting interesting because I hear the agricultural minister of Belize has now approved hemp cultivation. This may be a rumor, if any of you have details, I would appreciate hearing them. But I heat it is a done deal.

Henequen has one advantage over hemp, you can get seeds for it that are acclimated for you local conditions. The varieties of low-THC industrial hemp that used to be grown in the sub-tropics have pretty much been made extinct by 65 years of intense prohibition. Only northern varieties are available, much better for Canada even than the U.S. Hemp is unique in that its flowering time is determined by the length of the nighttime hours. When days get short, the plant flowers. In the tropics, days are short, so these northern varieties of hemp flower way too soon. Its okay for seed production, but not for good long fiber.

It will take several years of careful breeding to get hemp varieties suitable for these sub-tropical climates back into commerce. This work was started 3 years ago in Nicaragua, but that governement with the help of the US DEA, shut down the research and held the Canadian researcher in jail for a year before he was acquitted. This work is being carried out on Oahu, Hawaii right now, but is suffering from the lack of sponsor support. Yes, Belize could grow hemp, but it is not green gold and will not be until the infrastructure including decent varieties, modern processing equipment and a supportive government is in place. At the beginning, I expect that the primary crop will be seed for food, with the stalks being used for a wide variety of innovative building materials. One of the world's best advocates for hemp building materials has recently moved to northern Belize, William Conde.

Henequen will also not be green gold until Belize gets over its paralysis and establishes a proper infrastructure. Nobody would make the kind of investment necessary under present conditions.

The technology for processing hemp and henequen for fiber are pretty similar, especially once you get past the primary processing. So on this, I may be of some help. It will never be done again by hand. Modern machine processing is the only way it can be done in today's world. There is no tolerance for dusty, unhealthier worker conditions like those described in Peter's posting.

But as for that gateway to the romance of Yucatan's history that Peter posted:

Kancabachen, a magnificent ex-hacienda twenty minutes from Merida, puts on a show that is like a festival day on one of these fiefdoms. It has its own chapel, rodeo arena, zoo and families that work the fields. Employees operate a Rube Goldberg setup on the lawn that turns the raw fibers into twine and weaves these into ropes. Bloodless cockfights with betting, folkloric dances and a tour of the old hacienda with elegant archways, rocking chairs on the cool veranda

Belize could do a lot better attracting tourists to similar operation that featured a hemp plantation. The list has not talked much about the economic advantages that Belize has attracting young tourists because of its loose attitude toward Cannabis, but Wendy and Lance and others in tourism probably understand that their clients are mostly smokers. If the police there were to announce a crackdown on marijuana, tourism would plummet, but this is another subject. Hemp is Cannabis, but it has nothing to do with drugs and cannot be abused as a drug. So better the two are never confused. Just the same, the tourists would pay big money to hang out on the veranda of a hemp plantation.

If any listers have any hemp questions or concerns, I would be pleased to answer them.

Oh yes, and I have my first trip to Belize in 8 years coming up. My wife, Chris; my 6 year old daughter, Sativa and I arrive on February 19th for a 2 week tour, mostly to our project in Toledo, but I really want to see Caye Caulker again as well. I can't wait.

After reading the dialogue for a couple of years, I feel like I know many of you. Now that I have had a chance to introduce myself, expect me to jump into the fray more often.

Don Wirtshafter, Ohio Hempery Inc.

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