Chicle Industry

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Chicle Industry

Chicle Industry, the extraction of resin from chicle trees for use as a base in the manufacture of chewing gum. The chicle tree (Achras sapota or Manikara sapota) is a broad-leaf evergreen found in the tropical lowlands of several Latin American countries. In some regions chicle is also known as níspero or tuna. The primary sources of chicle are Mexico, Belize (formerly British Honduras), and the Petén region of northern Guatemala. Although the export of chicle never assumed great national importance, the industry was and remains significant to these local economies.

John Curtis of the United States is credited with the first commercial production of chewing gum in 1848. Curtis used spruce resin as a base, but by the 1870s manufacturers had come to prefer chicle resin. Commercial interests from the United States began their chicle operations in Mexico in 1869. A dramatic increase in chewing gum consumption took place during World War I. Advertising campaigns by the Wrigley Company promoted chewing gum for soldiers and civilians to relieve tension and satiate thirst. The growth of chewing gum sales led to the expansion of the chicle industry. By 1930 the United States imported 15 million pounds of chicle resin a year, a boom that lasted until the 1940s, when synthetic substitutes came on the market. Chicle production continues, but the industry is threatened. Competition from synthetics and deforestation are major problems. Attempts to cultivate chicle trees on commercial plantations have failed. Indeed, as of 2007 natural chewing gum only represented 3.5 percent of the chewing gum market. However, there is a growing niche market for products based on sustainable development. Thus, Mexican producers have tried to promote natural chicle as helping low-wage workers attain decent wages, while also preserving the environment.

The backbone of the industry is the individual chiclero (chicle gatherer). Although they operate out of a common base camp for several months, chicleros work alone in the jungle to locate chicle trees, tap them, and collect the sap. A chiclero might locate and tap ten trees on an average day. A single tree can yield from 1 to 5 pounds of resin, depending on its age and the number of times it has been tapped. The same tree cannot be tapped successfully for another four to eight years. Tapping requires that the chiclero climb the tree and cut a vertical line of V-shaped notches along the trunk. At the base of this line a bucket is placed to catch the resin. The accumulated resin will be returned to camp, where it is boiled down to reduce its water content and then poured into molds. A contractor pays the chiclero according to the weight and water content of the resin molds.


Robert Hendrickson, The Great American Chewing Gum Book (1976).

Herman W. Konrad, "Una población chiclera: Contexto histórico-Económico y un perfil demográfico," in Boletín de la Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas de la Universidad de Yucatán 8 (December 1981): 2-39.

Norman B. Schwartz, Forest Society: A Social History of Petén, Guatemala (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Forero, Oscar A., and Michael R. Redclift. "The Role of the Mexican State in the Development of 'Chicle' Extraction in Yucatán, and the Continuing Importance of 'Coyotaje.'" Journal of Latin American Studies 38, no. 1 (February 2006): 65-93.

Vadillo López, Claudio. Los chicleros en la región de la Laguna de Términos, Campeche, 1890–1947. Ciudad del Carmen, México: Universidad Autónoma del Carmen, 2001.

                                      Steven S. Gillick