Permaculture and Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico

Spread the love


A few years ago I was leading a group of travelers to the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca on a mezcal educational excursion. Mezcal is the agave based spirit produced in Mexico dating back to anywhere between the 1500s to over 2,000 years ago, depending upon to which theory of the history of distillation one subscribes. In the course of visiting a number of small, artisanal distilleries, or palenques as they’re known, we attended a co-operative in the village of San Baltazar Chichicapam (“Chichicapam”). There were about a dozen men, women and children pitching agave hearts known as piñas into an in-ground oven on top of and around a mound of rocks, below which were flaming logs. They were members of the indigenous Zapotec ethnolinguistic group. They working feverishly. My clients were intrigued. Some began photographing, while others offered to assist the workers. My clients asked me a plethora of questions about what they were witnessing. I explained how the co-op worked. One exclaimed “this is a classic example of permaculture.”

I had heard of the word permaculture and had a rough idea of what the term connoted. I was curious to learn more, so after the conclusion of the mezcal tour I went home and looked up the word online. I found definitions, and more detailed explanations some of which placed the term in historical context. Sustainability was one of the recurring themes. I had already been writing about mezcal and sustainability for quite a while.

Over the ensuing days I began to consider that indeed what my clients had witnessed was what permaculture was all about. I still did not grasp the difficulty in arriving at a single definition. This became more difficult within the context of agave and mezcal production and the implications for the broader community; that is, the culture. But what I was able to glean from my cursory review of the literature was that not only were these particular villagers practicing permaculture, but that the industry sustainability about which I had been writing was actually part and parcel of the concept.

Over the subsequent months I struggled with three issues: better understanding the various permutations of permaculture; selecting case studies of mezcal production and permaculture for a proposed book project; and trying to convince an American photographer friend who had been shooting all aspects of mezcal production for about 20 years, that it would be in his best interest to participate in the endeavor. The undertaking stalled. However since then, that is periodically over the past three years, I have not only continued to ponder permaculture within the context of mezcal production, but have come across aspects of their connection which I had not previously considered, certainly to a sufficient extent. One such dimension is the importance of anyone associated with the industry being cognizant of the possible adverse sequelae of not addressing water issues. The “mezcal boom” might not be all good for everyone for all time. Solutions fall more within the purview of applied anthropology, rather than how I have conducted my academic endeavors over the past few decades. My approach has been more to observe, understand and teach; rather than to observe, assess and improve. I suppose it’s because I am a product of 1970s social anthropology, trained to be more than anything else an ivory tower academic.

This article, perhaps a pilot project of sorts, works towards an all-encompassing definition of permaculture using the Chichicapam co-operative as a foundation for understanding the term within the mezcal industry. It touches upon other aspects of mezcal production taken from other palenques which could form the basis for additional case studies. These illustrate indicia of permaculture not necessarily evident in Chichicapam. The article only tangentially touches upon what I consider the main danger the industry faces, that is water, in terms of maintaining sustainability and advancing permaculture tenets.

Three final caveats are:

(1) Many aspects of agave growth and its use for making mezcal as well as other products, and industry sustainability, are not included in this article, primarily because I have written about them elsewhere. Some, however, are included, but only to the extent that they relate to the Chichicapam case study.

(2) This is not a primer on mezcal production, so the reader interested in just permaculture who has little if any knowledge of Mexico and mezcal, may be at a disadvantage. However, interspersed throughout the study are some of the basics of how agave is employed to produce the spirit, the use of waste product, and of course the interaction between humans and their physical environment. The corollary is that it is hoped that mezcal aficionados will gain a better understanding of the concept of permaculture and how it intersects with mezcal production.

(3) No footnotes or references are included, specifically for the portions regarding coming to grips with defining permaculture, although several sources have been consulted. It is my synthesis of the literature, for better or worse.

I will examine the workings of the Chichicapam co-op palenque, then put together a workable definition of permaculture which can be applied to the particular distillery, and finally go back to the palenque and examine its workings within the context of how I perceive the interplay between artisanal mezcal production on the one hand, and sustainable agriculture and permanent culture on the other.

Mezcal Production at the Co-operative in San Baltazar Chichicapam, Oaxaca

Fortunato Hernández, wife Victoria Martínez, their daughter Estela and son-in-law Pedro are tossing píñas onto a mound of hot rocks built atop blazing tree trunks, all in the pit-in-the-ground oven. The family is working at the co-op palenque in Chichicapam owned by Angélica García. Member participants pay her in mezcal for use of the distillery. By all outward appearances and in terms of how the palenque functions, this is a communal effort and does indeed represent permaculture at its best. I doubt if anyone using the facility has heard of permaculture. No matter, since neither did cultures practicing it thousands of years prior to when the term was coined, or perhaps even contemplated.

The rocks being employed by Fortunato and his family have already been covered with wet fiber known as bagazo, discard from the distillation process now being used to insulate the piñas from direct contact with the stones. The family is being assisted by four hired day laborers. Others at the palenque are also pitching in as needed, although their primary tasks are attending to their own mezcal production operations at the distillery.

Inside the covered portion of the palenque Alfonso Sánchez is working a horse, egging him on to pull a large limestone wheel known as a tahona over the batch of baked agave piñas he had cut with a machete into small more manageable pieces the day before. As a quantity of agave, locally known as maguey, is crushed, Alfonso loads it into a wheel barrow, pushes it up a wooden ramp and dumps it into a pine slat fermentation vat known as a tina. His wife has arrived with his hot lunch, though it’s a little early since Alfonso must first finish the task at hand before the mid-afternoon heat makes it too grueling for the horse to continue beyond the customary five or so hours of work daily.

The wheel barrow is being shared with Lázaro Mendoza, yet another palenquero working with his own family and fellow villagers. They’re using all three copper pot stills or alembics at the same time, in the process of doing a first distillation of Lázaro’s fermented mash. The fruit of this labor, the first distillation, is not even known as mezcal, but rather shishe. There are four men working in this group, together engaged in different stages of the distillation process. One is pitching fully fermented fiber into the wheel barrow, another is filling buckets with the liquid; it is collectively known as tepache. They’re loading up a still. Another is stoking the fire under a second still, while the fourth is replacing a full bucket of shishe from beneath the spigot with an empty receptacle.

The palenque is used by 10 – 15 families, all Chichicapam residents. It was built by Pablo García, Angélica’s late husband. He died in a car accident eleven years ago. Prior to his death Angélica was a housewife raising the couple’s four children. Angélica had been involved in mezcal production to the same extent as other wives in Chichicapam, and no more. She was thrust into the role of owner after her husband’s passing. Quickly she began to receive assistance from her husband’s palenquero friends, with whom she had of course already been acquainted. She readily garnered their respect, which remains solid to date. She no longer requires any assistance, having learned the ropes through sink or swim initiation.

Prior to the construction of the palenque, the tradition had been for the artisanal mezcal producers in Chichicapam who did not have their own facility, to rent from other owners. The producers had been paying the palenque owners 25 liters of mezcal for each tina of tepache filled. A tina should produce anywhere from 60 to 120 liters of mezcal, depending on the type of agave being processed, time of year harvested, the particular micro-climate in which it is grown and the skillset and knowledge of the palenquero. Accordingly each palenquero had been paying a consider percentage of the yield for the right to use the tools of the trade owned by others.

Pablo used savings and borrowed funds to build the co-op in 1996, as a means of reducing his own production costs, and just as importantly those of his villager friends. Initially he did not charge them for use of the palenque. He then began charging two liters per tina. The amount currently charged by Angélica is 7.5 liters, but it can vary depending on the quality of mezcal produced (taste, percentage alcohol, type of agave, etc.). Anyone can use her palenque. The “regulars” produce a fairly consistent product. With the others, there are sometimes quality issues, and accordingly it is with these producers more so than with the others that the amount charged sometimes increases.

The palenque consists of a sheltered area housing the three copper stills, ten tinas, the shallow pit used for horses to pull the tahona over the baked chopped sweet agave, and a storage room where both mezcal and readily removable parts of the still (i.e. copper) are locked inside to prevent theft. Outside there are a couple of acres of land where there are two ovens. One holds up to 15 tons of piñas, and the other up to 12. The larger one is currently not being used because it requires a lot of firewood.

The land surrounding the palenque is also used to temporarily store the spent bagazo, the mounds of firewood owned by different palenqueros waiting for their turn to bake their agave, the piñas, and often a horse waiting to be taken into the covered area to work. Angélica does not supply the beast of burden. If a palenquero does not own a horse he rents one for 150 – 200 pesos per day.

Angélica retains ownership of the bagazo. It is most often used as mulch. She either has it trucked out to her own fields of agave or other crops, or sells it to the palenqueros or anyone else interested in buying it for use as compost or mulch. She also uses the bagazo as part of a soil mixture she places in small plastic bags to grow her tobalá agave from seed.

When Fortunato, Alfonso, Lázaro and the other participating palenqueros have harvested their agave, they take it to the palenque and leave it in mounds segregated from those of others. Only infrequently does a palenquero have enough of his own agave to fill even the smaller oven, and hence he waits until other palenqueros have arrived with their own agave. That’s the norm. Two, three or four palenqueros bake their agave in the same oven at the same time to economize on the cost of firewood. Whether you’re baking 5 tons or 9 tons, the amount of fuel required to keep the oven hot for five days remains essentially constant.

The first to arrive at the palenque with agave is entitled to the first opportunity to bake; then the second, and so on. There’s an order to things. All that Angélica stipulates is first come first to have the right to use the oven(s). The palenqueros work out the rest, in terms of the order for crushing, fermenting and distilling. There are rarely disputes.

Angélica keeps a notebook in which she records who is using how many tinas. She must therefore attend at the palenque on a regular basis. She lives only a six or seven minute walk away. When the mezcal has been distilled, the palenqueros attend at her home with payment. It is at this time that she may sample to ensure the quality is up to snuff, and deals with any issues dictating a higher payment. With her regular producers she generally does not test quality.

Angélica usually sells the mezcal she receives from her home. On a regular basis she sells to her mother-in-law who takes it to Oaxaca for sale to her own regular customers. Angélica does not blend the mezcal provided to her, but rather keeps it separated. Everyone’s product is a little different, and there is no need to mix together batches of the agave spirit from different palenqueros.

Chichicapam was founded in 1583, a satellite community which since the outset has remained an agricultural community under the sphere of the state capital. The most recent comprehensive census figures reveal that it has 655 households comprised of a total of 2699 residents, with an almost equal number of females and males represented (1446 and 1253 respectively). This is an unusual ratio given that Oaxaca is the second poorest state in the country, characterized by significant adult male emigration out of economic necessity.

The women to men ratio in Chichicapam is 1.154. By contrast, in nearby communities which do not produce mezcal, the ratio is skewed. For example in San Marcos Tlapazola, San Bartolomé Quialana and San Lucas Quiavini, the ratios are respectively 1.481, 1.34 and 1.318, with a conspicuous absence of adult males in the streets or working the fields close to the villages. It is suggested that Chichicapam’s numbers are a direct result of the co-operative palenque’s ability to keep men in the village as a consequence of enabling them to eke out a reasonable living – harmoniously working together to produce mezcal for their mutual benefit while at the same time maintaining productive land.

Towards a Definition of Permaculture Applicable to Artisanal Mezcal Production

In 1978, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison first coined the phrase permaculture, as a design concept mirroring how systems in nature survive, continue and prevail. At the time it was meant to combine the words permanent and agriculture, and referred to extending what had been observed in nature, to how humans might conduct their agricultural lives. It was a philosophy of design principles for sustaining the environment and hence making it viable on an ongoing basis for human benefit through wise use of land, crops, nature and water. The seeds for the term’s initial development by Holmgren and Mollison dated to earlier written works by Joseph Russell Smith in 1929, Toyohiko Kagawa and Masanobo Fukuoka in the 1930s, P.A. Yeomans in the 1940s and 1950s, and others such as Stewart Brand, Ruth Stout and Esther Deans. These treatises centered upon the maintenance and sustainability of natural systems through human sensitivity to and the development of, inter alia, orchards, gardens, landscapes, water supply and distribution, crops and “natural farming.” Non-human animals were sometimes integrated into the theses.

Then, a decade after the term was first promulgated by Holmgren and Mollison, Mollison with Reny Mia Slay authored a more comprehensive work, Introduction to Permaculture. Mollison subsequently wrote Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. In short order the term began to include and stand for, at least to Mollison, permanent culture as well as agriculture. That is, concepts, philosophies and design strategies not only for the benefit and maintenance of natural systems, but also of humans as both individuals and members of families and communities.

However to date many authors continue to write about permaculture without integrating the healthy maintenance of our own specie into the concept. I suppose at least part of the motivation is to financially capitalize upon the movement towards maintaining sustainability of only the physical environment through being sensitive as to the “how,” and bandying about terms such as organic and natural and all else that is “touchy feely” and protects our land, plants, animals, rivers, lakes and oceans. But the preferred understanding, I suggest, here and now in the 21st century, whether or not mezcal is considered, is to include human beings in the discussion as integral parts of the whole. If we return to what impressed my clients at the Chichicapam co-op several years ago, it was indeed the integration of human and natural systems, the ways in which the villagers advanced their economic goals as efficiently as practicable without adversely impacting the environment and in fact improving it for nature and for themselves.

Within the context of mezcal, agave, the broader environment and human settlement, I suggest that permaculture is, or at minimum should aspire to be the following: the intricate and harmonious weaving together of what nature can provide in a microclimate, with material goods, and human needs/aspirations, in an ethical manner which while minimizing adverse impact, self-sustains the complete system as well as advances it to an optimum, realistic and attainable extent.

Permaculture and the Co-operative Mezcal Distillery at San Baltazar Chichicapam, Oaxaca

The tools of the trade required to produce mezcal in the co-op, and in fact in most artisanal palenques in the state, are by and large sourced locally. They include:

• Copper stills of about 300 liters in size, fabricated at two workshops in the town of Ocotlán which is less than a half hour’s drive from Chichicapam (although they can be purchased in the state of Michoacán, for a little less of a capital outlay).

• Wooden slat fermentation vats again produced locally.

• Iron implements used to cut the agave out of the fields (i.e. machetes) which have been hand forged in Ocotlán since the 16th century.

• Limestone mined from nearby quarries, required for wheels for crushing the baked carmelized agave.

• Stone and gravel for encasing the wheel and the copper still.

• Clay pots for storing and transporting the mezcal, although more recently glass, plastic and stainless steel have been employed.

• Locally collected rocks for the oven.

• Wood for fueling the ovens and the stills. Typically hardwood logs for the stills are cut from forests a couple of hours away from Chichicapam, or more locally by palenqueros who head out early in the morning with their donkeys and burros. It can also be purchased from lumberjacks who cannot secure as high a price for “seconds” as they can with quality trunks which can be used in the lumber industry. Also, for the stills the palenqueros can use dried agave leaves, kindling they source from the hills, and/or discards from the debarking industry, that is bark with wood still attached which is shaved from trunks to produce lengths of lumber. Some brand owners in the village have embarked upon reforestation projects so as to ensure an ongoing supply of wood to fuel ovens.

• Water from wells, although with climate change there has been a water shortage in Chichicapam for the past couple of years, the further details of which, and other matters relating to water, discussed below.

• Agave cultivated or harvested wild from the nearby hills. For the former there are three predominant means of reproduction: harvesting and transplanting pups or hijuelos naturally thrown by the mother plant, germinating seeds harvested from the flower stalk known as the quiote, or by obtaining baby agave naturally self-pollinated or by manual pollination. In Chichicapam a program has begun to ensure that there will be ample wild agave in the future, such that the municipality dictates that for every wild agave for which permission has been granted to harvest, two small agave must be planted. Chichicapam understands that the mezcal boom has the potential for spawning economic fortune down the road provided that care is taken to ensure an ongoing supply of, for example, wild agave.

• The buildings for storing mezcal and some parts of the copper stills, and for sheltering the stills, the vats and the crushing area, have been constructed with almost entirely locally produced materials including clay bricks and roof tiles and adobe.

While not part of this particular palenque, perhaps noteworthy for a subsequent project on mezcal and permaculture, about a 20 minute drive away there are numerous “ancestral” distilleries which produce in clay pots. The raw material used in their production is sourced from in and around the nearby town of Atzompa where they are fired. Within the same proximity to the co-op is a more traditional palenque which has constructed one of its copper alembic casings using an old dump truck tire rim.

But it was learning about the human factor that impressed my clients to the extent that they believed they were witnessing a dynamic example of the permaculture I have set to define. The following are some aspects of mezcal production at the co-op which are consistent with the healthy, productive and sustainable tenets of the permanent cultural side of our definition:

• The premature death of Ms. Garciá’s husband could have spelled disaster for her and her four children. But the acceptance of and respect for her which quickly arrived in the village enabled Ms. García to thrive. Getting paid in mezcal rather than currency has enabled her to sell the use of her palenque without worrying about getting paid. For those readers who are old enough to recall, Ms. García need not worry about being approached with “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Despite the lingering machismo in much of Mexico, she has managed to succeed for the benefit of not only herself and her family, but also for her village.

• Regardless of how much maguey is being baked, the amount of firewood required to fuel the oven for five days is the same. And so the economic benefit for the palenqueros of combining the agave they are able to readily harvest without it drying out rather than waiting until ten tons have been accumulated of their own, with the maguey of others who contribute their fair share of firewood, is remarkable.

• The palenqueros harmoniously work out the schedule between themselves as to the order of using the crushing area, fermentation vats, and stills.

• Each understands the importance of keeping the storage room locked at night which reduces to close to zero the likelihood of theft of mezcal and valuable pieces of copper. Because Chichicapam is a small village with self-government and policing, trust is able to run deep.

• While palenqueros at times hire day laborers, as indicated the norm is also to call upon family and extended family members, as well as others working independently at the palenque to pitch in as required.

• Not only labor, but also equipment is shared.

• Three, and at times four families can work at the Palenque at the same time, each attending to its own stage of production.

• Rural southern Mexico has traditionally been subject to emigration by adult males to the US in search of work. This is backed up by the male to female ratios in a few villages, as noted above. But the ratio in Chichicapam is essentially 1:1, an anomaly for the region. Yes the mezcal boom has spawned a lot more work for villagers, both male and female, but the figures suggest that this particular locale, in large part because of the successful running of the co-op, has been able to retain a disproportionate percentage of adult males relative to what happens in other towns and villages. And, Chichicapam boasts more paved roads and later model vehicles than surrounding villages, which would suggest in large part because of the efficiency of the co-op, and/or others in the village in the industry. Palenqueros are able to retain more money for self and village improvement than residents of other villages. Government does provide grant money for bags of cement for paving projects, but often families must pay for the sand and gravel, and the labor, for paving, made possible because of how the village, including of course the co-op, is managed. Ms. García’s co-op has kept palenqueros in Mexico.

With tools of the trade and means of production (that is the human element) having been illustrated within the context of permaculture, the final component which factors into our definition of the term is how artisanal mezcal production at the Chichicapam co-op generates no “waste” within the traditional sense of the phrase. Put another way, in the positive, the palenque recycles. But these particular villagers have a long way to go in advancing in this regard, so we should perhaps look at the industry in a more general sense, not without noting the main shortcoming facing both the co-op in particular and hand-crafted mezcal more generally; water.

Mayahuel is the pre-Hispanic goddess of agave. The succulent warranted such reverence because it gave so much to humankind. It was literally worshipped. And today it continues to give, but more so within the context of mezcal production:

• Because the oven is airtight, the wood at the bottom of the pit does not burn down to ash. It becomes charcoal. Three of the main uses for the carbonized fuel are: for cooking by the paenquero’s family, for resale to others who similarly use it since it is sold for much less than traditionally produced charcoal, and as fertilizer for growing agave and other crops.

• The ash from the still is also used as fertilizer.

• The bazazo, that is the waste fiber removed from the still after the first distillation, is used for more than insulating the rocks from the piñas. It is utilized as compost, mulch, when mixed with soil as a starter for baby agave plants, and in making adobe bricks for home and other construction. It is used to make paper, planters (which can then be put directly in the ground when the roots get too big), filling ruts and potholes in dirt roads, and as substratum for growing mushrooms commercially in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca.

• When the clay pots break in the course of ancestral mezcal production, the shape often remains intact, so they are used as planters.

• The leaves and the quiote (flower stalk) left on the ground after the piñas are been harvested are dried and used primarily as firewood by other villagers; to fuel kilns for making pottery; comals for making tortillas; pots for cooking moles, salsas, coffee; and a plethora of other purposes. The quiote, which can extend to 30 feet, is also used as a construction material.

• Leftover tail end from the second distillation with its low alcohol content, is used for curing containers, readying them for use in storage, transport and sale of mezcal.

However water is the issue which has not yet been adequately addressed. If not the lifeblood, then certainly it is one of the most important aspects of mezcal production, both as the coolant for condensers and as one of the two principal components of the agave distillate.

There has been a concern that because of the dramatic increase in mezcal production, the effluent which is often simply discarded after the initial distillation and left to filter into the water table, can potentially harm humans because of its chemical composition. While there are efforts being spearheaded to address the problem in the nearby town of Santiago Matatlán, through design of purification facilities of sorts, change comes slowly. At the Chichicapam co-op, during the dry season when water is the scarcest, it is sometimes re-used as the coolant for the copper serpentine condensers. But more generally water is in short supply in the village both for adding to the baked crushed agave in the fermentation process, and for use by the villagers more generally. The well at the Fortunato Hernández household has been dry for two years.

As contrasted with copper distillation wherein the water in the tank housing the copper serpentine need not be continuously exchanged (once a week is sufficient though not optimum), at palenques distilling in clay the water must be continuously exchanged. Often it is simply allowed to filter into the ground.


Palenqueros will come to realize that they must further adapt in order to economically benefit from the increased demand for artisanal mezcal. This is in both towns and villages where for now water remains plentiful, as well as in other areas in need of more water. Water is far from the only concern. Ingenuity of the human condition has brought them to where they now are, by living permaculture. And so there is good reason to believe that the villagers using the Chichicapam co-op, and palenqueros elsewhere in Oaxaca, will continue to address the issues facing them now, and into the future. The foregoing examples are but a fraction of how permaculture works in the artisanal mezcal industry. As these Oaxacans continue to adapt, they will address any and all adversity which comes their way in terms of water and otherwise, advancing both permanent agriculture and permanent culture, that is, permaculture.


Leave a Reply