Permaculture and Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico

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.ホームページ制作 福岡  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.



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