A Short History of Belize’s Chicle Industry
What does a pack of Wrigley chewing gum have to do with Belize’s history? Well, without chicle, an ingredient required to make chewing gum, you might have to turn to mints when your mouth needs refreshing.
Chicle comes from sapodilla trees native to Central America. This tree species is tall, straight and hard, which is why it’s ideal for construction purposes and furnishings. Like maple trees known not just for the strength of their wood, tapped sapodilla trees produce a thick white sap the same way maples can be tapped for syrup.
In the past, laborers toiling in agricultural fields relied upon raw sap to quench their thirsts, but the commercial viability of the sap was recognized in the 1800s when American Thomas A. Adams, Jr. was introduced to chicle gum by his Mexican hosts.
Seeing the possibilities, Adams helped to introduce chicle sap to North America and it wasn’t long before it was a known quantity in Europe, too. And while raw chicle may not necessarily offer you a pleasing taste, once flavorings were introduced to enhance it, a commercial industry was born.
Not just one type of chicle: there are four
Plants and trees often take on the topological properties of the land on which they are grown, which is how four types of chicle developed throughout Belize where there are four varieties: Female, Crown Gum, Male and Bull Chicle.
Is one superior to the others? According to folks who know everything there is to know about sap, the Female strain is considered the most superior. It grows in the northern areas of Belize. The second most desirable type, Crown Gum, is found in the south. The two others are hybrids created with a little horticultural magic.
The labor-intensive extraction process
It was no easy job for laborers (chicleros) to get their hands on this sap. They had to climb trees tethered to sugar bags and iron spurs held in place by ropes. When a chiclero approached a tree, it became his job to climb to the summit, attaching bags along the way to collect the sap.
By making V-cuts into the tree trunk at varying intervals, the process of tree tapping went from early morning to late afternoon. By evening, the bags were retrieved by climbing the trunks once more, whereupon the entire day’s yield was poured into larger vessels to be processed on the following weekend.
Was processing raw chicle an easy task? Hardly. Huge iron pots were employed to cook the raw sap to an ideal consistency. While still warm from the heat, the chicle was poured into molds and prepared for shipment to Belize City or Cayo, where boats distributing the raw material began running regular routes beginning in 1904.
An industry that continues to bolster Belize’s economy
Once upon a time, all that was needed to extract sap from sapodilla trees was a hefty machete and a good arm, but over time, as the value of chicle rose, production methods became more sophisticated. So too did the network required to produce, price and export chicle.
Of course, this couldn’t have been accomplished without the hierarchy of people required to get refined chicle to market. From the chiclero and foreman on the ground to contractors responsible for exporting the product to international buyers, the chain of production remains an important commercial enterprise for Belize.
While chicle was originally procured by major brands like the Wrigley Company and the Beechnut Packing Company to make chewing gum, the American Chicle Company helped further promote it for uses that now include dental supplies, surgical tape and chemical bases. We bet you’ll look at a stick of gum with more respect now that you’ve finished reading this!