How chewing gum can save the rainforest (or at least a small piece of it!)

by Sarah A. Wyatt, Biodiversity Analyst, Global Environment Facility

I was about to hop on a train to go home to Washington, D.C. when I stopped in a shop for a snack. I debated whether to make the healthy choice of some gum, or if I should get chocolate or a coffee, when something caught my eye — natural chewing gum. I looked at the box and saw that, yes, it was natural chicle from the sapodilla tree (most gum now is made with a plastic base). For a moment, I was spirited away from the freezing New York winter to the sweltering heat of the Yucatan Peninsula where I visited a GEF project a little over a year ago.

Long-term sustainable forestry requires a carefully managed plan of small clearings with a vision of 30 or more years.

All chewing gum used to come from the sap of the sapodilla trees, which can be tapped in the same way that it is used to make maple syrup or rubber — the tree keeps growing while providing the resin. The sapodilla tree is common in parts of the rainforests of the Yucatan, including the in the community of Noh Bec, where we visited. Mexico has an uncommon system of land management where permanent land rights were granted to communities, and those communities continue to have rights to use and manage those lands (within certain limits). These areas are called ejidos, and I’m going to talk about the ejido of Noh Bec.

The Forest Stewardship Council certified saw mill at the ejido helps the community earn more revenue by allowing them to process their own wood rather than selling raw wood for others to process. This helps make the program financially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.

Noh Bec is managed by a group of about 430 members whose families received rights to the land and the forests a few generations ago. With the agreement of the members, their share can be sold to an outsider, but the vast majority are passed down to a child. Most of the community’s land is lowland tropical rainforest managed to extract timber and other products, like the sapodilla gum.

To give you some perspective on just how difficult sustainable forestry is in place like Noh Bec: a single mahogany tree will need over 100 years to get to a commercially viable size. This means that a mahogany seed planted by one member may not be ready to be harvested until two generations later. Successful management also requires much more than simply planting a few seeds for every tree cut. It takes careful and planned management with a long-term vision.

In conservation, we often talk about trying to put value into standing forests so that people will choose to maintain forests over large-scale logging and agriculture. In this way, people can make a living while conserving the forest. At the same time, this helps conserve culture, as these same forests maintain plants that provide vital medicine and food. And we’ve seen it work.

In addition to the valuable but slow growing mahogany, a significant source of income for the community is chicle (gum) and the very good timber that tree provides. But, in order to successfully harvest the chicle, shade is needed or the sap dries out too quickly. So, the community has a reason to maintain a high level of tree cover. While providing income these trees also provide homes for many rare and threatened species, such as jaguars.

These slashes allow people to collect the sap of the chicle tree to produce gum, similar to rubber or maple syrup. It also provides income while the forest continues to grow.

The region was hit by a devastating hurricane in 2007. With so many trees lost, the community’s forestry management plans needed to be revised. Without a current management plan, the community also lost their Forest Stewardship Council certification, which they needed to sell mahogany internationally. A GEF project supported the community in developing their new management plan. The GEF support helped the community through the very difficult recovery period and eventually got back their certification, and helped develop their ability to process and sell their wood and other forest products.

The logo of the Noh Bec ejido carved into wood from the forest.

Communities like Noh Bec needed our support to maintain and continue to develop the sustainable models of forest management that should last for generations to come. In buying that gum, I was supporting sustainable forest management a few thousand miles away.

Find out more about the GEF site visit to the Noh Bec community during CBD COP 13 here.