Wildcrafted agave is probably the area of greatest concern when we talk about the sustainability of mezcal. Humanity has seen too many runs on natural resources for anyone except the most diehard libertarians to NOT believe in the tragedy of the commons. I recall years ago when ginseng was popular and commanding a high price how the ‘sangers nearly stripped the Smokey Mountains of this once abundant species. When there is a valuable natural resource with little to no effective control over its extraction, one can expect an over-exploitation of the resource. This, I take as axiomatic. Why then my optimism regarding wildcrafted agaves?
For openers, the ejido system has been in place for a long time, and it seems to be working. For those readers unacquainted, the idea is simply this: Land is communally managed. A resident of a pueblo must do some community service–usually on the order of a year to a year-and-a-half–after which he or she is considered an eligible ejidatario, who then may ask for some use of the land. The community decides as a group to approve or deny the use. This use could be grazing rights, farming rights, or, the right to collect agaves. The smarter communities are requiring those who harvest agaves to replace them with 2 or 3 new plants as part of the harvest process. Here’s the critical piece for me–an ejiditario can pass their rights on to their children. The rights can be revoked for poor stewards or they can be left to continue for good stewards. Which would you be? While this does not solve all of the problems–the new plants (hijuelos) can die, the replacement plants may not be genetically suited to the environment, unscrupulous players often steal agaves, and so forth–it is certainly a good baseline from which to begin a management program. It is not nothing. In other words, this isn’t the Wild West; some controls are already in place.
The second reason why I am optimistic is that I have seen A. karwinskii, A. potatorum, A. seemanniana, A. americana, and A. marmorata–all commonly collected from the wild–in cultivation. Of course, there is a LOT of A. angustifolia in cultivation. (If you travel to Yautepec, where agave farming is the bread and butter, nobody there is worried about having enough agaves–they are worried they have too many to support a good price.)
Now, I do not mean to suggest that over-collection cannot happen. In fact, I think it has already begun and will continue to happen for a while. But what does this mean? It means that the easily-reached, desirable agaves will be collected in short order. I believe certain areas will be over-collected as the industry ramps up and demand outstrips replacement. But–and this is my third reason for optimism–Oaxaca is a huge, thickly (and I mean THICKLY) vegetated state. Many of my readers will not have had the privilege of having flown over the state. I have on numerous occasions. And let me assure you–the majority of agaves are simply inaccessible, and will be for a long time. Even the lowland chaparral is nearly impenetrable. It is thick, thorny, and suitable for goats, small or flying animals, and agaves. The rest of us won’t have the fortitude to hack through it. This barrier buys time and incentivizes planting.
The last reason why I am optimistic is that SO MANY MEZCAL DRINKERS are already onto this issue and paying attention. This is poised to be an enormous industry. In Oaxaca, mezcal is already pushing 12% of the state GDP. The CRM (who oversees production) has begun tracking agaves, much like marijuana is tracked in Colorado, and requiring the collector to replace each harvested agave with two hijuelos (young agaves). This industry cannot survive without raw materials. The industry must provide the consumer with what they want, and they (almost to the individual) want the following: excellent mezcal, transparency in business and environmental dealings, and a compelling social story. We have that now, and we can not only keep it, we can improve upon an already solid foundation.
What is Cuentacuentos doing to prevent over-collection? All of the mezcaleros we work with either own their own agave fields (Cruz family, Mendez family), all are responsible ejidatarios who replace agaves when harvesting, or buy from growers and ejiditarios who manage their crops (replanting, leaving 5-10% of the crop to flower for the bats, moths, and hummingbirds to cross pollinate). Even the CC bottler, my good friend, Carlos Mendez, is planting so many agaves it is hard for me to keep up with how many hectares he manages. I am proud to spend company money with him and his family.