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Agave fiber dish scrubbers? This project is using bacanora byproducts in new ways

A small machine roars as it strips agave leaves, separating the long, thick fibers from the green flesh.

It’s part of a pilot project aimed at reducing waste in Sonora’s budding bacanora industry by using its byproducts.

“We understand that the agave distillate production industry wastes up to seventy to eighty percent of their base material,” said biologist Valeria Cañedo. “I’m a cofounder and vice president of the  Centro de Colaboración para la Ciencia y Cultura, which means Collaboration Center for Science and Culture.”

Known as CENKO,the center is working to protect both bats and agavein Sonora by teaming up with bacanora producers to set guidelines for sustainable management.

Bacanora is produced in much the same way as its better-known cousins tequila and mezcal — the plant’s heart, or piña, is harvested, roasted, fermented and distilled. The rest of the plant is discarded.

Cañedo and her team want to use those discarded parts — and boost incomes in rural mountain communities where the spirit is typically produced.

“That’s how we created the project which is empowerment of rural women through the elaboration of bacanora byproducts,” she said.

In some parts of Mexico efforts are already underway to utilize agave leaves, mashed agave hearts left over after distillation — known as bagasse — and other waste.

There’s a company making agave fiber paper for labels on Tequila bottles. Others are using the plants to make adobe-style bricks, bioplastics and biofuel, fertilizer and animal feed.

But in Sonora, nearly 80 years of prohibition on bacanora stifled that kind of innovation.

“I always say the bacanora industry is still an industry in diapers,” Cañedo said. “We still have a lot to learn.”

Restoring traditions

On a sunny afternoon, Osvaldo Coronado walks through his family’s ranch on the outskirts of the small town of Matape — filled with row upon row of agave. He planted the first 100 plants here about 15 years ago. Now there are some 15,000 on the property — some of which are used to produce bacanora, while others are allowed to flower, providing food for pollinators like bats.

Coronado is restoring ancestral traditions tamped down by Sonora’s long prohibition, he said.

It’s a way to honor his grandparents, and his mother, who would travel into the mountains to find wild agave and produce bacanora in makeshift stills hidden along arroyos and in caves in the Sierra Madre Occidental. At the time, they risked arrest, or even death, for producing the spirit.

Back then, he said, people suffered greatly to carry on this tradition. Now, he produces his brand, Siete Coronados, in freedom. But with a lot of trial and error. His grandparents didn’t leave him instructions for their clandestine process.

As he relearns their traditions, he’s also working with CENKO to incorporate sustainable practices.

“Bobcats, roadrunner, jaguars, bats,” he said, listing off some of the animals that coexist on his family’s ranch. “That’s what it means to take care of the environment.”

He’s proud to be part of conservation efforts in this region, and of helping to rebuild an industry that can provide for families in his rural community. Using agave leaves and other byproducts is part of that, he said.

Long history

“I really celebrate what they are doing there,” said Vianney del Rio Guerra, a researcher and the new director of Sonora’s Bacanora Regulatory Council.

In 2019, she led a pilot program using agave leaf fiber in southern Sonora that has helped guide CENKO’s work, and she celebrates their efforts.

“The history of agaves in Mexico is vast. So vast that it is part of Nahuatl mythology,” she said.

From the beginning Indigenous peoples used the whole plant, she said, and relearning those practices is essential - for sustainability, rural economies and reaffirming the crucial role women have always played in bacanora production.

“Bacanora isn’t just a distillate. It’s an ecosystem,” she said. “And women were indispensable in that ecosystem.”

Now, women are the ones leading innovation in the use of bacanora byproducts.

Bacanora byproducts

Maria Luisa Bracamontes and Francisca Cordova are heading up CENKO’s agave fiber project in Matape.

“Well, we hope it works out,” Cordova said with a laugh.

Both widows in their 60s, the women are working with agave as a way to bring some extra money, and because of their love for the spirit.

“As a little girl I worked (with bacanora). And I like it,” said Bracamontes, describing trips into the mountains with her parents and grandparents as a child to make bacanora.

Both women were also married to bacanora producers, they said. They want to be a part of this new era for the spirit since prohibition was lifted in 1992.

These days, they collect discarded agave leaves and carry them to a large ramada where they cut off the spines, then don gloves and face shields before running the leaves through the heavy machine that removes the flesh. Then they wash the fibers, let them dry in the sun and form them into estropajos - organic scrubbers that can be used for dishes, cleaning house, or maybe even as a miracle pedicure product, they laugh.

Eventually, they hope to make other products as well — hanging baskets for plants, rope and string that can be used for embroidery or weaving. Osvaldo Coronado’s youngest son Diego has also started selling the bagasse left over after bacanora is distilled as fire starter.

This is physically demanding work - requiring the women to spend long hours outdoors in the heat and sun. But Cordova says they love it — they're used to working in the heat. And it’s better than being in a hot kitchen, she chuckles.

“It is hard,” Bracamontes added. “But we enjoy it. We like being out here with the agave and the bacanora still. It’s in our blood.”

And if all goes to plan, Cordova and Bracamontes will start teaching other women about creating a business out of agave byproducts, Cañedo said.

“They’ve become the leaders, the experts in agave fiber extractions,” she said. “And we’re excited to see where they can take this project.”

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Kendal Blust, an Arizona native, reports from KJZZ’s bureau in Hermosillo, Sonora, focusing on business and economic relationships between Arizona and northern Mexico.Prior to joining KJZZ, Kendal worked at the Nogales International, reporting on border and immigration issues, local government, education and business. While working on her master’s degree at University of Arizona School of Journalism, she did stints with the Arizona Daily Star and the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and completed a thesis project about women art activists in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.In her pre-journalist life, Kendal was a teacher, first helping Spanish high school students learn English, then heading to Tucson to teach fourth grade.When she’s not in the newsroom, Kendal enjoys getting outside for a hike or a swim, catching a good movie, hanging out with family and friends, and eating great food.