Mar 6, 2017

Henequén (not the beer) …

Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sisal workers walked or traveled in these covered coaches to get to the field. 
They were pulled by burros or horses, gliding on small gauge tracks
that followed the already made Mayan roads called sacbes
Henequén is a plant native to the dry, rocky, and torrid Yucatán we are now visiting. It is also known as sisal, sosquil, and in Maya, kih.  It is a succulent cactus that produces strong, flexible fibers that can be made into many useful things.

Today they are mostly used to move tourists around haciendas
Henequén is a medium-sized agave cactus that grows 6′ - 8′ tall.   It has an 8-12-year life-span and is usually first cut at 4-5 years of age and then at 6 to 12 month intervals. A typical native plant will produce 200-250 commercially usable leaves in its lifetime (hybrids about twice that many leaves).  Its fleshy leaves are harvested, crushed to remove the liquids (sometimes made into a liquor = Kuuch Henequén Liquor Extra Dry Lukum), the skin removed, and the remaining coarse two-foot long fibers are dried in the sun.  The fibers only account for 2 - 4% of the plant by weight and is extracted by a process known as decortication.  The average yield of dried fibers is about one ton per hectare.  Sisal is an amazing renewable resource, measured over its life, it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces and is completely biodegradable.

Sisal drying in the sun. 
We saw acres of empty rusting metal racks that used to serve that purpose.
Henequén was shipped from the port of Sisal in the Yucatán and became known worldwide by that name due to the seal etched on each of the boxes that were exported out. Merchants would come to Mexico looking for sisal, which initially caused misunderstandings.  They were directed to the port from where it was shipped and not the haciendas where it was grown.

Maya sisal strap sandals. 
For small projects like this, Mayas just spun the sisal into twine using their toes and hands.
 It takes them mere minutes to make this amount of cordage.
Can you say relax!  Hammock made of sisal

Sisal was used by the Mayas for centuries to make everything from cloth to hammocks, sandal cords to baskets, and rope to twine.  After Europeans landed here, sisal (and Maya slaves) helped them make rapid fortunes.  The Yucatán produced 90% of the rope and burlap bags used worldwide.  By 1880, it was one of the wealthiest states in Mexico.  The first to document the plant and its usefulness was Jose Maria Lanz, a Mexican-born engineer in service of the Spanish Navy.  He studied henequén in 1783.

Haciendas were like American southern plantations.  They had closed monetary systems and horrible work practices.  Owners supplied ‘housing’, access to medical care, and other amenities to keep workers nearby.  The company store sold food and other items with ‘money’ earned from field labor.  If a man incurred a debt, the debt was transferred to his son upon his death;  servitude of the worst kind.

Sisal was in great demand because it was the best, Manila hemp, a poor second.  Sisal is naturally insect-proof, crickets and grasshoppers not cutting/eating it.  It does not mildew, making it a very good material for farming (binder and baler twine), military, merchants, etc.  Sisal is extremely strong, durable, able to stretch, resisting deterioration in saltwater, remaining pliable in the extreme conditions of the high seas.  It was therefore great for sailing ships and shipping, indispensable for tying down cargos and mooring ships.   

Sisal is extremely drought tolerant, in the hundreds of years of commercial growing there has not been a year when there was a drought strong enough to kill sisal plants.  It has very few diseases and in most cases, does not need pesticides.  It helps to stop soil erosion and captures moisture from the atmosphere.  It can be planted any time of the year and harvested throughout the year.  It even survives fires.  Very few commercially grown plants have these qualities.

Freshly cut sisal ready to process

Sorting of sisal before it goes into machine.  Hacienda Sotuta de Peón
For several centuries, Yucatán haciendas produced everything from sugar, cotton and corn crops, to beef and dairy products. But by the early 1800’s, fortunes were made by the sale of rope and burlap sacks for the quickly growing commerce between the Old and New Worlds and agriculture in the USA. Soon, most haciendas in Yucatán abandoned their old productions and converted to the production of henequén.

Hacienda Temozon, our view from breakfast table. 
Notice the tall smokestack in background
Another smokestack at Hacienda Yaxcopoil. 
They are everywhere.
Turning to diesel engines.  Hacienda Yaxcopoil
Just hand power, no coal, no diesel.  The old way of scraping.
Tall smokestacks popped up across the jungle, clear signs of this new phenomena. Coal was used to fire enormous steam engines that crushed and scraped the leaves (pencas); and the Maya people were hired to cut the leaves and feed them into these large machines instead of doing the decortication by hand. At the end of the 19th century, henequén was in such demand that hacienda owners purchased more powerful diesel engines, and production exploded. Fortunes soared, and the number of millionaires in Mérida climbed until they outnumbered those in any other world capital.  Its total takeover denuded the forests, displaced the milpa farmers and altered the climatic conditions making northwestern Yucatán into a semi-arid tropical environment.

Small bundle of sisal
Pressing of sisal into bales.  Sold by the ton.
The boom did not last very long.  Agricultural changes from the 1910 Mexican revolution led to the re-appropriation of native lands from the Spanish elite, the first strike to the henequén industry.  Some owners had over-invested, borrowing too much during the boom and were unable to repay after the bust when the price of sisal declined following the stock market crash of 1929.  During the 1930’s, there was a Great Depression in the USA, not the best time to increase exports to farmers.  The final blow occurred when DuPont began the first commercial production of nylon in 1939, causing an immediate impact on the little that was left of the trade. 

From the workshop of Son Estebán in Izamal. 
Henequén spines used to make jewelry.
Modern urban lore said that young henequén plants were smuggled out of the Yucatán in the 1800’s to other countries and sisal began to be cultivated around the Caribbean, Africa (Tanzania), Madagascar, Philippines, and Brazil.  Their sisal exports began in the 1940’s and by the 1960’s left production in Yucatán unprofitable. 

In Mexico henequén production (largely in the Yucatán peninsula with 650 haciendas) fell from a peak of 160,000 tons in the 1960's to less than 5,000 tons today, all of which is locally converted into finished products. In 1990, one hacienda restarted the henequén production = Hacienda Sotuta de Peón.  You can spend a night there or simply tour the working henequén farm.  Thanks to a resurgence of demand of natural products there is hope for a revival of that trade.  When Sotuta de Peón began anew, they had difficulties tracking down people who still knew how to plant, take care of and work henequén.  Today, Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sisal, shipping some 125,000 tons a year.

Hacienda Santa Rosa, making sisal baskets
Holiday decorations made of sisal
Key ring made of sisal
Examples of products made with sisal today:
  • Animal feed
  • Buffing discs or cloths (strong enough to polish steel but soft enough not to scratch it)
  • Car seat covers
  • Cat scratching posts
  • Cloths
  • Dartboards
  • Fertilizer
  • Filters
  • Geo-textiles
  • Hammocks
  • Handicrafts
  • Harnesses
  • Insulation material made into fiber-board as a wood substitute.
  • Key chains
  • Lumbar support belts
  • Mattresses
  • Padding
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Place mats
  • Plaster moldings
  • Plaster reinforcement
  • Slippers
  • Spa products (similar to horsehair mitts)
  • Specialty pulps
  • Strengthening agent to replace fiberglass to reinforce plastic in automobiles, boats, furniture, water tanks or pipes.  To replace asbestos in roofing and brake-pads. 
  • Throw rugs
  • Wall coverings
  • Wire rope cores
Hacienda Temozon - small gauge tracks used for transport in sisal production. 
This small gauge system is originally from Belgium
One interesting story I came across said that during WWI, the rope purchased by the USA was paid by the pound. In order to increase money paid for their product, Yucatecos tore up the railings of the small gauge tracks used across Yucatán to haul the fibers to the haciendas and factories and placed them inside the rolls in order to increase the weight and their profits. The Yucatecos expected complaints from the USA but never received any. It turns out that the rails were made of high quality steel and were turned into gun barrels on the battleships that were quickly being built during the war.

Another one says that the last in the early 1970’s, the last serviceable narrow gauge steam locomotives that helped move so much of the sisal to the port of Sisal were purchased by Disney and transported to Florida’s Disney World.  Four were restored, two were kept for spare parts.  They were still in use as of the 2010’s.



Because the global market is increasingly demanding natural fiber (eco-textile) rather than synthetic to pack and wrap organic products, sisal industry could reborn in the Yucatán!  A difficult task for a few reasons. 
  • The age of the remaining henequén workers is between 50 and 90, no one from the younger generation caring to work the land this hard. 
  • A new field of henequén would take at least 6-7 years to be profitable. 
  • The price of a ton of sisal is about the same as 15 years ago (US $550), while other costs have increased greatly since then (machinery for one). 
  • Fifty-year-old technology is still in use and there has been little improvement in productivity and efficiency.
  • There are many more countries now growing sisal:  Angola, Brazil, China, Cuba, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Thailand.
The American, European, Chinese and Japanese markets do not want plastic anymore, in some countries the use of natural fiber to wrap or pack organic products is mandatory, and the number one natural fiber is henequén.  United States farmers and producers want natural fiber to tie the cattle feed, they don’t want to use plastic anymore. Coffee of the highest quality in Colombia is packed only in sisal sacks; and these are just two examples.


Ethanol is one of the most important biofuels produced, at competitive prices, from renewable substrates such as sugar cane in Brazil or corn in the United States. Because the current world production is insufficient to meet energy demand, they have developed other biotechnological processes that use agricultural and forestry residues, rich in cellulose and lignin, as substrates to produce ethanol.

Currently in the Yucatán technologies are developed to use the juice, agro-product of fiber sisal. For example, in 2005, 250 million leaves of sisal were processed to produce 5,000 tons of fiber, and this process left 75 million liters (20 million gallons) of juice as waste. This substrate contains a high percentage of oligofructans that can be easily used in the production of bioethanol; which means that this waste can be turned into millions of gallons of biofuel.  Bioethanol is easy to produce and store, and most important it is much less harmful for the environment.

On August 2015, the Mexican government announced an investment of 13.6 billion pesos to increase the sowing area and increase sisal fiber production.  Governor Rolando Zapata Bello delivered the economic resources to 680 farmers in 34 different municipalities dedicated to the production of sisal.

So maybe, just maybe there could be an economically feasible return to sisal farming especially in locations where the land and weather are so harsh, not much else can grow there.  Let’s hope for the hard-working families left in the Yucatán and beyond.

Cordamex main lobby display of products, Mexico's large sisal plant that closed in 1990

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