Cochineal Bugs For Job Creation

This week I was asked to provide an expert opinion on the feasibility of a project 
proposed to the Rolex Awards Young Laureate program by a young Oaxaca woman
who has been working in social action and community development.  Here is how I
responded.  Her goal is to create a sustainable agriculture program to help women 
gain economic independence.  Here is my response.

Cochineal is a small production crop that is very labor intensive.
Over the past hundred years, small production cochineal farms have disappeared
as the use of highly toxic chemical dyes have been employed by the local
population to dye textiles and other products.  This project is original because it
would focus on women, provide employment, and contribute to sustainable
agriculture and economic development through new product innovation.
It would have a huge impact on villages and families, and their economic well-being.
I know of no other venture or initiative of this type in the Oaxaca valley, and it is
feasible because of the way Zapotec communities are organized ... around the
principles of group support through mutual endeavors.  It is also an important
project because it re-emphasizes the value that cochineal has as part of the
indigenous culture, and because it is an organic compound that contributes to
better health.  In many villages that use chemical dyes, people have lung diseases
and cancer because they breathe toxic fumes in the dyeing process.  By supporting
cochineal as a preferred dye stuff, much can be done to reduce health hazards
related to chemical dye use.  I know of no other project like this in Oaxaca.

Many women in rural Oaxaca villages have lost their primary means of support
because the men in their families have migrated to other parts of Mexico or the
U.S. to work.  A project of this type would give women the self-esteem and
economic independence they need and deserve, and provide a collaborate
community for mutual support.  I believe it to be an important endeavor to raise
the standard of living in many Oaxaca villages.  Many weavers in Oaxaca are
adopting the use of cochineal in their dye process.  Collectors of fine textiles
prefer cochineal to chemical dyes.  If production increases through a project like
this, then perhaps the price of cochineal can come down making it more accessible
to more weavers.  Having the product readily available for sale in many weaving
villages throughout the state would help in the marketing.  I have not heard about
the recent studies regarding any harmful side effects of cochineal, so I cannot
comment on that.  I do know that it is used quite successfully in dyeing beverages,
lipstick, and other edible products.  It is the preferred RED for dyeing wool rugs in
Teotitlan del Valle, and huipiles that are made throughout Oaxaca.

I recommend that you support the applicant of this proposal.

6 Responses to Cochineal Bugs For Job Creation

  1. I am representing an American company interested in the Cochineal for use in a beverage. Would appreciate any information on where or whom to contact and send further information. Thank you for your courtesy in this matter.
    M. A.Cruz

  2. There have been numerous attempts over the last 3 decades to revive cochineal production in Oaxaca. The major stumbling block is the fact that Peru, Bolivia and Chile can produce the insect much cheaper because they do not have to deal with the natural enemies that cochineal faces here, being native.

    • Alejandro, thank you for this comment. It is important to know the history — that this has been tried unsuccessfully, though people have been committed to restarting cochineal cultivation on a major scale in Oaxaca over the years. Appreciate your insights.

  3. How can I find out more information such as the “young woman’s” name, what town, if this is an already established coop of women, etc. I’m a Ph.D. student in search of a community with high male migration with women who’ve stayed behind and are creating something for themselves.

    • My recommendation is to contact distinguished professor Lynn Stephen at the University of Oregon. She has written extensively about indigenous women in Oaxaca, and the impact of cross-border migration on women and families.

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