The use of raw building materials like adobe bricks is now being marketed as a solution to the waste management problem in the mezcal and tequila industries, but is that a reality?
When I lived in D.C., I became friends with a group of people who were all into sustainable development. I studied international relations in Mexico and it never crossed my mind that I could pursue a career in that area, until I moved to DC. “What do you do?” The most uncomfortable yet mostly used question to start a conversation, gave me the chance to hear various stories on international development. Helping cure malaria in different countries in Africa, bringing effective sanitation and water management programs in Bangladesh, or creating sustainable tourism projects in Latin America. If that career never crossed my mind it was maybe because we don’t have a Mexican agency for international development. Our involvement in fixing problems in other countries’ communities is not exactly a priority in our foreign affairs policy.
My closest reference to development projects in Mexico is linked to government programs created to provide aid in exchange for political favors or votes. When I took a course about corporate social responsibility led by the World Bank, I skeptically asked myself, can the government, the private sector and society come together to fix hunger, poverty, gender inequality and all the many problems around the globe? In Mexico, many of these programs are directed to rural communities but since paternalism is still so ingrained in our culture, I believe most programs are not executed with a correct approach that follows strict guidelines of accountability.
In the past year, we have been talking a lot about sustainability in the mezcal and agave spirits world. And lately, the pressure fo brands to give back is growing while consumers demand more action to reduce climate change effects or honest contributions to social justice. For tequila and mezcal makers, this has translated into projects that commit to responsible waste management in the form of community development.
For every liter of mezcal produced, at least 10-13 liters of viñaza (aka vinasa or vinasse), waste water, are produced. In 2020, Mexico produced 6.5 million liters of certified mezcal and 374 million liters of tequila, according to the Ministry of Economy. This translates to 85.5 million liters of waste from mezcal production and more than 3 billion liters from tequila production. Where did all that waste go? A lot of it went back to the soil, rivers and water table and since it naturally takes time to disintegrate, it ended up polluting the environment in high volumes. There are organizations dedicated to prevent such damage by reusing the waste by-products but without a proper public policy to regulate waste management, companies and organizations are left to improvise programs that could have a better impact if there was a better accountability system.
One use of the by-product waste has been in the making of adobe bricks, a primary building material in rural Mexico. In the past few years, there has been greater discussion about creating more of these projects as a means to deal with the waste, but several questions remain at hand. Can the communities that depend on the tequila and mezcal industry benefit from these programs? Do these efforts contribute to reducing the equality gap among the different actors involved in the industry or are they a self -serving approach by large corporations or organizations?
Adobe and Maguey: A Brief History
For Mexico specifically, adobe has been stigmatized as a material that only “poor” people use. In major cities, industrial materials such as concrete and steel are commonly used to build houses. Adobe has been used since the Phoenicians, it is a traditional construction material made of clay and sand sometimes mixed with hay or another vegetal fiber. It is left to dry in rectangular wooden molds to create blocks used to build walls for public buildings or housing. Its use is spread all over the world. The knowledge to work it is part of the tradition of every community where these raw materials are easily available. Adobe constructed housing is the result of tradition and the interaction of different times, styles and influences in specific places.
In a study about Otomi constructions by researcher Olga Lucía Rodriguez, she cites the work of another researcher, Victor Moya, who wrote about the uses of agave among Otomí people to build housing. Spread out throughout the central highlands of Mexico, three types of houses were identified: one where walls and ceilings were built with agave leaves only; a second type with walls made of bajareque (mud wall) and the ceiling of palm leaves, and the ridges with agave leaves; and a third with walls of adobe or stone and ceiling made of agave or palm leaves. For these native populations, traditional housing was for centuries the pillar that supported the main characteristics of their cultural identity.
As Edgar Ángeles, the maestro mezcalero at Real Minero who is also an architect, explains, “The elaboration of adobe in Minas is very old. Those who know about construction are the mezcaleros because of their continuous contact with the earth. They were the first builders in the community so part of their work was to make adobe houses because they understood the full cycle of materials, their daily use and applications.” Self built projects are mostly seen in rural areas where locals know how to work the materials available in their region. Ángeles recognizes that this knowledge is being lost thereby making these kinds of projects hard to replicate. He also states that reusing waste is a complex process but necessary and people need to learn how to do it.
For him, the basis of everything was always earth. The traditional housing that Edgar remembers begins with jacales or palapas, in which ceilings are made of adobe and woven agave fibers or corn stalks and bajareque walls made with quiote, or structures made with wooden piles, palm ceilings and covered with woven fibers to avoid leaks. The current cost for this kind of construction is high because as all artisan work, it is a slow process that needs time. Angeles says that it costs about $20,000 pesos to make a ceiling of agave leaves, far more expensive than using sheets of aluminum. Marcos Sánchez, an expert in ecological construction and the founder of Ecoconstrucciones Oaxaca, an architectural workshop composed of a team of professionals who want to give back to the communities that are purveyors of raw materials. Sánchez explains the advantage of these natural materials, “these build a healthy house, they help regulate temperature so you don’t depend on the AC system, you live without breathing polymers from paints, floors and windows. Our nose adapts but industrial materials have negative effects in the long term.” Many of the oldest people in Mexico have lived in a house of stone or tierra. A house made of adobe is built for the following generations whereas concrete has a programmed life of only 50 to 80 years.
The use of both adobe and agave refers to traditions of vernacular origin that are intrinsic to popular knowledge. With the increasing growth of the urban cities, ancestral construction knowledge is being lost even though it well serves the new and growing sustainability trends prevalent today. What do adobe and agave have in common? Both are naturally available materials whose use has been passed down by generation after generation. In the world of mezcal, tradition is key to understanding not only the history but also its current context. If we want to recover the traditional knowledge that is being pushed aside with technological advancements, it is important to recognize the historical references. Otherwise, there is a risk of nullifying the social and technological achievements of communities that have existed for centuries.
The Value of Adobe Bricks
The greatness of Oaxaca relies on its biodiversity. Sánchez, explains that there are four constructive systems in the world based on the use of earth: adobe (a mix of earth and natural fibers), bajareque (a wall structure of wood, reeds, leaves), trodden earth (earth walling technique) and cob (combination of clay, sand, straw and water). All of these are used in Oaxaca and the specific combination of adobe and agave fibers responds to plenty of availability of both materials in the area. It is also known for using all the different varieties of clay: purple, white, yellow and black all of which are used as natural plaster that doesn’t need to be colored.
Regular bricks are blocks made of clay and water, and then fired in kilns at high temperature. The standard measure is 28x14x5 centimeters. As explained in this diagram by Enlace Arquitectura, a private architecture firm, viñaza can be used instead of potable water when making adobe bricks. According to the calculations shown, a production of 1,000 liters of mezcal results in 13,000 liters of viñaza which can make 450 bricks when mixed with bagazo, the used agave fibers in mezcal production. Unlike regular bricks, these are left out to dry in the sun for about 15 days. By following this process, if 450 bricks are ready in 15 days within a month, there would be 900 bricks completed in a month which is enough to build a small house.
The science behind it, explains Ángeles, is that cooking agave creates a starch or sugar and it crystallizes right when it gets in contact with the earth, maximizing its resistance. By using viñaza it becomes a sort of molasses; it is applied as if it were water, providing hardness and durability. The bagazo is used to stabilize the contraction of the earth in the adobe. The minimum size recommended to ensure adobe’s functionality is 30x60x10 centimeters, which means they occupy more space than regular bricks.
CENIT, a firm in Oaxaca dedicated to sustainable construction and design began working with waste from the mezcal industry in 2007. They have experience turning waste from the wine, beer and paper industries into construction material. With mezcal, their goal is to create living spaces in farming areas for the mezcal producing communities. Their process is similar to the one explained above, once they sun dry the bricks, they put them into a compressor. According to the Director, Paul Sampablo, an adobe brick of 28x14x10 cm costs $6.5 pesos per unit whereas a “tabicon” or brick made of cement and sand, commonly used in Mexico is $8 -$10. The advantage of using natural materials is that they don’t face increasing market prices as happens with cement. However, they do add transportation costs depending on where the earth they use is coming from. For example, if they are using purple clay, the source might be about three hours away from the production plant. By using raw materials and bagazo, they can keep a competitive price for the bricks.
With this process, a palenque that produces 900 kg of bagazo and vinaza could help build a house of 60 square meters. CENIT currently works with brands like Sombra Mezcal and has previously worked with 818 Tequila. They are looking to collaborate with other brands such as Dos Hombres and Casamigos. In Sampablo’s opinion, the companies interested in these kinds of projects are the ones dedicated to exporting mezcal and he wishes more companies could devote enough funds to waste management.
Alejandro Montes also works in the field, and consults on projects providing models of community and progressive architecture at his company, COAA. His first approach to community projects was in Santa Catarina Minas where Alejandro watched and learned the ancestral uses of local and natural materials for construction such as adobe mixed with bagazo. Montes has worked on construction projects with different companies including Mezcaloteca and Del Maguey. Such collaborations range from consulting only to the execution of the project including inspection and revision of design and implementation. A very important part of every project is quality control, to make sure there is the use of quality and certified materials made by experts. This industry is self regulated and they are their own inspectors since the government is not yet regulating this type of activity.
Is It Scalable?
Sampablo believes that this model could be scalable; however, they would need to create a system of a continuing collection of viñazas. Unlike the other experts I spoke with, he hopes a federal agency would be able to take a chance on his project and adapt it into a program to build houses for low income families.
Edgar Angeles thinks scaling is difficult because it implies recovering the tradition that nearly disappeared. I asked him if he thought it would be easy to use adobe bricks in major cities and he believes it is doable but it requires thorough planning from both urban and architectural perspective so the result is the creation of a pueblo or functional city that is organized for its habitants. He added “for a city made of adobe, the local government needs to get involved and set up the rules of the game.”
Claudia Barriga Gutierrez, Director of Canto Artesano, a project that designs and creates traditional chairs using natural fibers in partnership with families of artisans, carpenters and wavers. She has seen how communities organize with their own resources or donations or through non profits to build their own housing. She fears that by scaling this singular practice, the demand for bagazo would increase exponentially. There is also the risk of adobe being gentrified in a way that it stops being affordable and accessible to become a luxury item that fits into the need of ecological living, like it is happening with the “Pueblo Revival” in Marfa, Texas. Therefore, a bigger problem could emerge, with violent takeovers by narco cartels as in Michoacan where there is a continuous fight to control the production of avocado. Additionally, even though there is a growing network of architects and experts supporting the use of natural materials, Barriga explains that not all architecture firms are able to embrace their use, unless they have the experience of working in the field.
For Ángeles, he sees many other alternatives to a more environmentally friendly construction. Besides adobe, Ángeles has used mixed techniques in different projects he has led. For El Rosario Library in Santa Catarina Minas, he used a combination of mixed materials in both natural and modern techniques, which use a combination of stones (piedra de loma), adobes, reeds walls and stainless steel structures. “We would like to use wood but it is difficult due to the deforestation problem in the valley, it is too expensive to transport it and to cure it.” He also helped build Portezuelo ,a restaurant inside a farm owned by Chef Alejandro Ruíz. He used adobe, stones, regular bricks, reeds and wood. The columns were finished with natural colors and clay. The details in white were made with a paint that used lyme, or calcium hydroxide, mixed with cactus slime and salt to ensure the resistance and durability as well as to avoid plagues.
Creating a Community Development Model with Agave Waste
If we start from a common belief in which external help is required for local communities to develop, there is a risk that the external desires will be put before the needs and desires of the host community. The most successful community development programs ultimately should provide communities with the tools they need to be self-sufficient. So why not use this sustainability trend to reevaluate the role that actors from urban centers play when getting involved with life in rural communities?
Dorte Verner, a senior economist at the World Bank with experience in development programs related to climate change says that it is important to always listen to the community because things are not always as straightforward as we may think. In that sense, is the elaboration of bricks made with adobe and bagazo really bringing back some value to the communities where this technique was taken from?
To really understand this value exchange, I looked to Oscar Hagerman, a Mexican architect and designer who focuses on social housing and is best known for creating living spaces for indigenous groups all over Mexico. He realized when there is a lack of resources, a self construction system allows families to build with each other’s help. His work is based on a conscious study of local materials, climate conditions, constant contact with nature and the needs of the people for whom he was designing. In order to execute a project, a full immersion in the life of the communities was a priority. In 2015 he began working on bio-construction projects, giving workshops in Oaxaca and participating in volunteer programs for local communities such as churches or clinics.
He created a network of experts with shared interests. One of them is the aforementioned Marcos Sánchez. They work with universities, national and international researchers, sharing what they have learned about construction techniques and studies they have made about ancestral techniques. Sanchez is known for the volunteer program he has run since 2008 in which he offers self build services to communities in need.
For every project they are requested to lead, they establish a collaboration agreement to ensure the involvement of the community so that the project doesn’t get abandoned in the middle of it. Without this type of commitment to create a sense of ownership, the project is not worth the effort. For Sánchez, if the projects are not inclusive, the weaknesses will show faster than any strength. He understands that romanticizing the idea of external help saving the day means nothing when there is no real commitment from all the parties into the completion of a goal. He points out that the enthusiasm from every participant at the beginning of a project needs to be fed because the level of difficulty is even higher when the resources are limited. The parties need to express their needs and know what the benefits will be of joining the project as well as what the properties of the project are and how it will improve their quality of life. Some of the downsides include the time commitment that can create desperation or tiredness, not being paid and working under the sun. For Sánchez’s team it is important to generate an environment of positivism and interaction that keeps the goals present at all times.
Angeles acknowledges that the construction of the library project led by Real Minero has been slow because it involves the participation of the regional community. They built restrooms, a kitchen, and a computing room. And while there was some monetary support from outside the community, the bulk of the resources and labor came from within the community. “If resources are flowing, then you can move faster. We still need to finish the second part, we got the structure and ceiling but more than half of the construction is still pending,” says Angeles.
In Sánchez’s experience, proper management of natural resources (earth, bagazo, fiber, wood, rocks or stones, palm, labor) is obtained through tequios or working sessions within the community that come together for a common goal. One of their recent projects was a community clinic built in Santa María Tepantlali, located in the Sierra Mixe of Oaxaca. Members of the community created a loan system and the interest paid on those loans funded the project and land was donated for the construction of the clinic.
Sánchez also explains if there are available materials in the place you live in, then you can use them and the costs are minimal. But if you need to buy and transport everything, it becomes almost as expensive as using industrial materials. Sampablo shared that one of the challenges of their work with 818 Tequila was that they would get the viñazas shipped from Jalisco to make the bricks in Oaxaca and then transported them back to Jalisco, incurring very high shipping costs of up to $80,000 pesos per shipment. Just recently, Sampablo told me they are no longer collaborating with 818 Tequila and are focused on developing projects only in the area of Oaxaca. Another firm has been hired to work in Jalisco with 818 Tequila. Erick Gómez, Director of Tierra Cruda, a firm with more than 20 years working on bio construction, is helping them build a library for a secondary technical school for a community in Zapotitlán Vadillo. For this project, they are training local workers and need to make about 7000 prefabricated pieces of adobe, as he prefers to call them instead of bricks. He explains that all the earth used for adobe comes from the surroundings of Zapotitlan and only the bagazo comes from Tequila about 200 kms away. For Gómez, it is difficult to have a construction built entirely with natural materials if you consider electric and plumbing installations. However, since fifty percent of the energy consumption of buildings and housing comes from the structure, using natural materials instead of cement cuts the overall carbon footprint.
As stated above, the advancement of a community project depends on the amount of resources available. Establishing a proper waste management program requires enough funding. The Beckman Foundation, which funds leading edge research in the fields of chemistry and life science, has more than 20 years experience working with the communities around the town of Tequila to repurpose part of the waste produced in the production of tequila. They offer an accelerator program to strengthen the entrepreneurial abilities of artisans that work with agave fibers, quiote, and agave sap. According to Magui Arana, director of Beckman Foundation, it operates like a mentoring program in which they provide access to specialized labs and platforms from local and national universities so that small producers receive training regarding finances, trade marks, marketing, accounting and everything they need to start their own business. They have eight years working on this accelerator project.
By mapping the agave usage in the region, the Foundation is able to support local artisans that use by-products of the agave. Among the businesses they have helped is a project that builds furniture with quiote; businesses that make musical instruments and surf boards from agave by-products; a network of weavers that use agave fiber and agave flowers; a paper factory that uses bagazo; bakers that have cookies made from bagazo; and a company that makes construction material from with adobe, bagazo and obsidian stone obtained from the Tequila vulcano. Each artisan works with their own network of tequileros.
In 2018, the Foundation launched the first contest of social housing together with ITESO, a regional university. Arana explains that modern materials are aspirational but the bank does not loan money for self-build projects. There is a long standing tradition in the area of using adobe, agave and opal from the quarries. The idea of the contest was to find innovative ways to use recyclable materials from the agave supply chain such as bottles, barrels, bagazo and agave leaves. The goal is to replicate the winning model in other regions of the country where local materials can be used together with new technologies and designs. Barcena and Savage Estudio won the contest with their Casa Celosía project which was executed by students of different disciplines at ITESO. Overall, Beckmann’s vision for this one time contest is to create housing solutions adapted to the needs and lives of the people that live in Tequila and its surroundings.
What Does the Future Hold?
The need for finding alternatives to industrial materials combined with the increasing demand of agave distillates, puts agave and maguey in the spotlight as an isolated product capable of improving the industry’s reputation when it comes to environmental restoration. Is it wishful thinking that all waste that results from mezcal activity becomes material for construction? If you take the annual mezcal production by liters and multiply that by ten, that is the total of viñazas available for reuse. As stated above, billions of liters of waste water was created by the mezcal and tequila industries in 2020 and to use all of that waste in the production of bricks would mean needing to make millions of bricks. How would they all be used? Could they even all be used?
Gómez firmly believes scaling the use of these techniques is possible if the design of regular constructions is improved and adapted to natural materials. As example, he notes that most of the earth resulting from excavation of commercial constructions is not reused. But in other countries like France, builders are using it to create the aforementioned prefabricated pieces.
According to Montes, managing and regulating means the creation of an independent agency that accurately maps who is managing its waste and who isn’t. This past March, a new law was approved by the Mexican government to regulate the national wastewater discharge– NOM-001-SEMARNAT-2021. It appears to be more restrictive than previous norms since it establishes stricter guidelines regarding the amount of possible pollutants discharged into national waters. However, there is still uncertainty on how this applies to different industries and how it allows them to work under a permissible limit of wastewater.
The municipality of Mitla in Oaxaca is supposedly the first municipality that is enforcing an environmental rule to stop the contamination of rivers and potable water, but I could not locate an official statement or find an official to speak on this matter. During the last legislative session in Oaxaca, a congresswoman proposed an initiative to regulate the use of water, resources and waste but it was not adopted. And the Ley de Desarollo Sustentable de Maguey Mezcal supported by Maestros del Mezcal is still being discussed in the Mexican Senate. As much as consumers educate themselves or choose to change their buying behavior, and businesses create corporate sustainability programs, both efforts will be limited if public policy is not created or enforced.
“Social problems are related to a lack of public spaces adapted to the needs of the communities.” In Sánchez’s opinion, the government cannot satisfy the demand for space. There is a deficit of spaces dedicated to education, health, affordable living and recreational activities for children and the solution is for private companies and organizations to step up and try to fill that gap. As Barriga stated, architecture is a social duty that should help people live better but adapting to all the ancestral techniques mentioned involves more than making bricks. Those who are trying to give back cannot leave behind the social aspect of the projects by enabling the communities to execute their vision of a better way of life.
As seen throughout these interviews, one way to do it is through self-build projects that seem to be the best solution to the lack of affordable housing. While collaborations between government, the private sector and society are possible if all parties bring the resources needed to support these kinds of projects, there are challenges. Not everyone is able to acquire property through the traditional methods of a capitalist society, but if providing housing to marginalized communities can help reduce the inequality gap, these projects are worth the effort.
However, it is crucial that any projects remain rooted within the communities and that external organizations and companies involved approach these projects with humility and a lack of ownership or “saviorism.”
In the Meantime…
An important number of research projects are available in other countries beside Mexico such as Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, many of which are creating prototypes of ecological bricks, lighter in weight and more affordable. If this seems to be the path to follow, we need to take bolder rather than symbolic actions in which the reviving of traditional practices brings better opportunities and results that are measured and reported.
The urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not only for corporations but for individuals as well and I believe we can use this urgency to create community. How? By pushing for more answers and measurable results regarding the actions taken to achieve the climate and social goals we pursue. For the time being, whoever wants to get involved in this cause, has to figure it out on their own.