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Cochineal, a traditional dye

Oaxacan farmers have found sustenance in the ancient farming tradition of these insects
Sun-dried cochineals - Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez/EL UNIVERSAL
21/12/2017
11:53
Oaxaca
Lizbeth Flores
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Catalina Yolanda López, 66, is convinced music helps the insects grow. At her prickly pear farm – covering half a hectare – this woman uses her peculiar method to raise cochineal, an insect which feeds on prickly pear sap.

From this parasitic insect you can obtain carminic acid, an intense red dye used in the textile, cosmetics, and food industry.

Catalina learned how to create the dye from her Mixtec grandparents and has been using her method for 51 years.

The woman explains you need prickly pears which have been infected by this insects, hidden inside “white sacs.” For 90 days, the plague spreads until the prickly pear is infested. Afterwards, insects are gently brushed from the cacti and exposed to sunlight, where they are left to sun-dry.

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(Catalina Yolanda López brushing off cochineals - Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez/EL UNIVERSAL)

Once dead, cochineal turns a silver or black color. To obtain the dye, insects are ground into a purple powder. Each prickly pear bush provides 2 grams of this Pre-Hispanic dye.

A wide range of reds

Every three months – the biological cycle of the cochineal – Catalina produces up to 20 kilos of cochineal and exports close to 12 to the United States at a price of MXN$3,500 per kg.

In a year, Catalina is able to produce 80 kg of powdered dye and its value is justified, seeing that you can obtain up to 80 hues of red when combined with certain substances like lime juice.

The brightest red is produced by the female cochineal, according to the farmer, who, together with her daughter, use the dye in the production of shampoos, hair gels, and similar products.

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(Insects are ground into a purple powder - Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez/EL UNIVERSAL)

Preservation

Catalina isn't only interested in cochineals to kill them to get the dye. She also makes sure to preserve them. She plays music to them to create an adequate environment so their offspring can survive the three months of their gestation period – not an easy task.

A female cochineal is only able to produce 50 eggs which will manage to hatch and survive, each measuring less than a millimeter. Alive, cochineals are exported to other states of the Mexican Republic and to countries like Panama and Ecuador.

In Oaxaca, cochineal production has always been a vital part of the local economy. In 1973 close to 25 to 30 thousand people were employed in the state to farm cochineal, and Oaxaca is the top cochineal producer among the 15 states in Mexico were cochineal is farmed, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Feeding.

For Claudia, this is a sustainable project, because not only does it encourage land recovery but cochineal farming also provides sustenance to the families dedicated to it.

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