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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 154 | Mayo 1994
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Nicaragua

The Sacred Jicaro Tree: An Economic Solution

With products of the jicaro it is possible to feed people and cattle and to fuel industry and cars. The jicaro is also an important means of democratizing cattle-raising, giving more opportunity to small farmers.

Raquel Fernández

As the old Mayan codes tell it, the jícaro tree grew out of the liberation of the people. Recent scientific research is finding that this tree offers economic responses that could help liberate our impoverished peasantry today.

Jícaro trees abound in Nicaragua's arid western zones the dry tropics. With no encouragement from anyone, a jícaro seed will suddenly sprout and flourish in any old vacant lot or garden.
The tree itself is striking and unusual. Its ligneous trunk and thin, twisted branches rise up gracefully during the dry season. In the rainy season, it is covered with stiff little green leaves that shake gently in the wind. Year round it is adorned with gourd like, round or oval green balls called jícaras, which appear in the least expected places. They are not a fruit, but an excrescence, a swelling of the tree's woody parts.

These jícaras have a very hard shell and, inside, a dark purplish pulp, very spongy, where the seeds are embedded. To date, the seeds have only been used to prepare a beverage called horchata and some home remedies. Since time immemorial, those who live in the lands of the jícaro or morro, as the tree is known in other Central American countries have used the shell of the jícara to make bowls and scoops for household use. Simple or intricately etched glasses are made out of the oval jícaras, from which people drink horchata or the corn based pinolillo.

Beautiful but Poor

The jícaro is a beautiful, but poor tree. Or, rather, it is impoverished, like the descendants of those pre Colombian Mayans who worshipped it as sacred, and sang of it in the Popul Vuh. Like them, the jícaro has been uprooted from the good lands now dedicated to more profitable crops and relegated to marginal zones where there has been neither infrastructure of any type nor attention to the human beings eking out a living there.

The tree prefers the sandy, porous clay soils of the dry savannah, but it has been forced to adapt to the uniquely impossible lands in Nicaragua useful only for extensive cattle pasture. Beneath a few inches of topsoil in these areas lies a deep bed of solid clay that in the rainy season becomes slippery, but not porous, preventing water from filtering down to the roots that have managed to penetrate it. In the dry season this clay quickly hardens like a vast, baked brick, strangling the roots. Only the jícaro's strong, tough roots can easily withstand the dry season in this kind of soil. They remain intact while the land all around them dries up.

The roots go very deep, which allows the tree to deal with the tremendous variations suffered by this soil in which it grows. Since the roots can get to and absorb nutrients that few others can, the tree does not need artificial fertilizers or pesticides. It would seem that its long exodus to the planet's worst lands has virtually immunized the tree against all types of plagues.

Jícaro trees are the vegetable version of goats. They are strong and resistant, need very little to grow robust, and thrive in places and under conditions that would be virtually impossible for any other species. For these reasons, both the jícaro and the goat are seen through deprecating eyes: they are a tree and an animal for the "poor."

A Well Studied Tree

Unfortunately, the poor don't have the opportunity to investigate how much more these trees could give if they had the chance to develop in an optimal medium instead of being forced like themselves to subsist in such restricted conditions.

The jícaro tree has, however, been the subject of much research. The first studies in Central America regarding its possibilities date back to 1948, when the quality of its proteins caught the attention of a research group in El Salvador. Peasants had already observed that when cows ate jícara pulp, their milk was more flavorful, creamy and nutritional. That was the point of departure for the studies.

The most researched elements of the jícaro were the oil of its seed and the sugar in the pulp surrounding the jícara. A number of Central American countries worked along these lines, although it happened, as it often does, that each country worked alone, without sharing experiences or communicating with the others.

With a significant amount of this dispersed scientific literature in hand, a German named Karsten Jochim built a jícaro processing plant in 1983 to obtain ethanol and other products. But the results were not what he hoped for, so he gave up the project; the jícaro once again fell into oblivion.

Its Fruits Are Many

Jochim's apparent failure did not dampen the enthusiasm of Nikolaus J. Foidl, who came to Nicaragua in 1989 at the head of an Austrian research team. His visit was the result of an agreement between his government, the Sucher and Holzer Company and Managua's National Engineering University (UNI).

Two years ago, the mixed team of Austrian and Nicaraguan researchers began experiments on the jícaro's potential, its practical uses and the economic investment required to make cultivating it profitable.

They discovered or corroborated a number of important things. Among them, that vegetable oil for human consumption can be obtained from the jícaro, as can ethanol, an alcohol for pharmaceutical uses or the production of spirits, vegetable based charcoal, and both a flour and a pulp used in animal feed concentrate.

Villanueva of the Jícaros

Villanueva is a municipality in Chinandega, located near the Honduran border in the midst of a virtually endless stand of jícaro or, to say it in a less idyllic sounding way, in the midst of huge extensions of good for nothing land.

Villanueva's economically active population is officially 5,855 people, of whom 22.6% are totally unemployed. Another 21% are "seasonal" workers, which translates to absolute unemployment during a good part of the year combined with periods of work at salaries that do not allow them to save anything. Yet another 21% are self employed, which really means they are under employed, and survive only because they're too stubborn to die. Only 15.6% are full time workers, but, considering Nicaragua's meager average wage equivalent to $100 monthly in the urban areas and less in the countryside they can't really consider themselves fortunate. The rest are agricultural cooperative members who grow little when they grow anything at all since they can't get financing their lands are not even considered for credit, since they are so marginal.

As an inevitable consequence of the municipality's poverty, nobody is interested in investing there, least of all the government. A neoliberal government is not an institution of national responsibility, much less of social justice or charity. It only has caricature like effects on society, accentuating its characteristics to the nth degree: it makes the poor even poorer, and the rich quite a lot richer.

Villanueva, already seriously poor, is becoming downright impoverished, with neither investment nor infrastructure, increasingly forgotten and abandoned. Lack of opportunity and hunger, paired with alcoholism the brother of desperation and crime, are taking hold of Villanueva with the grip of an epidemic.

As a survival mechanism, the boldest dedicate themselves to rustling cattle across the border to Honduras. Nicaragua's increasingly scarce cattle wealth is thus slipping out through Villanueva's poverty torn pocket.

A Little Light at the Tunnel's End

Because of its extensive jícaro groves and the pressing need to find some solution to its many economic, social and human problems, Villanueva has been chosen by the Austrian Nicaraguan team as the installation site for the first agroindustrial jícaro processing plant. "...Without planting anything for now," explains Foidl. "We'll just use the trees that are spontaneously growing on municipal lands."
At the moment, the projections are to install only a small processing plant, with its corresponding equipment. The value of the installations is a little more than $500,000.
The plant will have a capacity to produce 33,000 gallons of ethanol annually, which is the same amount Nicaragua now imports every year. The price of a metric ton of ethanol on the international market is $2,000; the project will produce it at a cost of $900. Since the price of alcohol is state regulated, work could go on in this area with assured profitability.

The pilot project will also produce 75 tons of crude edible oil to supply the country's processing plants. Those plants are having tremendous difficulties as a consequence of the cotton crisis, which has left them without their key raw material cottonseed.

They are currently forced to import 80% of the country's cooking oil consumption a year, equal to 24,000 tons, so the oil that Villanueva's pilot project will produce will barely meet 0.4% of Nicaragua's annual demand. That may seem an insignificant quantity, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that oil is only one fruit of a project that is beginning with a minimal investment. More than anything, the Villanueva population can be assured of a market.

Protecting the Forest

The Jícaro tree's ligneous bark is an excellent raw material for vegetable based charcoal. The country currently consumes some 20,500 metric tons of charcoal, equivalent to some 1,000 hectares of burned forest.

The Villanueva project will produce some 250 tons annually, thus avoiding the destruction of some 13 hectares of forest lands. This also might seem like very little, but it is a first, important step towards a desirable industrialization of the jícaro bark.

With the experience gained in this pilot project, it will be possible in the future to have all vegetable based charcoal come from jícaro bark. This would significantly protect Nicaragua's forests. Since most of the wood cut to make charcoal is used domestically, the Austrian Nicaraguan team is also working to improve the efficiency of cooking stoves, so they use less charcoal.

The charcoal obtained from jícaro bark does not look like the charcoal housewives now use, so they might reject it. To thwart this possibility, the charcoal will be pressed in a special machine so it takes on the same form and color as what is already used in many kitchens throughout the country.

As for the flour and concentrate cakes used for cattle feed, the market is ready made. Nicaragua is a cattle ranching country that today must import both these products. Even Villanueva is a cattle ranching zone that needs them.

To get all these products so indispensable to the national economy, the new project will use barely half of the 7,000 hectares of seemingly valueless jícaro forest that extend the length and breadth of Villanueva.

In a couple of years, when the project begins to function, it will need some of the water and electricity now coming into the municipality, but not too much (only 5% of its electricity and 11% of its water). The public water utility pumps water to only 16% of Villanueva's houses; wells supply the rest. The potential problems that could come with project installation are thus few and will surely be resolved quickly.

Jobs and Taxes

Among the positive results, the first will be the generation of jobs. Not too many full time ones, since the processing plant will only need 11 or 12 people year round at first, but it will need 500 harvesters for four months every year. And they are the best four months, between January, the end of the crop harvest, and May, when the land must be prepared for the next planting cycle. In other words, the months of greatest desperation and hunger in the countryside.

Each harvester will make about $200. It's not much, an average of about $50 monthly. But in Nicaragua, where the whole family usually works in a given harvest, it would work out to about $600 over the four months, which would put a bit of bread on the table. For families that have the bleakest of horizons today, even that is hard to come by.

The plant will also pay taxes to the municipality. At the moment, it is calculated that those taxes will be at least $10,000 annually, which could be invested in the improvements so needed by the community.

Where there is nothing, nobody invests. But if something already exists that is producing and functions successfully, it acts as an incentive to other investments and projects. The project's positive results should oblige the government to make investments that will benefit those who have historically been excluded.
To start with, it will be important to improve the roads in the area, because the project is designed to buy the jícaras at the processing plant, so reasonably accessible roads will be needed to transport them there. The products will also have to get from the plant to their various markets. All of this activity will strengthen transportation services and improve the road networks, with the corresponding indirect advantages.

To guarantee that the project has as many beneficial results as possible and that the benefits stay in the area, the project will by implemented and developed by cooperatives.

Much Still to be Done

"All of this can be achieved with a small plant that takes advantage of only half of the jícaros in only one municipality, without attempting to improve them or plant anything," says Foidl. "But now the real work begins to obtain better jícaros, with optimum density and fruits increasingly appropriate to our aims."
Growing in the wild, as they do today, tree density is between 20 and 240 trees per hectare. The quantity of jícaras per tree ranges between 5 and 600 a year, with an average of 60. Tree sizes range tremendously as well, which could mean that scientifically controlled genetic improvement would translate into trees producing many more jícaras than the current average, and larger ones, with a higher protein, sugar and oil content.

The jícaro's green gourds are its greatest wealth. Their production begins when the tree is between four and five years old and peaks, in the case of wild jícaros, at between eight and twelve years. Foidl's team has proposed to develop research aimed at obtaining a jícaro tree that can live in densities greater than 400 trees per hectare, and has a per tree production of 200 jícaras weighing an average 350 380 grams.

Cane or Jícaro Ethanol?

With this kind of average yield, industrial production of ethanol could begin. Ethanol is a clean fuel that could replace gasoline. There are motors today that were designed to use ethanol and many vehicles that use these motors. The only problem is that if the motor currently uses gasoline, it would have to be changed.

Sugar cane is an important source for ethanol production. With 100 kg. of sugar cane, seven liters of ethanol can be obtained, whereas 100 kg. of jícaro pulp can produce only six liters. But there are many problems with using sugar cane for ethanol production, not the least of which is the cost of cultivation. Sugar cane needs mechanization, and thus fuel, as well as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer. Jícaro needs none of that. It grows on its own, without anybody worrying much about it.

Sugar cane also needs fairly good soils, which over time are eroded and degraded. The jícaro grows in any soil and, little by little, the land is enriched and improved through the leaves that fall and serve as natural fertilizer. Cane only produces sugar and its derivatives and ethanol, and nothing else can grow on the land at the same time. Jícaro produces oil, ethanol, charcoal and livestock concentrate, and its lace like shade lets sunlight pass down to the ground, allowing for cattle pasturing at the same time.

Everything is Used

Transforming the jícaras into the different products takes place in distinct stages, which try to make maximum use of the raw material and leave the smallest possible amount of waste. The first step is in a triturator with three exit ports one for the pulp, one for the seeds and one for the shell.

The pulp undergoes a fermentation and distillation process that culminates in the production of alcohol and a product called "vinaza," which is used as cattle feed.

The seeds, after being dried, are stored in silos until they are put through a press. That process makes the feed cakes for cattle and an oil highly mixed with flour. A filtering press then extracts the crude edible oil from the flour. Once separated, the flour is also used for animal feed.

The shell goes to a carbonizer, which turns it into charcoal. During this process, inflammable gasses are released, which are used for alcohol distillation. Thus, no other fuel is needed for the operations necessary to transform the different parts of the jícara.

The Most Important Element

Because this tree lets sunlight through and allows for the growth of pasture during the rainy season, the jícaro combines well with extensive cattle ranching. Traditionally, the jícaro, tree of the poor, has been linked to raising "skinny cows."
The jícaro zones, and Villanueva in particular, are the areas where, in the best of times, the national cattle herd is reproduced and expanded. Now, the small cattle ranchers in these miserable zones carry on their shoulders the tremendous burden of replacing the cattle that have been lost to death, slaughter and cattle rustling since the beginning of the war. Without their valuable contribution, Nicaragua would no longer have cattle.

But they are poor ranchers, raising "skinny cows." They can produce calves, but can't turn them into big steers. When the animals' appetites become voracious in the last stage of infancy, these small breeders simply do not have enough to feed them. So they sell them off. Otherwise the animals would just die of hunger. And they sell them at disadvantageous prices since an animal weighing under 200 kg. has no commercial value. This is the moment when the large cattle rancher appears the one who never sees a calf born on his land and buys the animal for a song. It may have no commercial value, but the most difficult, expensive and dangerous stage of its development has passed, the time of high mortality, vaccinations, the sleepless nights with a sick animal. The big ranchers, who want nothing to do with this stage, then fatten the animals on their extensive pasture and finally sell them for beef on the international market at a handsome profit.

Although the jícaro produces an emerald colored feed inside the jícaras that is excellent for fattening cattle, the small breeders can't gather enough gourds, split them open and get the substance in sufficient quantities to really satisfy their calves. And that's where another aspect of the project comes in. Processing the jícaro makes this high quality feed available to these breeders at precisely the time when no pasture is available. Thus they could fatten their calves and sell them at higher prices, and truly enjoy the fruit of their efforts.

Both the risks and the benefits would thus be democratized. The risks, because if the large ranchers wanted to sell beet, they would have to raise the calves, with all the corresponding losses. And the benefits, because the small breeders would get all the fruits of their efforts. That sharing both risks and benefits equitably is also democracy.

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