Henequen - Yucatan's green gold

The henequen, known as sisal or “ki” in Mayan, is a species of agave (just like the blue agave that produces tequila) original from the Yucatan peninsula. This particular variety produces very resistant fibers with which ropes, sacks, carpets and, no

The plant easily resists high temperatures and low rainfall, which is why its growth offers no major complications. It has a productive life span of 7 to 10 years within which it can grow from 200 to 250 leaves. It is from the leaves that the aforesaid fiber is obtained through a crushing process. Once obtained, the fiber is sun dried and then transformed into threads of different size – depending on its projected use – through a textile method.

We know that the Maya grew henequen in their home premises; they even achieved to hybridize different varieties in order to obtain more resistant fibers. They used it to make hammocks, sacks, bags, ropes and other products for domestic and work use. Later in the first half of the 19th century, there was an important demand of henequen ropes in the north countries. They used it to wrap cattle food and keep it for the winter.

It is in the last half of such century when other industries discovered the great usefulness of the fiber, such as the shipping and textile ones. The fiber and its different products began to be exported worldwide. During those years the Yucatan peninsula and, specially, Merida city experienced an unprecedented economic growth. That is how many Yucatecan landlords made their fortunes and they made them visible in the lavish civil and private architecture in the areas surrounding downtown.

However due to intense scientific investigation generated by World Wars I & II and the need of lowering expenses during the Great Depression in 1929, synthetic fibers were developed and they invaded the market, making henequen fiber demand go down. Yucatecan economy had to find other products to depend on and survive; the henequen fiber usefulness became limited to ropes and carpets only.

Fortunately in recent years the “environmentally friendly” attitude has brought henequen into scene again as a valuable recyclable resource, although it hasn’t recovered the strong demand it had in the past.