Around the city of Zacatlán in the north of the state of Puebla, the landscape is strangely attractive to our eyes. It is dominated by the exuberant fleshy leaves of the agave plants or magueys, as they are called in Mexico. As we walk through the long orderly rows of plants on the Hacienda Amoltepec, we talk to Martín Pichardo, the managing director of the company Desarrollos Agropecuarios del Altiplano, who talks with passion about the cultural, economic and historical aspects of this plant and its roots in both Mexican soil and society.
The people of this region have been cultivating magueys for over 10,000 years to produce drinks, food and fibres and for a number of other uses. Around Zacatlán the magueys are basically used to produce pulque, a fermented low-alcohol drink that is well known for its high nutritional value. Other drinks distilled from maguey include mezcal and the better known tequila.
We find it hard not to look at the magueys without a certain sense of respect when Martín tells us that they produce seeds just once, when they flower at the end of their 14-year lifespans that are devoted to accumulating reserves aimed at perpetuating the species. Martín reveals that if there were no bats there would be no magueys. He adds that Mexican culture without magueys would be very different for without bats, which are responsible for pollinating the majority of the plant’s flowers, very few fertile seeds would be produced.
To the east of Zacatlán we head for the Valle de Mezquital, which harbours good populations of pollinating bats. Here Martín Pichardo and his team work to maintain the genetic diversity of the magueys by allowing natural cross-pollinating and preventing the genetic impoverishment of the maguei pulquero, the commonest form of this plant. In the other plantations that Martín Pichardo manages in more humanized areas, bats are scarce and most of the seeds are infertile. Martín explains with satisfaction that, in this case, increasing awareness amongst the rural population of the people of the Valle de Mezquital has been a key element in the protection of the bats as a means to save their agaves. Ramses Alejandro Cuatle, the vet from the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla who is in charge of the control of rabies in the area, confirms this: when outbreaks of rabies occur in the Valle de Mezquital, the ranchers don’t want to let on where the caves with vampires are located. They are worried that the vampire controls could harm the ‘good bats’ and they are well aware of the consequences this would have for their magueys.