New protections for equines working in “poor man’s tequila” industry

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A mule at work grinding piñas during the production of mezcal.
A mule at work grinding piñas during the production of mezcal. © The Donkey Sanctuary

Donkeys and mules in Mexico who are integral to the production of “hip new tipple” mezcal are at the centre of a new agreement to improve equine welfare on small-scale agricultural projects.

Previously considered the poor man’s tequila, mezcal is similarly made but using a wider range of native agave plants. With its more rustic and smoky flavour, the alcoholic beverage is gaining popularity as a hip new tipple across the US and beyond.

Donkeys and mules are involved from the start, collecting agave hearts (piñas) and the firewood to slow burn them from the steep hills and forests of southern Mexico. Piñas are roasted until soft, then donkeys and mules grind them in a traditional process using large stone wheels.

The work is highly seasonal and the workload for equines increases during peak times with a higher impact on welfare due to longer days and greater loads to carry. Peak season also aligns with the end of the dry season when food and water are scarcer, and the start of a season when biting flies are most prevalent.

The artisanal method for producing mezcal involves mules to grind the smoked piñas into shreds which can then be fermented. Ensuring that their welfare is well catered for in this process means not only means a better life for the mules, but also economic advantages through greater efficiency, lower healthcare costs and longer working lives.

An agreement between The Donkey Sanctuary and Heifer International aims to improve the welfare of the equines working in Oaxaca State in Mexico while also boosting income for their owners.

These two global organisations bring together decades of expertise in animal welfare and poverty alleviation projects, which will be key to improving conditions for working equines and the communities that depend on them for a living.

Working from offices in Oaxaca State, the two global charities will coordinate and implement the joint project: “Piloting approaches to equid welfare in Mexico’s artisanal industries project”. This will initially focus on improving the welfare of donkeys and mules used in the production of mezcal.

“It is about achieving fair trade to benefit families and generate greater opportunities that in turn improve quality of life for these communities,” said Victor Garcia, National Director of Heifer, Mexico.

“But consumers are entitled to know about the welfare of animals and the production process that brings food to their table. Social justice demands this.”

Garcia also pointed out that the Mexican government needed to get involved in the projects and “consider developing economic zones and projects to protect the environment from deforestation, for example, as mezcal production involves extensive use of firewood from local forests”.

Ceris Turner-Bailes, Global Programmes Director at The Donkey Sanctuary, said that while the welfare of donkeys and mules remains central to the charity’s work, the human-animal dynamic needed to be taken into account to generate sustainable change in working conditions for equines.

“While implementing the social improvement programmes we will document evidence to show how improving the welfare of donkeys and mules always strengthens livelihoods for communities that depend on them,” Turner-Bailes said.

The joint project was signed in Mexico City on May 24 by Turner-Bailes and Garcia. The initial agreement is for two years and incorporates regular project assessment meetings.

Heifer International works with global partners to put the entrepreneurial power of self-reliance in the hands of small-scale farmers by connecting them to markets and their local and national economies.

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