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Succulent Secrets of the Agave

Who knew?  It turns out that the agave cactus is a very versatile plant, with many uses that fit perfectly with the eco-friendly way of life of the people of Chilcapamba, Ecuador.

Here are five ways you can use this surprising succulent:

  1. Sandals
  2. Household cleaning fluid
  3. Cord and braided rope
  4. Needle and thread
  5. Dental floss

At first you can’t help but wonder how on earth the thick, thorny leaf held in the hand of Luis Alfonso Morales, our Chilcapamban guide, can possibly be transformed something comfortable that you can put on your feet and walk on for miles. His sandals  have a thin,white, woven toe cover and heel guard sewn onto a thick pad of braided cord. Perfect for picking your way through the  hilly green fields and up into the dusty purple mountains and volcanos rising up all around this gentle valley in rural Ecuador.  But his sandals look like they are made of soft white linen, not tough green cactus.

With a proud twinkle in his eye, Sr. Morales introduces an elderly gentleman sitting nearby, who shows us the whole sandal making process. There are many steps to follow.

First you need to squish fibers out of agave leaves, using a plank of wood as a backboard and a wooden rolling pin with a metal edge. The leaf is strapped to the backboard which is then propped up against the front of your legs. You have to  lean over and use the whole weight of your body to push down on the rolling pin and compress the leaf.

As the rollingpin is pushed downwards, a viscous liquid seeps down the board, and a  sharp, astringent smell fills the air. If you rub this fluid between you fingers, and it foams up like shaving cream. Sr. Morales says us that this fluid is stronger than most soaps, and is used as a household cleaner.

After a few more passes, the green skin is scraped away, and long whitish strands begin to emerge out of the jelly goo inside the leaf.  These strands are washed, dried and rolled to separate them into finer threads. As the elderly rubs a strand up and down his shin to separate the fibers into finer threads, you can’t help but notice that his lower leg is very pale and hairless, the shin bone flattened on top after  many years of doing this. He then plucks some thread and twills it between his fingers, making a cord.

We walk into another part of the compound where the elderly gentleman lives. As the door to  a small room off the back of the living quarters creaks open, and in the darkness you can see mounds of flat sided rope made of braided cords. He sits on a low stool and picks up one end of some rope, and winds it around and around, making a spiral circle. He pinches the middle and points out where the pad is sewn together to make a  tight footprint shaped sole for a sandal.

Other agave threads are spun into yarn and woven into fabric for the top and heel covers, which are later attached on top of the footprint pad. A supple yet strong, thin braided cord is added for tying the sandals in place around the ankle.

The agave plant is even useful in the process of sewing the sandals and other things. If you snap a  spine off a leaftip the right way, a long fiber comes off with it, making a natural needle and thread. (And , by cutting off the spiny tip, and pulling out a fine thread  you have dental floss.)

It’s a lot of work to make one pair of sandals. Apparently it takes about 30 leaves and around two weeks to make one pair of sandals (they only work on artesanal crafts in the hot parts of the day, between farm chores) . They sell them for $15.00 a pair.

With the amount of labour involved, it’s obviously cheaper, faster and easier to go to the store and buy a pair of plastic flip flops. But as Sr. Morales explains, the artesanal way of life here is not just about making art, it’s about making practical things and living in harmony with nature.  Woven agave fibres have helped their culture do everything from domesticating animals to building houses.

Besides, while it may take longer to make sandals and other materials using agave, they are easy and cheap to dispose of when they are worn out. Things made of agave can be added to organic compost, unlike things made of plastic which clog landfills, take forever to decompose and cost to be recycled, both in terms of  money for pay for garbage collection and the water resources needed to recycle inorganic waste.

From mouth to toe there are practical uses for the Agave plant that most people would never suspect, providing  some sensible solutions for living simply and and in harmony with nature. Perhaps we can all take a lesson or two from the self-sustaining , eco-friendly lifestyle choices of the Chilcapambans of Ecuador.

943 words including the list introduction, excluding the title.

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