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Waxing lyrical on candelilla

Softening candelilla wax has a rich, buttery texture that protects and hydrates the skin and hair. A popular, vegan alternative to beeswax, you'll find it used as an emulsifier in creams and lotions where it helps to bind together ingredients and adds texture. 

 

In a remote region of Mexico, a few hours' drive outside of Monterrey, candelilleros are busy harvesting a shrub. Candelilla (Euphorbia cerficera), a plant that thrives in the semi-arid conditions of the Chihuahuan Desert produces a waxy substance that can be used as an excellent substitute for beeswax in cosmetics and hair care products.

With a history of candelilla being over harvested, the candelilleros need a permit to be able to collect the protected plant to ensure its sustainability. Before this happens, each specific area of land is surveyed and monitored in order to ensure that the process is not detrimental to the local ecosystem and is done sustainably. The production of the wax is now around a tenth of what it was in its peak in the 1940s. Not only are there regulations in place to prevent the over-harvesting, there are also conservation and reforestation measures to replant and re-cultivate candelilla.

Harvesting candelilla has been taking place for around 100 years and the process has not changed much in this time. Providing education to candelilleros and the younger generation to care for their land and practise safe harvesting techniques is crucial, not only for the candelilla species and the rich local habitat, but also for the people and communities who depend on this natural resource.

One of the biggest issues that surrounds these rural communities is people abandoning agricultural activities. This is being addressed through an organisation called the Candelilla Institute, which works to unite academics, businesses, the government and also candelilla-producing communities. The aim is to not only improve the social, economic and environmental conditions of the region, but also to develop new ways of using the candelilla for other purposes and to improve systems currently in place.

When harvesting is underway, the candelillero never takes more than 60% of a plant so it has enough strength to regrow. Previously, candelilla leaves were cut rather than pulled from the ground, which would mean the plant would not grow back and die.

The crude wax (called cerote) that is extracted by the candelilleros after harvesting is taken to a processing area in the local village. It is then transported to the manufacturing plant near Monterrey where this is filtered and processed further to produce the wax that Lush purchase. Around 220kgs of candelilla plant produces approximately 7kgs of crude wax, which demonstrates just how important sustainable techniques and reforestation practices are to the species.

The wax provides a valuable, regular income and formal job source to the people of the remote and rural regions of the Chihuahuan Desert. Candelilla is not the only valuable resource to the people of these areas. When harvesting rates are reduced during the rainy season, other desert plants such as lechuquilla and oregano provide alternative sources of income.

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