SANTA ANA DEL RÍO, MEXICO — In the mile-high village of Santa Ana del Río, in the southern state of Oaxaca, Paula Pérez’s husband and in-laws earn their living by selling maguey, a type of agave used to make mezcal.
They use a donkey to lug maguey and wood down from the agave-laden mountains. Recently, Pérez, 27, decided they needed another. “With one donkey, we can’t bring down enough maguey plants for what we use for the mezcal each week,” she says.
There was only one problem: A donkey costs 12,000 Mexican pesos ($603).
Pérez was stunned. Eight years earlier, her brother-in-law had bought one for 500 pesos ($25). But since then, the market value of these animals has skyrocketed, along with the popularity of a Chinese medicine whose key ingredient is donkey-hide gelatin.
The donkey’s newfound favor abroad has meant growing scarcity at home, and rural Mexicans find their lives transformed as they now work more and earn less. Women in towns and villages have borne the brunt of this shift.
“In many communities, donkeys support women in their work. As donkeys help with the work, they help reduce vulnerability in women,” says Mariano Hernández, a veterinary surgeon who heads the department of equine medicine, surgery and zootechnics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
It’s hard to overstate how much work donkeys do. In rural areas, where 21% of Mexicans live, the animals carry, among other things, water, crops, wood, fodder, honey, clothes, merchandise and maguey.
Aline Súarez del Real, GPJ Mexico
Until 2018, the country was home to the largest donkey population in the Americas, most of them in the states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Mexico, Guerrero and Puebla. Mexico’s most recent agriculture, livestock and forestry census, in 2007, registered 581,401 donkeys.
That number has almost certainly slipped in recent years, Hernández says. As part of a university program, he used to visit rural communities across Mexico to help manage donkey health. Some places were once home to hundreds, even thousands, of donkeys, he says, “and then there were only four left.”
Hernández would ask, “‘What happened?’ And they told us that [someone] had come to buy them because they are taking their skin to China.”
Each donkey hide can produce up to 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of gelatin, known as ejiao, the base of remedies that allegedly treat anemia, insomnia, nausea, irregular menstrual bleeding and lung damage. Some Chinese websites say it regenerates blood and helps halt aging.
Products with ejiao sell on sites such as Amazon, Etsy and Health Wisdom, and Google searches for ejiao are trending upward worldwide, with the highest numbers coming from Indonesia.
Emiliano Muñoz lives in San Pedro Taviche, a municipality in Oaxaca. He used to own a donkey, but it died of old age. Now, every couple of weeks, he hauls 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of copal wood on his back.
“Ever since the price of donkeys went up, I haven’t been able to buy another one,” says Muñoz, an artisan who uses the wood to make whimsical sculptures called alebrijes.
Rogaciano García, who lives in Juchitepec de Mariano Riva Palacio, a town in the state of Mexico, owns four donkeys and uses them for grazing. He has no plans to sell them, though people have asked.
“They offered me up to 5,000 pesos ($250) for the youngest donkey I have,” he says.
The growing lack of donkeys has recast rural labor, particularly for women, says Oaxaca-based sociologist Miriam Méndez. In regions where many men migrate to the United States, women often remain to run the work at home and in the fields. “Donkeys became the women’s right-hand man,” Méndez says.
Lourdes Miguel, who also lives in San Pedro Taviche, says the coronavirus pandemic forced her husband to sell their donkey last September for 6,000 pesos ($300).
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But she’s now paying the price, as the donkey’s work has fallen on her. To make money, her husband moved to northern Mexico to toil on blackberry plantations. That leaves Miguel to load firewood and fodder herself three or four times a week because she can only carry so much each time. The donkey used to make the trip once a week.
“Now that it’s gone, I have nothing to help me bring in the fodder and wood,” she says. “If I really need it, I pay 100 pesos [$5] a day to borrow a donkey.”
Meanwhile, Pérez says she didn’t realize how important a donkey was until she moved to her husband’s mountainous village.
Cheerful and energetic, Pérez lives in a cement-floor house hemmed in by plants and trees. Her daughter, husband and father-in-law live with her, and several other in-laws and their children reside nearby.
She is scrambling to save money from selling corn atole – a porridge-like drink – which earns her 50 pesos ($2.50) a day. She’s also turned to raising chickens and selling their eggs. But she still hasn’t made enough.
A second donkey would not only help her husband. It would also help carry the three liters of atole that she hauls to a neighbor’s house each morning to sell.
“I didn’t know how to use donkeys, but once I learned, it occurred to me just how necessary they are for the work around the household,” Pérez says. “If I don’t have a donkey, I’m the one who carries the load.”
Ena Aguilar Peláez is a Global Press Journal reporter based in the state of Oaxaca. She was born in Mexico City.
Aline Suárez del Real is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Tecámac, in the state of Mexico. She studied at Technological University of Mexico.