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Kiss of death in the cactus garden January 4th, 2015 by

It may be a slight turn off to learn that the sexy red color in lipstick comes from squished bugs, called cochineal. But wait, it gets worse.

Cochineal live on the prickly pear which is native to the Americas. Cochineal was grown in ancient times in Mexico and Peru, but much less so in Bolivia.

The soft-bodied cochineal or scale insects are so full of crimson juice that the insects look like berries, covered with a delicate white dust. The female cochineal barely moves during its lifetime, clinging like a tick to the leaves of the prickly pear. The needles of the cactus no doubt offer some protection from birds and other insectivores.

The colonial Mexicans dried the cochineal (like raisins) and exported them to Europe, to dye the red coats of the British army, among other gear. Synthetic dyes invented in the 19th century ended the cochineal trade in Mexico, but it lingered in Peru. Then in the late 20th century natural dyes became fashionable, and were now favored for food, cosmetics, and fabrics. Peruvian cochineal was back in business.

In South America, people love the prickly pear fruit, carefully peeled that is. The thick skin is full of nearly invisible hair-like thorns, called qhepu, in the native Quechua language, which are a pain to get out of your poor fingertips if you harvest the fruit badly.

One of my elderly relatives remembers a man he used to know, who would vanish when the prickly pear fruit came into season, living in the cactus groves and eating nothing but their fruit for weeks.

Then the party ended. From about 1987, when dried cochineal was selling for over $100 a kilo, NGOs encouraged farmers in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to raise the insect on local prickly pear stands, to harvest the cochineal and sell them for a profit. The prickly pear was native to Bolivia, but the cochineal was uncommon.

But by the 1990s the price of cochineal soon tumbled to as low as $17. The bugs were not worth the trouble to harvest, which was a pity, because by then they were everywhere. People had taken the cochineal to new areas that had been free of it. The cochineal then escaped from the cactus gardens where they were seeded, and became a pest of prickly pear in the valleys of Bolivia. Prickly pear cactus loses much of its fruit when bugs sip away its sap. We still eat some of the delicious fruit in Bolivia, but not as much as before.

Smallholder farmers tried getting rid of the cochineal with insecticide, but the cactus leaves are covered with a thick layer of wax, and the insecticide slips right off.

The cochineal market is a roller coaster. Only a few hundred tons of the dried bugs are sold worldwide. A bumper crop in Peru can swamp the market. If manufacturers shy away from chemicals, the demand for natural colors can soar. Or prices can fall when industry returns to synthetic dyes. Bolivian cochineal was rarely exported at all, apparently never able to compete with the established producers in Peru, which exports its entire production.

Development is full of stories of magic species that were going to solve all the poor’s problems: bamboo, gliricidia, and tilapia, among a few. Developers also hold onto some magic ideas that just won’t go away. One cherished myth is that smallholder poverty can be solved by exporting a commodity which they have never even grown before. The moral of the story is: start small; grow something you can eat and sell on the local market, before you try to export it. It would have been better to encourage families to grow the cactus for its fruit, which is good to eat and good to sell. After all, you can’t have your cochineal and eat your cactus fruit too.

Scientific names:

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)

Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.)


The NGOs that introduced cochineal to Cochabamba included Fepade (Fundación para el Desarrollo) and Tukuypaj (“for everyone”) and the Bolivian Export Foundation, with funding from the World Bank and the Dutch Government.

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