The Donkey Sanctuary and Heifer International have signed an agreement aimed at improving the welfare of Mexican donkeys and mules working to produce the artisanal alcohol mezcal, while also maintaining income for their owners.

The 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.

The charities will be operating from offices in Oaxaca State to coordinate and implement the joint project. This will initially focus on improving the welfare of donkeys and mules used in the production of mezcal, a drink distilled from agave plants.

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 trendy drink across the US and beyond.

Donkeys and mules are both at the heart of mezcal production and at the heart of the communities that rely on mezcal as their main source of income. They are responsible for 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, and then donkeys and mules help to grind them in a traditional process using stone wheels.

Mule grinding piñas for mezcal, Mexico
Agave hearts (piñas)
Agave plants
Mule grinding agave hearts to make mezcal.

The work is highly seasonal and the workload for equines increases during peak times with 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.

Central to the partnership between The Donkey Sanctuary and Heifer International is the understanding that good animal welfare and human socio-economic stability go hand-in-hand.

Ceris Turner-Bailes, Global Programmes Director at The Donkey Sanctuary says:

“While the welfare of donkeys and mules remains central to The Donkey Sanctuary’s work, the human-animal dynamic needs 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.”

Victor Garcia, National Director of Heifer, Mexico says: “Consumers are entitled to know about the welfare of animals and the production process that brings food to their table. Social justice demands this.

“It is about achieving fair trade to benefit families and generate greater opportunities that in turn improve quality of life for these communities.”

The joint project was signed in Mexico City on 24 May by Ceris Turner-Bailes for The Donkey Sanctuary and Victor Garcia from Heifer International, Mexico. The initial agreement is for two years and incorporates regular project assessment meetings.

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