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ARGENTINA: Fair Prices for Indigenous Crafts

Maricel Drazer

BUENOS AIRES, May 24 2006 (IPS) - “With this purchase, you are helping craftspeople feed their families, educate their children and stay on their land,” says the label on products sold by the Silataj fair trade crafts association in Argentina, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

The aim of the non-profit Silataj (which means “the best” in the Wichí indigenous tongue) Foundation is to improve living conditions in indigenous communities in northern Argentina by generating employment opportunities through the marketing of handicrafts.

According to the 2001 census, close to four percent of Argentina’s population of 37 million are indigenous people, who belong to various ethnic groups spread throughout the country, and who share many of the same problems: land ownership struggles, unemployment, poverty, marginalisation, and the erosion of their ancestral cultural identity.

“Crafts are not the same as just any product that you buy in a store or supermarket,” Silataj volunteer Dolores Bulit told IPS. “Handicrafts have a symbolic value that expresses years of culture, wisdom and ways of life of (indigenous) communities.”

The cultural dimension of the initiative is especially important. “The promotion of indigenous culture and the salvaging of indigenous values” is one of the organisation’s stated goals.

“We currently work with 28 communities belonging to seven different ethnic groups: Wichí, Chorote, Chiriguano Chané, Toba, Pilagá, Colla and Guaraní,” Noel Ros, director and cofounder of Silataj, told IPS.

“Each community specialises in a certain kind of craft, depending on the materials available to them. In some places that means sheep wool, in others, wood from fallen Floss Silk (Chorisia speciosa) or Palo Santo (Bulnesia sarmientoi) trees,” said Bulit.

The wide range of products offered includes tapestries, woven material, necklaces, bracelets, carved wood sculptures and utensils, and pottery.

Silataj also encourages the use of ancestral techniques and traditional patterns, designs and colours from each region.

Members of the Foundation travel every two or three months to the communities that produce the crafts, located in the northern provinces of Salta, Formosa, Jujuy and Misiones, “except for in the winter, when the roads are blocked,” explained Ros.

“These are really isolated, remote communities, located far from towns and cities, roads and markets. So we are the link between them and the consumer in the city of Buenos Aires or other places around the country,” said Bulit.

The members of Silataj maintain direct contact with their suppliers, without intermediaries – one of the Foundation’s basic principles. “We sit down with each craftsperson and agree on the price of the product,” said Ros, who personally runs that aspect of the business.

The challenge is then to get the price accepted at the other end of the production chain – for example, a retail shop in the upscale Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Belgrano – where little is known about the principles of fair trade.

“In general terms, you don’t have a responsible consumer out there, concerned about knowing what lies behind each product, how it has been produced, whether it was produced with exploitative child labour, women were paid the same as men, or the environment was damaged in the process, or if the price paid to the craftsperson was a decent price or a mere pittance,” said Bulit.

“What predominates is a culture of watching one’s pocketbook, of paying a low price at all cost,” she added.

So “we try to explain to customers what work has gone into the product, because if people don’t understand how a yica (a small purse) is made, it is hard for them to really value it,” said Ros.

“Making a yica involves walking several kilometres to find a Chaguar (Bromelia hieronymi – a thorny plant that grows in arid places) bush, collect the fibres, dry them out and dye them. It’s not just a question of weaving a little bag,” she pointed out.

Silataj has grown steadily since it was founded 20 years ago. The income generated by sales covers expenses and is reinvested in the local indigenous communities, in projects like reforestation, the digging of wells, scholarships for children and adolescents, and the training of local teachers.

Meanwhile, the money paid to the craftspeople covers their basic needs. Ros still remembers what a woman from the Wichí community in the province of Salta once told her: “Since you have been buying our products from us, we have gotten used to eating every day.”

Fair prices or a living wage, no exploitative child labour or forced labour, responsible consumption, sustainable use of the environment, technical and financial assistance for local producers, healthy and safe working conditions, and respect for local cultural identities are the basic principles of the international fair trade movement.

Two years ago, Silataj and 20 other organisations created the Fair Trade Network of Argentina.

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