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MEXICO: Craftswomen Weave a Better Future Out of Recycled Garbage

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Aug 2 2010 (IPS) - Women’s laughter fills the rectangular room on the ground floor of a building that houses a school for 250 local children, on the southern edge of Mexico City’s sprawling metropolitan area.

Conchita Martínez, standing, and other Mitz craftswomen. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

Conchita Martínez, standing, and other Mitz craftswomen. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

The room seems too small to contain the two dozen women busy cutting and folding strips of plastic laminated paper recovered from discarded food wrappers. The strips will later be plaited using a traditional palm-leaf weaving technique passed down by the Nahua people.

The women run a craft centre that is part of the local cooperative “Mitz” (a Nahuatl word that means “For you”), where they use recycled material to make bags, coin purses, date books, picture frames, Christmas decorations and accessories, having achieved a monthly production of about 3,000 craft items.

With skilled hands, Conchita Martínez, 45, sews the braided straps together, giving shape to a handbag.

“It’s such a great feeling of accomplishment to see one of our handbags sold in Germany, a country we know nothing about, because we’ve never left this place,” she said when IPS visited the cooperative.

The craft centre is located in Palo Solo, a small community of 5,000 embedded on a hillside in the municipality of Huixquilucan, and characterised by high levels of poverty and marginalisation.

Just two hours from downtown Mexico City by car, Huixquilucan is marked by strong contrasts, as affluent residential neighbourhoods lie alongside grey shantytowns where native communities live without the most basic services, such as sanitation.

Mitz crafts are sold in Germany, Belgium, Spain, the United States, Britain and Italy, at prices ranging from 15 to 140 dollars, and the income generated by the sales has enabled the 50 women of the cooperative and their families to become economically self-sufficient.

And especially important for these women, the income also allows them to run the Children’s House of Palo Solo, a school built over 20 years ago on top of what used to be a garbage dump, and which has become the only school in Mexico to apply the Montessori method to teach underprivileged children.

Since it was formed seven years ago, the Mitz cooperative has put 2,500 boys and girls from the community through school on scholarships financed by the income obtained from recycling over 40 tons of industrial waste.

Beatriz Santiago, a mother of ten and grandmother of 13 — almost all of them students at the school — is one of the five founding members of the cooperative. She says that the project has made it possible for them to implement an alternative model of community involvement.

“It’s amazing to see how really intelligent housewives, who were just sitting at home wasting away, come here and are completely transformed in every sense, even in their relationship with their families,” she said. While some craftswomen work at home, she added, many prefer to come to the centre.

“We also had a few men, not many, though, and they eventually left for health reasons. But we don’t just accept women, and the only age requirement for participating is the one established by law, which is that workers must be 18 years or older. The only thing we ask from anyone who wishes to join is that they be willing to work and that they complete a training course,” Santiago said.

Before joining the cooperative, Conchita Martínez worked as a domestic. Now she can’t believe her luck, because she has a job that not only gives her economic independence, but has also enhanced her relationship with her family.

“My husband has a job, but he sits down with me to help with the cutting, and that gives us a chance to talk; it’s an excuse to share a family moment. It’s like I always tell him: ‘these bags are not just a way to make money’,” she said excitedly.

Instrumental in making the cooperative happen was Judith Achar, a social worker who was responsible for building the school and who has organised cooking and sewing workshops for the community. It was in those workshops that many of the craftswomen met her.

In 2003, Achar noticed how one of the indigenous communities she was working with used recycled paper, and she thought it would be a good idea to implement the technique in Palo Solo. She then formed the Mitz Foundation, under the slogan “Weaving Our Future,” and set up the cooperative.

She gathered up a group of people who promised to set aside a portion of their earnings to fund the school, and focused on making the craft production process more professional, “in order to transform a social effort into a social business,” she said.

That, according to Achar, is the key to the success of the Mitz initiative. “The only way to pull human beings out of poverty is through productive projects. Charity only creates bad habits. Productivity, by contrast, restores people’s dignity,” she said.

In the beginning, the craftswomen recall, they gathered and painted discarded snack wrappers, mostly from the Mexican brand Sabritas, a popular manufacturer of potato chips, candy bars and other snacks. Achar, who is in charge of Mitz sales, arranged for multinational corporations such as Mars, Pepsico, Terracycle and Starbucks to supply the crafts centre with their discarded wrappers.

The agreement with Mars proved particularly important as it allowed the craftswomen to put their products up for sale in M&M World Stores in the U.S. cities of New York, Orlando, Florida and Las Vegas.

According to the foundation’s records, the centre has sold over 150,000 items to date, generating more than one million U.S. dollars in income, with a 50 percent growth in production over the last four years.

Angélica Martínez, who organises the work of the craftswomen, explained that 50 percent of the earnings is divided equally among the craftswomen, 20 percent is invested in the school, another 20 percent is used to cover production costs, and the remaining 10 percent is for operating expenses.

The Mitz model combines fair trade and renewable energy with efforts aimed at promoting self-sufficiency, solidarity and education.

On Jun. 3, as part of the three-day celebrations of World Environment Day 2010 in Rwanda, under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Achar received an Energy Globe World Award for Sustainability from the international environmental organisation Energy Globe.

The Mitz initiative was chosen “best industrial waste recycling project” among 75 projects from around the world.

It was also selected as a finalist in the 2007 World Challenge competition organised by BBC World News, Newsweek and Shell to promote grassroots innovative projects or small businesses from around the world that make a difference.

“It’s great to look at our centre and realise how far we’ve come,” said Martínez, who plans to continue in the cooperative for many more years, in her role of “cheery grandma.”

“As Mexican women, this is a very important venture for us; but it’s also an option that’s open to men, because we’ve proven that with organisation and solidarity you can have a good job and make a good life for yourself, without having to go up there (to northern Mexico) to find work with drug dealers,” she said.

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