Most effective artisan group at Brillo Nuevo 2014
Dear Friend of the Amazon,
When I sit down to write an update about our project, I normally tell our supporters a brief story about a person or a topic that highlights some recent success. GlobalGiving has inspired me, however, to enter its Fail Forward contest with a story about a few big challenges and failures we have faced working with our native artisan partners in Peru.
I visited Bora, Huitoto and Ocaina native villages along the Ampiyacu River in northern Peru for the first time in June 2008 to see if they would like to work with my new organization to develop and sell handicrafts and other value-added non-timber products from the rainforest. After traveling down the Amazon River for a full day by boat, I arrived in Puca Urquillo for a meeting set to form an association to promote handicraft sales from artisans in the 14 communities in the region. The representative of the NGO that organized the gathering enthusiastically told the artisans that getting better organized and improving the quality of their crafts could greatly increase their sales and income. I followed up with a pitch about the modest success that CACE had had selling woven crafts and jewelry made by campesino artisans from the Ucayali River. Without further discussion, the moderator called for nominations from the floor for the group’s first officers. He then asked the artisans to come up to a dirty white board one at a time and put a mark by the name of their preferred candidate. In this open style of democracy, four popular artisans from the largest villages were duly elected.
When I returned to the Ampiyacu the next year to begin our project, the artisans from Brillo Nuevo complained that the association president from Puca Urquillo had not helped them, visited them or even convened a meeting. I was a bit disappointed but not surprised that the venture was stillborn since it was launched more by an energetic consultant than the artisans and lacked follow-up. While I thought the regional association was premature, I was sure CACE could help the Brillo Nuevo artisans build a strong village level association.
In late 2009, we got enough funding to hire a very capable project manager, Yully Rojas, to visit this Bora community way up the Yaguasyacu River once a month. Artisans were initially enthusiastic about working with us because we encouraged their creativity and bought most of the new types of crafts they produced. For the first year we worked very well with Felicita, the young “leader” of the Brillo Nuevo artisans who was talented, articulate, and respected enough by her peers to pull them together for a meeting or informal skill-sharing session at her house.
We were able to sell some snake-pattern belts designed by the artisans in the second year of the project, but this initial success stalled when we asked them to make more of the most popular models. The women were used to making bags and hammocks one at a time to sell to tourist shops in the city. The artisans who had made beautiful prototypes couldn’t replicate them because they had forgotten the original design or changed the colors because they didn’t have the same dye plants around. Less experienced artisans who made belts with dirty chambira, faded colors, and uneven edges got mad when we told them we couldn’t pay them for poor quality crafts that we couldn’t sell.
Later that year I spent some time with the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme in the Philippines and found that many of the artisan groups they worked with in south and southeast Asia had successfully established quality-control committees to enhance their enterprises. Committee members were helping their fellow artisans improve their skills and building strong reputations with their buyers by inspecting crafts made by their members and only shipping items that met design specifications.
This system seemed like a great way to empower Ampiyacu artisans to improve the consistency and quality of their crafts for the export market. I presented the idea to the artisans from Brillo Nuevo in 2011, and they elected three veteran weavers to form a quality control committee as part of their village artisan association. They also liked CACE’s proposal to give certificates and prizes to the most productive artisans as an additional incentive to improve their quality.
A year later it seemed that all of these ideas had failed because I had assumed that the artisans enjoyed a high level of trust between each other. The artisan Felicita who had inspired her colleagues to work together had left the village with her husband. Her aunt Monica had offered her fellow artisans what she thought were helpful suggestions about ways they could improve their weaving techniques but resigned from the quality control committee after being harshly told by an artisan in a different family to mind her own business. When we gave out the certificates and prizes for the first time, the evening was marked by awkward silence and no supportive cheers. The only thing we did that improved the mood was passing around large bottles of bubblegum flavor soda. After the gathering, one top-honored artisan told me that she and her sisters were going to stop making crafts for us because their success had generated way too many hurtful expressions of jealousy.
It finally became apparent that the lines of tension between the artisans reflected similar divisions of families that attended two churches and routinely argued in community assemblies. Encounters between one woman who was almost always laughing and another who was steadfastly calm could erupt into intense verbal clashes if they started discussing differences over land rights in their adjoining fields going back a generation. I met with several artisan leaders from “both sides” including Ines and Angelina and feared for a time that both groups would stop working with us. I then met with most of the artisans again the day before I left the village and apologized that our initiatives seemed to be causing more harm than good. The artisans agreed that the quality control committee hadn’t worked, but I was surprised that they really wanted to keep receiving the certificates and prizes – we would only award prizes in the future, though, for achievements that we could document like craft sales. Asking the artisans to choose a prize for a more subjective honor like “the artisan who has been the most supportive” would only accentuate their factionalism. Gisela added, “I don’t like it when Sra. Yully doesn’t accept one of my crafts that I have worked hard on, but getting this feedback has really helped me improve my craftmaking.” Most of the artisans nodded in agreement. They then asked me if CACE could provide refreshments for their Christmas party. I said that we would do this if they showed that they could get along with each other.
The next year we were able to buy a greater variety of handicrafts from the artisans in Brillo Nuevo and formed partnerships with artisans from four new native communities along the Ampiyacu. We knew we could sell even more crafts to benefit artisan families if we could expand our sales beyond friendly church craft fairs. The artisans were getting along better, but they still didn’t work together effectively enough to fill wholesale orders for businesses.
We were planning to organize skill-sharing workshops in partner villages last year to help artisans better make specific types of crafts. The Field Museum of Chicago, however, invited us to help them develop and lead a series of interactive workshops in Puca Urquillo and Brillo Nuevo focused on process instead of products. The three part “tool-kit” was designed to help artisans improve their skills with communication, leadership, organization, planning and sustainability. They played games, role-played dealing with buyers, and drew pictures of chambira palm trees they would plant to replenish their fiber for woven crafts. They formed mock companies that competed to make as many woven bracelets of the same design as they could in five minutes. They examined their results, talked about how to do it better, and went again. They worked hard, laughed hard, and enjoyed being together. We saw that these artisans had both a deep desire and capacity to learn new skills. They wanted to sell more crafts to better support their families, and they wanted to gain the confidence and pride of creating quality work.
The other critical lesson we learned during these workshops was that these women were best prepared to learn, cooperate and have fun when they took on challenges with the same small group of close friends and family members they shared their daily lives with. After the workshops, we began dividing up orders for crafts between these natural small groups or mini-associations. One group for example might be responsible for weaving ten hot pads of the same model in one month and organizing work parties to plant chambira palms in each other’s fields. A few artisans are still intent on working solo, but most are embracing or are at least trying to share their skills and be mutually accountable to the people they care for the most. My favorite part of this summer’s artisan award ceremony was giving some fishing line and hooks, a notebook, pens and a cap to Casilda, Dalila, Dolores, Lidaberna and Ortensia whose group completed the total number of quality crafts requested on time for three months in a row.
The artisans of Brillo Nuevo or other villages may eventually want to form functional associations to represent their community and maybe join together in a regional one, but I trust that they will know when the time is right. Our job is to respect and support their organic process, culture and vision.
Thank you very much for your support for our project. Visit our page on GlobalGiving at www.AmazonAlive.net to get more information or make a donation. Please remember that Wednesday, October 15 is the last Bonus Day of the year. Any online contributions made early enough in the day will receive a 30% match from GlobalGiving.
Campbell PlowdenProject Leader and Executive DirectorCenter for Amazon Community Ecology
Bora artisan with woven chambira fiber placemats
Artisans drawing chambira palms at workshop.
Weaving a chambira anaconda style guitar strap
Artisan with woven chambira water bottle carrier
Artisan "train" at leadership workshop
Most effective artisan group in Brillo Nuevo 2014