New Internationalist 322 April 2000
Alternative traders often operate in
countries, and under conditions, where
conventional traders fear to tread.
Peru – hope at hand
Juan Licas Coronado, president of the handicraft group Razu Willka, is taking me to the barrios altos to visit some of the artisans who work there. Bumping over dusty tracks in a battered old minibus with melancholic huayno music screeching out of its broken windows, we rattle up to a part of the city of Ayacucho I never knew existed. Dry, crumbling hillsides are crowded with scruffy settlements, their corrugated-iron roofs glinting in the blinding mountain sunlight. Through years of civil war in Peru, migration has caused Huamanga to grow from a compact little town of 74,000 in 1981 to a sprawling mass of more than 120,000 people today. In a place where formal employment is rarely on offer, handicraft production is often the only alternative.
Alejandro Curo Borda set up his workshop here after he and his family were forced to leave their village in the 1980s. Alejandro works as a carver of the hard white stone known as piedra de huamanga. He shows me around his workshop and explains how he hopes to encourage visitors to come up to the barrios to see the artisans at work, rather than buy on the streets or in the markets of the city.
Victor Quispe Pizarro runs a workshop making retablos – the religious altarpieces for which Ayacucho is justly famous. He is busily completing an order for a European fair-trade customer. On average he earns 50 per cent of the final export price – far more than he could earn locally.
The Razu Willka group belongs to the Centro Interregional de Artésanos de Perú (CIAP), an unusual fair-trade organization that is run entirely by the artisans. There are 16 groups to which some 700 of them belong, mainly in poorer regions like Ayacucho. The organization has built up its own reserves and offers many benefits to its members – training, raw materials, interest-free credit, healthcare, Christmas bonuses. It also supports a nursery school and contributes to many community events.
Razu Willka provides more than purely material benefits. Traditionally seen as belonging to the lower classes, artisans have broken the mould and gained a voice for themselves. Although still small, Razu Willka is an example of hope rising from despair, of empowerment in a land where so much has been lost.
Kenya – hard lessons
Joseph Machina was born and brought up in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley, a crowded slum area of the city. Like most children in the valley he had a mother but no father, and wasn’t able to go to school. When he was about 15 he trained in jewellery making – and it changed his life. He set up Trinity Jewellery Crafts with two friends. From the start, their intention was to help other people from the slums and observe the principles of fair trade, selling their work through outlets in Europe.
That was back in 1987. For several years everything went well. The workshop had to be extended into the roof of the building to cope with more than a dozen new producers. Then, in 1996, the business ran into trouble – the jewellery was no longer selling well. ‘Is there any future now?’ asks Joseph. ‘Can we start to do something else? It is difficult to think of what. The problem is that we can only use the cheap, locally available raw materials and all we can do is make jewellery.’
Another member of the International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT), the Kisumu Innovation Centre, provides support services to the Jua Kali (people who work ‘under the sun’) in Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. Their work uses scrap metal, like Coca Cola bottle tops or shoe-polish tins, to make boxes, desk accessories and picture frames. Ziwa Creations is now their marketing arm and works with 60-70 small and micro enterprises in Kisumu.
Sri Lanka – bunk beds and bees
Protracted civil conflict has left many people disabled. The Central Council of Disabled Persons (CCDP) has 21,000 members grouped into regions – 42 disabled and 17 able-bodied people are employed in the offices in Bandarawela. The furniture-making section had an unfortunate experience with a commercial buyer which has left them with a large stock of unfinished beds, bunks and cots. Wheelchair bicycles are being built to a new design. The handicraft section is about to be revived – it ceased to function during the furniture-making experiment. Women receive a bank loan secured against a special CCDP deposit to start small businesses like vegetable and flower growing, tailoring, cattle rearing, bee and small-shop keeping.
The Siyath Foundation has 3,500 women members in the south of the country. They are the wives and daughters of fishermen and cinnamon growers – many have experienced domestic violence. Siyath has four centres for coconut-mat production. The process is very hard. The outer husks of the coconuts have to be ‘retted’ in brackish lagoon water for about six weeks to break the fibre down. Women then go into the water to pull the fibre out, dry and beat it. Then it has to be woven into rope which is plaited into strips to be used in the mat making. Through Siyath thousands of poor women have gained self-confidence and economic independence.
Carol Wills and Emmeline Skinner work for IFAT
(see ACTION for details).
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