Artisan Development Projects


In the late 1950s, the Alliance for Progress initiated a new era of US development assistance to Latin America. During the 1960s and 1970s, there has been a tremendous increase in tourism to what were previously remote, inaccessible regions of the world and, consequently, interests in ethnic arts and crafts. In view of the expanding market for handicrafts, development agencies have supported numerous artisan development programs to increase productivity and income among indigenous peoples.

Artisans projects can be valuable form of grassroots development for indigenous people, simultaneously serving economic and social goals. They provide income that complements subsistence agriculture while reinforcing ethnic identity and cultural pride. Programs can vitalize local craftsmanship by allowing artisans to reach their maximum potential.

Traditional handicrafts production requires little or no machinery and most often uses locally available raw materials, thereby stimulating local demand an generating employment in other sectors. Production is usually done in the home and alongside household activities. Often, artisanry generates more income for producers than either agriculture or wage labor. In addition, by providing local employment it helps reduce rural to urban migration. An important consideration for many indigenous peoples is the fact that the organizing required in setting up crafts production is often already in place. From these communities where no local organizations exists, the experience and practical skills from collective efforts establishes institution that are useful for other struggles. Finally profits reaped from the sale of handicrafts can be funneled into other activities to benefit an entire community, for example, agriculture, health care, education, reforestation or other local development programs.

While tourism, changing Western consumer tastes and increasing demands for handicrafts have often provided an important source of income for local indigenous producers, artisan projects have been criticized for their high failure rtes an sometimes negative effects on the intended beneficiaries. For example, projects are often expensive, heavily subsidized, and short lived; cooperatives or other artisan associations are frequently unable to outlive the support of donor organizations. Often, they do not become self-sufficient, small enterprises. Even if, in purely economic terms, a project could be termed successful in raising economic productivity, the producers often have poor working environments and receive low incomes from their efforts, while middlemen reap most of the profits. Artisan projects may lead to a deterioration in the quality of crafts and even a loss of traditional knowledge and techniques, as articles of creative/symbolic meaning to the producer are increasingly mass produced.

A project's success or failure can be identified, in many cases, in the way the project is designed and carried out. For one thing, many crafts projects are set up by outsiders. These people often have little understanding of exiting social systems. Furthermore, they do not appreciate the need to impart to artisans the administrative, accounting and marketing skills which would enable them to manage the business themselves. Outside organizers and buyers usually decide what is to be produced, determining and usually altering the design, color or size of crafts according to what they believe will be most remarkable. Removing producers from the decision-making process reduces their role to little more than that of production line laborers, squelching both creativity and innovation. The requirements of mass production for tourist and export markets encourage simplification of design, miniaturization and reduction in the quality of craftsmanship to meet production quotas. Objects that may be widely used by a community, crafted to endure and rich in cultural significance become curiosities that tourist can easily carry home as mementos. Finally, while crafts project initiated in the 1960s were often very successful at organizing communities and groups for crafts production, the most common reason for their failure is attributed to the lack of effective, long-term marketing strategies, nationally and internationally, to ensure an outlet for the artisans' work.

Cultural Survival has supported, directly or indirectly, a small number of artisan projects in Latin America. The two described here review the unique approaches adopted in each case to resolve the difficulties of production and marketing.

Sna Jolobil - Chiapas Maya Weavers Cooperative

Sna Jolobil (meaning "House of the Weavers" in Tzotzil Maya) is a cooperative of some 650 weavers from 20 Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya communities in the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico. It was started in 1976 by three Mexicans and two persons from the US to continue and improve on a heavily subsidized but unsuccessful government-sponsored program (FONART) of mass-produced and marketed crafts from Chiapas. Under the FONART program, artisans never had direct access to the market and were therefore stranded when government policies changed in the late 1970s.

The founders of Sna Jolobil had two primary aims: to help the weavers revive the ancient and rich artistic and sacred tradition of Highland Chiapas Maya weaving, and to form a cooperative where weavers making high-quality traditional textiles could receive a good profit for their work. Through their experience with the local indigenous crafts markets (the curios, fashion and export markets, all of which grossly underpay artisans), the founders decided on two essential changes that would allow weavers to be adequately compensated for their weavings. First, the weavings would be removed from competition with crafts sold in the area by marketing them as textile art. Second, Indians would take control of business options to eliminate dependence on outsiders for the purchase of materials or sale of the weavings. Give tourists' expectations that crafts are inexpensive souvenir articles, they set the cooperative the difficult task of educating the public understand and appreciate the culture of the weavers and the art involved in the weaving.

Women members of Sna Jolobil weave in their homes and sell their work in a store run by cooperative members. Located in San Cristobal de las Cases, the store is very important as it gives the artisans a first hand lesson in running a retail business. Some coop members are trained in administrative and accounting skills, for marketing is crucial to the long-term viability of the coop. The local raw materials distribution system, held in a semi-monopoly by ladinos (non-Indians), can now be bypassed; Sna Jolobil goes straight to the producers or factories and buys wholesale.

In each community, cooperative members have been organized into weaving and embroidery groups that meet periodically to study designs an decide on prices for their weavings, based on the quality and complexity of each piece. Each community has an elected representative who brings raw materials to the communities and completed weaving to the coop store. She informs her community about what is selling; she is the link between the community and the executive committee of Sna Jolobil with which she meets monthly. An executive committee, elected annually, oversees the store, visits the community groups, settles disputes and organizes exhibits, weaving contests and workshops. Though Sna Jolobil solicits and has received funds from the Mexican government and other public and private sources for special programs and exhibits, it refuses any support that would give control to outsiders.

Sna Jolobil states that one of its main aims is the recovery and preservation of ancestral weaving techniques and designs through the study of antique textiles. Towards this end, it has formed a study collection of high quality traditional textiles from the region. The executive committee awards grants to exceptional weavers wishing to study antique huipils (Maya women's brocaded or embroidered blouses), and special ceremonial garments to revive old brocade techniques and designs. Grants also enable wavers to teach others a complicated design or weave.

The cooperative has formed a dye workshop to revive fast-disappearing techniques of dyeing cotton, silk and wool with local vegetable dyes. In 1980, the cooperative bought a small house in one of the communities and now holds yearly workshops that are open to weavers wishing to learn about natural dyeing processes. The recovery of this art, according to Walter Morris, the coordinator of the Cultural Survival-supported part of the project, is the cooperative's only real concession to outsiders. In this way, weavers are able to sell the weavings as traditional, although it seems many weavers prefer the bright colors obtained from commercial dyes. However, the use of natural dyes has helped define Sna Jolobil's textiles as something unique.

Sna Jolobil holds yearly contests in each community, giving weavers the opportunity to meet and study each other's work. By rewarding traditional designs and high quality weaving, this activity has proved to be the greatest impetus for encouraging weavers to improve the quality of their work.

The cooperative's local activities consume considerable amounts of Sna Jolobil's limited resources. However, this investment has paid off in both economic and social/cultural terms. Sna Jolobil now offers a wide range of textile designs and weavings that cannot be found elsewhere. Coop members, and Maya communities of the highlands of Chiapas as a whole, have benefited through increased communication and solidarity. Their self-confidence in dealing with outsiders has increased, and their self-esteem and pride in their cultural traditions are growing.

Profits also distinguish Sna Jolobil from other cooperatives in the area. The store's gross yearly sales have increased from $1,000 in 1977 to $100,0-00 in 1983 and the prices received for the individual weavings have increased 500-1,000 percent in that time. The difference can be attributed to their marketing strategy and the fact that weavers themselves run the business.

Given the Sna Jolobil marketing strategy of selling textiles as art, local publicity and efforts to educate the public through exhibits and publications is of great importance. With some outside assistance, they have published a number of booklets on Chiapas Maya history, weaving design and natural dyeing. Any tourist stopping by a local tourist information center can pick up a free bilingual leaflet with a description of Sna Jolobil and a good map of the city, something they are likely to hang onto. Sna Jolobil sells postcards locally, has produced three posters and, since 1978, calendars in Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya. Sna Jolobil weavers, unlike most other Maya of the Chiapas highlands, are willing to work with photographers and writers, since they know that publicity about Chiapas textiles will improve their sales in the long run.

In 1986, a number of Sna Jolobil pieces were exhibited in a show entitled "Mexican Textiles - Line and Color" at the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City. This exhibit, now touring Europe, will come to New York in the spring of 1987. (The weavers are insistent that their work be exhibited as a group production to prevent the Western tendency to identify and exhalt the individual artists, a culturally inappropriate practice in Mayan society.) Exhibits have also been held in the National Arts Club of New York, Evelyn Siegal Gallery in Fort Worth and the Southwest Craft Center in San Antonio. Currently, a touring exhibition, "Dream Weavers: The Textile Art of the Chiapas Maya," is scheduled to visit the Denver Museum of Natural History in the summer of 1988.

Sna Jolobil has been very successful at increasing sales through its store, at improving the quality of production and increasing the profit of weavers for their work. They have made reasoned decisions about the ways to spend their limited financial resources in order to promote the highest traditional quality in the weavings, to recover lost techniques of natural dyeing textiles as unique. Their decision to limit themselves to local sales through their Maya-run business, based on their wish to retain full control over their business and to avoid the involvement of outside intermediaries, has thus far been sensible. However, if they are to become fully independent of outside institutional assistance (especially in the face of a national economy wracked by yearly inflation rates of around 60 percent, which quickly erodes accumulated savings) and if they are to include greater numbers of weavers in the benefits that membership in the cooperative offers, they will have to increase their local and export market substantially. The weavers recognize this need and as they gain experience through the store operations and outside exhibits, they believe this will become increasingly possible for them to achieve on their own terms.

In 1986, Mexico's president, Miguel de la Madrid, gave Sna Jolobil the National Award for Arts and Sciences in recognition of their work in the field of art.


Crafts produced by Peru's many indigenous groups are extremely varied and, as traditionally practiced, of very fine quality. However, without knowledge of national and international marketing systems or legal corporate status, it is difficult for indigenous craftspeople to find alternatives to working through exploitative and paternalistic middlemen and buyers. Antisuyo, founded in 1981, is a nonprofit craft marketing cooperative that aims to help Peruvian indigenous groups generate income and employment by marketing artisan goods at a reasonable price. It help reinforce cultural traditions by encouraging the production of high quality wares and, in some cases, recovering lost techniques.

Antisuyo accomplishes this by contacting indigenous groups in the Peruvian highlands and eastern jungle lowlands. It pays good prices for the artisans' wares, which are then sold through a cooperative store in Lima and at exhibits held throughout the country to educate the public and to promote the sale of traditional handicrafts. Antisuyo's promoters make regular visits to producer communities. They hold training courses and seminars about producing high quality wares, the pricing of crafts, and management and accounting skills. Most important, from the Indians' point of view, is Antisuyo's regularity as a customer, paying immediately upon receipt of the handicrafts, and thus ensuring producers a steady and dependable source of income.

In general, Antisuyo has had considerable success maintaining or improving the quality of locally produced crafts. For example, Shipibo ceramics were becoming degraded as a result of tourism. In 1985 Antisuyo promoters observed that through their meetings, constant encouragement and steady buying practices, their quality control recommendations were being adopted by Maroti Shobo, a Shipibo-Conibo Indian handicrafts trading center in Yarinacocha.

In part, the work of Antisuyo's promoters consists of visiting and trying to incorporate new groups into the marketing system. Meetings with artisan groups help them determine fair prices for their products and techniques. Antisuyo has attempted to promote community management of the marketing process, an experience they hope can be applied to other organizational initiatives. Antisuyo groups coordinate their activities with the elected representatives of the autonomous indigenous organizations supporting the groups' have formed marketing committees based on their artisanry, others have used profits from the sale of crafts for the development of community services or programs, such as education or health care.

For example, since 1981 the Ashaninca (Campa) of the Lower Ene River have made great advances in their crafts project. Most Ashaninca are monolingual and preliterate; no road reaches their area, making the transport of their products difficult. Nonetheless, the Ashaninca maintain excellent quality in their work, and their pieces are in high demand with Antisuyo's customers. With the sale of their crafts, the Ashaninca finance a community store and a river service that transports such basic articles as machetes, salt, tools, pots and containers by boat to the 11 communities of the Lower Ene River zone. They are using income from the sale of crafts to finance agriculture and programs in health care and education.

With assistance from Cultural Survival and the Inter-American Foundation, Antisuyo has been successful in its attempts to increase the volume of crafts and to include greater numbers of groups who now benefit from the sale of their wares. During its first year, Antisuyo purchased from seven native groups; 56 percent of all inventory came from one handicraft center. Sales for year totaled approximately $24,000. In 1986, Antisuyo had some 56 client groups with total sales of more than $92,000.

In some cases, particularly among highland communities, Antisuyo representatives have tried to encourage the recovery of lost traditional techniques of crafts production. However, they have had greater success, financially and socially, when they have operated on the assumption that artisans know better than they about what should be produced and have limited their role to that of buyer and advisor. By paying good prices and making regular purchases from producer communities, Antisuyo promoters have real leverage in their attempts to persuade artisans of the importance of producing traditional high quality articles.

With its economic and social goals and the technical services it provides, Antisuyo is in a class by itself among other buyers and crafts marketing businesses in Peru. In a short time and with a small staff, Antisuyo has made great strides in increasing the volume of its purchases from member produces and extending its reach to numerous remote communities which have benefited from the sale of their handicrafts.


There are many difficulties involved in establishing indigenous artisan projects that are successful both in benefiting the producers economically and in preserving and strengthening cultural traditions. When carefully designed, however, with the producers' interests at heart and an understanding of local needs and sociopolitical constraints, such projects are not only possible but desirable, as the above examples demonstrate. Both Antisuyo and Sna Jolobil have achieved impressive social and economic gains for producer-members. They have successfully stimulated production of high quality traditional crafts. They have left the operations of the local organizations to indigenous producers. And they have left the decisions about production to the individual artisans. In addition, both organizations have recognized the importance of educating tourists and the public about the crafts and the artisans' cultures.

In order to extend their benefits to larger numbers of artisans, both groups must now focus on improved marketing. One way of doing this could be through Alternative Marketing Organizations (AMOs). These are nonprofit import agencies or organizations whose concern for the producer and knowledge of the alternative marketplace in the US and Europe put them in an ideal position to aid either producer organizations or marketing organizations in establishing dependable contacts.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: