BRINGING BACK BALANCE: Women Revitalizing the Mapuche Economy

Viviana Calfuqueo weaves at her witral, or Mapuche standing loom, on the doorsteps of the house she shares with husband, five children, and their grandmother. She patiently embeds Mapuche ancestral symbols into the colorful wool strands handmade with fiber obtained from sheep, raised by families in her community, or lof, of Allipén, at the shores of Lake Budi in northern Patagonia, Chile. Her fingers, like her mother’s and grandmother’s, delicately separate the naturallydyed threads so that the design of her work will fully emerge in the days to come. Beauty, in Mapuche art production, necessitates endurance.

Back inside the small wooden house, with warm mates (tea in a gourd) being passed around, Calfuqueo explains the importance of Mapuche textiles for Indigenous women in today’s southern Chile: “Mapuche life revolves around our family, our lof, our culture. The debt the State has with us as a Mapuche peoples is to return our lands, because that loss was the worst damage that could have come upon us as a people . . . that way, we lose our own economy. Our sheep need large spaces where they can eat healthy grass to have good quality wool. And here we can’t because of the little space that there is.”

Women Entrepreneurs and a Community Asset-Management Model

Kuzao Zomo (Women Entrepreneurs) is an artisan association founded by women in the Mapuche community of Allipén to revitalize cultural and economic resilience through traditional Indigenous art. Calfuqueo says, “What we have here is unique, because it comes as a birthright of our peoples. This livelihood for women means having the option to not leave her home; these textiles are ours, and we are our own boss. All this is ours. It is the work of our peoples.”

For Calfuqueo and her associates, strengthening the textile economy and the central role of women in it, is a challenge. “The goal,” she says, “is to see the women be able to have their own economy without depending on their husbands, or an institution, or have to leave the community. When that goal happens, that is when I will say, ‘ok, work accomplished!’— when I see that the women are able to say to themselves that their work is valued. Culture is the base of our work. Of course the economic incentive is important, but it isn’t the most important. The cultural reason, something we can call our own, is the most essential. From there we begin.”

Calfuqueo began her mission toward Indigenous economic autonomy four years ago in the neighboring community of Llaguepulli, where her family of origin is, when she joined three other women managers to form the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Group), or Rekuluwun-Kelluwun, in the native Mapuche language of Mapundungun. A grantee of Keepers of the Earth Fund, Rekuluwun-Kelluwun is a community fund co-designed with Oregon-based nonprofit MAPLE Microdevelopment and members of her community to revitalize Mapuche culture and recuperate their ancestral economy. They aim to create a unique Mapuche community finance model as a tool that will facilitate the community’s 40 families to retain cash flow within their lof. This model, in turn, has strengthened community linkages for the rebuilding of a self-managed Mapuche economy in the community.

“For us women, there aren’t alternatives here in the community to earn a living,” Calfuqueo explains. “Here, if it weren’t for this entrepreneurial work, our women would be as we were before…planting the potato crop, which doesn’t take us anywhere. Women are left with no option but to leave as temporary workers for the blueberry season, or pick potatoes. That is where we are stuck in dependency, where it is not our own.” With globalization and pressures of emigration, capital becomes essential for basic necessities. However, it is also a controversial topic in a context where communities are striving to recuperate their land-based abundance and social solidarity through a values-based, Mapuche-managed economy.

A key component of the Rekuluwun-Kelluwun model is the respect for Az Mapu, or Mapuche cultural norms. Since the project began, key decisions have been made under the guidance of Mapuche traditional authorities such as the Longko and Werken (messengers) through an advisory council. Inclusivity and solidarity became a prioritized norm; hence the name, Rekuluwun, which literally translates to “leaning on each other.” The model ensures that monetary assets are as important as non-monetary assets such as seeds, textiles, and farm animals.

Now in its fourth cycle, the Rekuluwun-Kelluwun project serves as a uniquely Mapuche model for communities of Lake Budi to co-manage their assets and support families with specific needs through culturally envisioned business initiatives, organic gardens, chicken coops, and artisan production. These initiatives are in turn linked to larger, multidimensional asset-generating activities, such as community-wide cultural production management and healthy agriculture and food security.

Virginia Lefio, a woman leader from Llaguepulli and advisory council member, explains the other main aspect of their Az Mapu: “We as Mapuche, we connect with the Nien (spirits). The Niens exist in every space. One has to respect their space; before entering, or taking something—water, a plant, a herbal medicine—one must first ask for permission.” Furthermore, she explains, “we are not owners of our life. Even though we may be healthy, or have work, or a space to live, we are not owners. We are not owners of our space. We are not owners of the Lake. We are not owners of anything. That is why, in order to live in balance, we must connect with the Nien.”

The Mapuches’ lack of farmland is a consequence of historic dispossession by the dominant elites and governmentsponsored development policies, and families have come to rely on chemical intensive agriculture that damages their soils and lowers nutrient levels in the crops produced. Lake Budi has also seen a rapid decline of fish and natural marine organisms, and much of the responsibility for conservation and restoration is being left to the Mapuche communities, despite the scant resources and technologies they have.

With little support from the State, communities have been working since 2013 to create tools for regenerative agroecology and preservation of waters through reforestation. In 2015, the Llaguepulli community began the initiative to help families transition away from chemical pesticide to a healthier, more organic agriculture; in 2017 they began eight pilot quinoa plots. Community work has been centered on dialogues and channeling of local expertise. Today, families, and especially women, in Llaguepulli and Allipén, are becoming leaders and role models for other women in the territory. The vision is that these tools may be replicated and applicable in all community contexts in the Lago Budi region.

The students at the community school are also part of the effort to revitalize traditional knowledge of medicine and botany, and to connect this to their communities’ relationship with the Lake and the need to reforest their lands with native trees. Both Calfuqueo and Lefio are working to bring balance and self-sufficiency by creating new Indigenous economic means for their families and their lofs in a rapidly changing world. The Rekuluwun-Kelluwun and Kuzao Zomo projects reflect the urgent shifts communities are implementing to create solutions for their families and future generations so that they can strengthen themselves and the planet.

“When one comes to rejoice in their culture, their people, they discover a new world—and our world as Mapuche is complete,” Lefio says. “I tell our students that they have to cultivate this knowledge. They have to take it and cultivate it every day, and never forget. Never forget what peoples they belong to, and all the knowledge that pertains to us. To be able to live in balance with the Earth, we are preparing our people for the future.”

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF MAPLE.

— Alison Guzman and Ignacio Krell are Chile program directors at MAPLE Microdevelopment, an international non-profit based in Oregon dedicated to co-designing community development work and building community economic resilience. For more information, contact alison.guzman@maplemicro.org and ignacio@maplemicro.org, or visit maplemicrodevelopment.org.

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