An Amazing Fair Trade Women’s Cooperative: Bamboo Scarves
On a recent trip to Guatemala while driving up a winding road through the stunning Lake Atitlan area, our driver stopped in a tiny village to let us off at a fair trade cooperative. Who would ever dream that inside is a thriving business, run by entirely by women with very little formal education? The first thing that struck me was the colors, as is often the case in Guatemala. I love color and Guatemala is the most colorful place I’ve ever been.! The building was covered with hanging bamboo scarves of every color combination imaginable, all woven by hand through an ancient, intricate, labor-intensive process.
This women’s cooperative was founded in 1987 during the genocide that was occurring in Guatemala, leaving thousands of women as widows with no income to support their families. It was founded by a man from Vancouver who was looking for a source of income for 17 widows, all of whom were backstrap weavers. Over the years, the cooperative has grown into a large organization, with a Board of Directors, a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and full time bookkeeper! Of the 180 women, most are able to work from home, although some do weave in the shop so we were able to see the process in action.
And it is quite a process! The bamboo is spun, dyed (using non-toxic dyes), dried in the sun, wound for proper scarf length, and then woven on the backstrap loom. Backstrap weaving is the oldest method of making cloth in the world, and it originated with the Maya people! It is very hard on the body, as the women are generally kneeling, so it is painful to the knees and back. (However, the women we saw were sitting on chairs especially created for them that were donated by NGO’s). The loom is literally strapped around the woman’s back while she weaves. It was fascinating to watch the process, and I was in awe of the incredible beauty and intricacy of the weaving.
Many people are surprised that bamboo can feel so good, but I promise you, it is one of the softest fibers around. It is absolutely as soft as silk, and you cannot help but say, “ooooooh” when you feel it! And the colors are truly, truly gorgeous!
Best of all, the women are earning two to four times what they would make selling their wares in the market! And due to increased earnings the families are eating healthier foods, have access to medicine, the children are able to stay in school longer, and the status of women in the society has improved. And preserving the ancient culture of backstrap weaving is a gift to the world!
Yet again, this is why I am so passionate about fair trade, and seeing it in action firsthand was an experience I will remember my whole life.