Artesanías is a passion project born in Madre de Dios, the lower Peruvian Amazon, by the female co-founders of Fashion for Conservation. The goal of this program is to enable financial independence for indigenous artisan craftswomen by building a sustainable future for their families while preserving and respecting their ancient traditions. Artisan craft is an alternative income opportunity against the pressures of mining, trafficking and logging that threatens Madre De Dios.

Specifically, Artesanías began in 2015 when Samantha Zwicker, co-founder of Fashion for Conservation and founder of Hoja Nueva, a Peruvian nonprofit and US based charity US 501(c)(3), began supporting predominantly women in creating quality handicrafts that reconnect youth with their native cultures. Hoja Nueva has historically worked with migrant communities that practice large-scale slash and burn agriculture, which diminishes biodiversity by causing habitat destruction and fragmentation. Hoja Nueva also has sustainable cacao farms that decrease environmental impact while maintaining productivity. Their team trains "Community Leaders" in shade-grown, organic farming to better organize migrant farmers, support their sustainable transition, and help them obtain fairer wages.  

Fashion for Conservation operates hand-in-hand with Hoja Nueva and artisans to design community engagement strategies and grow small scale artisan businesses. We augment their preexisting talents for weaving, embroidery, and beading with hands-on training workshops to create high quality, traditionally inspired pieces for a modern, international market.

Current projects focus on the production of accessories, namely bags and bracelets, produced by women, mothers and sisters, of the Mashko Yine Tribe. 9-12 of the 25 tribal women work in their studios on any given day. They split their time between the studio and additional household and community responsibilities. Each woman manages her own profit sharing, inclusive of individual distribution and reinvestment back into materials for new accessories.

Core training program skills are inclusive of:

  • Pattern making

  • Sewing

  • Product design improvement

  • Permaculture

  • Growing natural materials

  • Local and regional marketing tactics

How Does Artesanías Benefit Artisans?

Cultural and ecological knowledge sharing. Individuals and retailers supporting artisan economies perpetuate and protect cultural and ecological knowledge that is passed down through generations of women artisans in the process of creating artisan goods.

Community individuality and independence. Women in the Yine Tribe speak of their desire and determination to keep products uniquely Yine. She does not want to conform to changes as requested by retailers or clients if it will sacrifice cultural identity. When this is the case, retailers and individuals can be assured that they are buying something uniquely authentic to its respective culture and also respectful to the artist who hand crafted it.

Feminine empowerment. Not only do artisan economies make women more powerful stakeholders in the development of their culture, but it often also allows them to dictate the future of their economy. In conversation with an artisan we learned that men go out of their way to support women when artisan economies are successful. During the tourist season when Yine crafts are selling well and providing the community with a significant portion of its income, men actually substitute their resource-intensive activities (like logging, forestry) with work that supports the women’s crafts. In fact, during the tourist season men will even stop logging to gather and transport materials to women so that they can produce crafts more efficiently.

Diversifying economies and generating stability for communities. In some communities, economic activities like logging and mining have historically led to civil conflicts. Such conflicts prevent a steady flow of tourists from purchasing artisan crafts. Buyers supporting the artisan center put food and supplies directly into the hands of those in need.

Protection of the natural environment. Economic investment in artisans almost directly replace economic investment in resource-intensive industries. By supporting women making bags, bracelets, etc, buyers enable economic opportunities that allow communities to be less dependent on logging, forestry, mining, or intensive farming.

Use of natural materials. Every artisan piece that these woman make features 90%-100% natural materials from tree bark, shrubs, seeds, to bugs and berries for dyes. Since some communities lack access to natural materials in sufficient quantity they will purchase from neighboring ones, thereby constituting cross-cultural engagement and knowledge sharing.

Quality of products, skill of artisans. Many of the artisans speak of their learned skills from a very young age and specify the amount of time they have spent honing their skills over the course of their lifetimes.

Supporting smaller, local communities that lack ability to participate in larger governmental programs. One primary theme revealed by both Yine and Infierno community members was a frustration and inability to participate in larger, federal programs that are meant to support artisan communities. Fashion for Conservation is particularly invested in enabling their participation by first bringing their products stateside.

Inspiring motivating work. In addition to generational transfer of traditional and ecological knowledge, women of the Mashko Yine Tribe talked about how the work improved their quality of life, kept their minds and hands sharp, and was more meaningful and motivating to them than other forms of economic activity.

Perpetuating craft-making and economies that are deeply inspired by nature. All artists talked about their appreciation for specific animals, plants, and natural systems. Much of this appreciation is reflected in the design and patterns of their work.

Prevents unlawful and poorly-intentioned in-habitation of indigenous communities. One particularly powerful point is the preservation of communities. Artists having opportunities to sell products elsewhere preserves their community from being inhabited by outsiders. In interviews with Infierno artisans, they alluded to the negative impacts that tourists and others might impose on their community and their environment when they come to buy products. Sharing these artisan products through Fashion for Conservation preserves the sanctity of indigenous communities and helps assuage fears community members have about outsiders’ ill intentions.

Promoting deeply human, deeply connected design processes. Some women talked thoroughly about their processes for creating art, discussing inspiration and relaxation techniques to the extent of “almost as if [they were] sleeping”, and how this program “brings more peace.” Each artist engages in the artistic process partly as their part of realizing humanity and maintaining a purity that is inherent in artisan economies.

Artisan economies provide economic opportunities for people who are disabled or in poor health. An elder gentleman artisan in Infierno spoke of how he was not in good health and that artisan work offered him a way to still actively contribute to the community’s economy, even though he was physically unable to participate in logging and farming activities that are usually designated for men in the community. An artisan economy provides a second chance for community members who may too ill or physically incapable of participating in traditional economic activities.

All photo credits to Dawn Marie Jones for Artesanías