Indigenous Guatemalan Weavers Fighting Cultural & Corporate Appropriation Of Their Designs

Many of us are familiar with their designs and craft work seen in clothing and accessories the world over. Some of the most well-known fashion brands in the world have, at some point, used Indigenous textiles and patterns in their product, and may of us have paid money for this without a second thought as to where the designs come from, or whether they are being appropriated in the first place.

It’s high time we took notice of what we buy and where it comes from. Being conscious about our footprint in the world is important, because as we will see in this story, people’s livelihood can be impacted in a negative way. Which is why indigenous Mayan weavers from Guatemala have been fighting to gain control over their intellectual property and native designs through the legal system in order to not be taken advantage of any more by corporations.

While major fashion brands reap millions of dollars in profit from indigenous designs, the weavers receive little compensation for their work which is known the world over. This specific battle officially began in May 2016 when a group of weavers gathered outside the Guatemalan Supreme Court and Congress to demand the government protect their sacred textiles from appropriation both at home and abroad.

The movement gathered momentum, and by June the Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez (“Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez”) or AFEDES, had joined the fight. They represent 1000 weavers from a number of different Mayan groups, including Maya Kaqchikels, Kiches, Mams, Tz’utujiles, Pocomchís, and Sapatecos. They testified at a public hearing before the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City.

“There is a strong appropriation of our designs and textiles. This isn’t only the government, but more so, it is the companies that make bags, shoes, and belts with our designs without respecting how we see these pieces within our communities, or their significance in our communities. There are elements of our clothing that are sacred, that have a spiritual significance, and others that are only used in ceremonies or by the spiritual leaders in our communities,” said Angelina Aspuac of AFEDES.

By November 2016, the group had worked on a number of reforms they felt would better serve the weavers, and presented them to Congress, aided by representation from the Association of Mayan Lawyers.

“There are changes to six articles that we are proposing. [Among them] we are proposing a definition of what are the collective intellectual property rights that are in accordance to the organization of the communities. Another proposal is the recognition of the communities as collective authors,” said Angelina Aspuac.

Included in the reform is also a stipulation that there would be recognition of a prior consultation of communities, in accordance with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, over the use of any weaving by companies. This means the weavers would have a voice in the use of their work.

The Guatemalan constitution already guarantees to “recognize, respect, and promote [indigenous] forms of life, customs, traditions”. So this movement is about holding the government accountable while also ensuring the rights of indigenous women and their work.

According to Lifegate.com: “Guatemala is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN agency that protects intellectual property internationally, and has enacted a number of provisions on the matter but hasn’t regulated the collective intellectual property, even though 51 per cent of the country’s population belongs to the Maya group,” writes Natalia Koper.

The battle for recognition was not just about textile work, but a reflection of the sacred culture that is an inherent part of Mayan community.

“Each community has their own unique designs and knowledge that reflects that community. The indigenous weavings are more than just beautiful works of art; they are the carriers of the history and stories of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. The weavings from communities contain images such as the plumed serpent, sacred maize, or sacred birds, such as the K’ot, a two headed bird that is said to be the protector of the people. The designs also reflect the Mayan cosmovision, which is literally woven into every piece. There are also designs that are only used in ceremonies, or by indigenous authorities and by spiritual guides,” wrote Jeff Abbott at TowardFreedom.com in December 2016 about the ongoing case.

There are even Guatemalan designers and public figures, such as Miss Guatemala in the 2011 Miss Universe beauty pageant, who have come under fire from the indigenous community for appropriating their designs in clothing choices without consulting Mayan weavers.

In February this year, the National Mayan Weavers Movement, championed by Mayan Congressman Leocadio Juracan, introduced Law 5247, a bill which would officially recognize the collective intellectual property rights of Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala. By establishing ownership over their own designs, this bill would enable the Mayan communities to be paid the proper royalties and compensation for their work.

Because many of the women live in rural areas without access to internet, it has been very easy for their work to be copied and appropriated without their prior knowledge. Yet as part of the government’s tourism outreach, they promote Mayan textiles as one of their attractions. So this was used as part of the proposed reform law, citing research from Guatemalan economist Sonia Escobado.

“The policies for promoting the country as a tourist destination are strongly contradicted by the lack of protection of the ancestral knowledge of Mayan women over their textiles…the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism, in many of their campaigns to promote Guatemala as being the heart of the Mayan world, repeatedly used the Mayan textiles for promotion,” she said.

The country earned $746 million from tourism in 2014 “without the weavers receiving incentives or support for the protection of their textiles or improvements in their living conditions,” she added.

Tourism played a massive part in this issue because five years ago, an overseas clothing company tried to tell the indigenous weavers who they could and couldn’t sell their designs to. This is what happens when there are no legal protections or mechanisms to ensure the work of indigenous weavers remain in their possession.

Image from Ethical Fashion Guatemala http://ethicalfashionguatemala.com/

“The system is quietly dispossessing us of our identity. The government has influenced this process. When they publish various materials in the Guatemalan tourism ministry, INGUAT, they are objectifying the real significance of our weavings. It is necessary to defend our weavings. So they recognize that this is more than just work, it is our identity, it is our history, and it is the knowledge of our communities,” said Diego Petzey Quiejú, a young Tz’utujil Maya and weaver from Santiago Atitlan.

As Remezcla points out, this solidarity among indigenous weavers could potentially pave the way for other native populations to stand and fight for rights in other areas. Journalist Yara Simon draws parallels with the many Native American tribes who came together at Standing Rock, North Dakota, over the past year (along with many other activists) to fight against the construction of a pipeline which would gravely affect and desecrate sacred Indian land.

There are even indigenous groups from Mexico standing with the Mayan weavers as they have experience appropriation of their work also. In 2016, Mexico’s Mixe community accused French designer Isabel Marant of stealing its huipil designs.

In total the reforms need 105 votes from members of Congress to pass, and some political representatives indicated at the time of the hearing they would support the women. As of May 2017, the reforms failed to be implemented by the courts, so it will be Congress who makes the final decision. In the meantime, to ensure we do our part to protect the work of these artisans, buy direct from the source and ask questions about the product you are buying, especially if it comes from a major brand or label. Ethical Fashion Guatemala are a great resource to find relevant information. Some of the images in this article come from their website.

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