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Indigenous Women Fight to Protect Rights of Woven Guatemala Textile Design

The Kaqchikel women—one of 23 Mayan cultures in Guatemala—are fighting to protect their collective intellectual property rights to their traditional Mayan textile designs. Led by the Women's Association for the Development of Saquatepéquez (AFEDES), an organization with a membership of more than 1,000 indigenous women and supported by an association of Mayan lawyers, hundreds of Kaqchikel women artisans of all ages took their case to the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City this past June. They are asking the court to push the Guatemalan Congress to enact new laws that would protect their intellectual property rights over the intricate woven designs that have become ubiquitous in the tourist markets and are a direct reproduction of their heritage and cultural identity.

Reproduction of the Mayan textiles has become increasingly controlled by just a handful of companies that hire Mayan women and pay them very little (around 10 quetzales or just more than one U.S. dollar) for a design that might take days, even weeks, to weave. The products are sold at a much higher cost to tourists and textile buyers around the world. But this isn't just an economic issue to the indigenous women who flooded the courts this spring. Dressed in their traditional hand-woven blouses known as huipils—each design emblematic of the life in their particular community and worn every day by these women and their children as they work, play and go to school—they argued that the real value of these iconic textiles is the preservation of a way of life and the protection of a living culture.

AFEDES Director Milivan Aspuac.

In a recent field visit to accompany and support AFEDES and their efforts on behalf of indigenous women's social, cultural and economic rights, the AFEDES' Director Milivan Aspuac explained to me and my colleagues from WhyHunger that at its core their struggle is to protect the very heartbeat of Life. According to the Mayan Cosmovision, everything is connected and human beings are charged with engendering reciprocity, solidarity and harmony in all of the elements—physical and spiritual, matter and energy—that make up Life. The story of Life and the principles of their Cosmovision are revealed in the designs of the vibrantly-colored textiles that women have been creating for thousands of years—each one unique and representative of a particular time and value-system of a particular community. Protecting and preserving the way in which these designs are reproduced and the huipils worn (from adult to child, from generation to generation, from community to community) is to protect, repair and preserve Life.

There is much Life to repair in this mountainous region of Guatemala in the department of Saquatépequez, home to one of the tourist meccas in Central America, the carefully restored colonial city of Antigua which is a designated World Heritage Site. Since 1993, the AFEDES members have been organizing indigenous women throughout this state to join them in their efforts to envision a way of life that aligns with their Mayan Cosmovision while not wholly rejecting a modern world. Decolonization and reclamation is at the heart of their strategy to confront the gender, economic and racial oppression that has left them in extreme poverty and is slowing appropriating their culture. We saw evidence of the strategic ways in which AFEDES confronts oppression that reflect the holistic, complex and at times heartbreaking circumstances of women's lives. As Milvian explained: "AFEDES can't work only with food sovereignty or economic development or violence against women—we have to work on all these fronts because that's the reality of women's lives." The struggle is arduous, the losses are many, but with each win against the oppression that the women of AFEDES describe as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, one more strand of colorful cotton can be woven back in to their story.

Resisting Patriarchy: Self-Worth and Power in Numbers

The struggle to end violence against Mayan women in the village of San José Pacul is at the foundation of the organizing work that AFEDES does in this village and dozens of others just like it. Angelina Aspuac, one of AFEDES' organizers, tells us, "The main issue here is machismo." Sofia's story, who Angelina introduced us to, is representative, she said, of many of the Mayan women who have now come together to pool resources, share assets and work together to collectively improve the quality of their lives. "I never thought of becoming a wealthy woman," Sofia said. "The idea at the start was to start a community bank to make small loans." She explains that the men stepped in soon after and started to dictate what the loans should be used for and yet the women were still held responsible for paying the money back. Not alone in her predicament, Sofia's husband would confiscate the loan money she had intended to use for investing in a small cottage industry to make enough money to send her kids to school. She endured regular beatings and became isolated when he forbid her to attend any more of the women's meetings. Since she couldn't pay back her loans, she couldn't bring home any more funds for him to spend or invest in his own failed ventures. Eventually Sofia made the very difficult decision to separate from her husband despite the fear of retreating further into poverty. She left their home with their seven children and no money. She was emboldened to take her life in her own hands, she said, because she had the support of other women in AFEDES.

Dona Sofia and children: ""I never thought that we could become a community of strong women, with our heads full of ideas. I may not have any money but I am a wealthy woman because of my ties to AFEDES."

AFEDES has established "safe houses" for women when they report domestic abuse to the local police and their claims are dismissed. The police will often say the beatings are justified because the women did not prepare good food or did something else that provoked their husbands. AFEDES has become a space that abused women can retreat to for emotional and legal support. AFEDES is stretched thin in their attempt to attend to all the women who show up on the doorstep of the safe house. The organization does not yet have enough legal or counseling capacity to thoroughly support each woman's case. But they can listen to every woman's story with integrity and compassion and connect them to other women in their community for support. This is the first and often the most important intervention, one of the AFEDES organizers named Justiniana told us. Learning to value themselves and the other women in the community is a core aspect of the consciousness-raising work that AFEDES brings to the organized groups in each village. The issue of self-care is a part of that. "It's important that women learn to take care of themselves so they have the energy to do the work of preserving and protecting Life," she explained.

As colonialism ushered in western values, women began to be seen only as useful for work in the kitchen and the fields. Because of AFEDES the women have been able to organize, receive training in agroecology and homeopathy, learn a new trade and participate in leadership development. They recognize their own value and now their families and communities recognize their value. Sofia concluded her triumphant story with the following: "I never thought that we could become a community of strong women, with our heads full of ideas. I may not have any money but I am a wealthy woman because of my ties to AFEDES. I don't have a lot of income, but I have a community and my children are going to school. My children are behind me and supporting me. My children know that I have skills, knowledge and value. Because my children know that I have value, they come to recognize their own value and their own power."

Resisting the Capitalist Extraction of Natural Resources: Two Competing Ideologies

In the village of El Réjon—where steep and mostly denuded hillsides are lined with homes pieced together out of pallets, discarded tin and other found materials and the gullies are lined with the debris of packaged and processed food items—the Mayan people are facing pressure from the federal government to allow a mega mining operation. If the mountains surrounding their village are opened up for gold prospecting and extraction, families would have to abandon their land, their homes and their community. As in many other cases in Guatemala, these mining operations leave a path of destruction in their wake—contaminated water and soil, loss of forest, as well as illness and broken lives. For the moment, the local government is heeding the demands of the community and has declared they will not allow mining, that they will resist the corporations if they come. This is testament to efforts of the women of El Réjon who have organized themselves with the support of AFEDES. These women successfully impeached the previous mayor because he supported the mining and tried to do the bidding of the federal government and corporations who were in their back pocket.

AFEDES member in El Rejon saving seeds: "Women in this community are used to people giving them food; they don't realize that they have the capacity to provide food for themselves."

The struggle against mining is a battle over two competing ideologies, according to the Mayan women in the village. The prospectors and multinational companies who reap the profits represent one ideology. Their mentality is one of economic expansion—let's get the gold out of the mountains and sell it. Making profit in the short-term is their myopic aim. The women of AFEDES also fear that local families will not benefit from that profit as it will be extracted right alongside the gold. The Mayan ideology, as explained by the women of El Réjon, is in stark contrast. "The mountain is like a body. If you take the gold out of the mountain, you are exploiting the Life and spirit of the mountain. To us, the mountain is a living being, a part of our living culture, not just a big pile of dirt. The mountains have bones—the minerals contained there—and if you exploit that for money, then you're killing the Life of the mountain."

Resisting Colonialism: Reclaiming Health and Agriculture Through Mayan Foodways

For the Mayans, mining and other extractive industries are the continuous thread of colonialism. 524 years of colonialism to be exact. Five centuries of exploitation and hunger. According to the World Food Program, Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those who suffer most from hunger and poverty are young, rural and indigenous. Chronic malnutrition among indigenous children is close to 70 percent. Paradoxically, 70 percent of people who are hungry in Guatemala used to be food producers. More than 50 percent of the population in Saquatépequez is malnourished, meaning that they do not have access to enough calories or nutritious food. Women and children are most affected. Traditionally, men are fed first, children second and then women. Often when the rest of the family is fed, the women are left only with tortillas.

In all of the villages throughout Saquatépequez where Mayan people live, diets have suffered as processed foods have become more available. Charity is the norm in dealing with hunger; and agriculture has become focused on mono-crops such as coffee, sugar, bananas and cotton for market and export. "During an election year, the politicians come and promise many things—even a bag of food. But now that we're organized," said a Mayan woman farmer in the village of Pachali, "they can't get away with these promises." Instead the women are calling for secure land access, a ban on GMO crops and support for seed saving to grow a diversity of indigenous foods. Diets used to be richer and more balanced in our ancestor's time, Milivian explains. AFEDES is working hard to recuperate that. "Some say the future has already passed and our ancestors lived better than we do now." AFEDES is not alone in this struggle. They are one organization among 32 women-led organizations that make up the national women's sector that are fighting to reclaim and re-energize Mayan food production and diets, as one part of their living culture.

The women of AFEDES have rejected agrochemicals and the pressure from the government and multinational companies to grow mono-crops for export. The pressure has escalated, the women of AFEDES explain, over the past two decades. "We are 20 years into this situation and there is more hunger and malnutrition than ever before." Many farmers lost their land because they got into cash crops. The story is the same the world over: Farmers were promised economic prosperity if they grew a certain kind of crop using modern seeds and agrichemicals. They had to borrow money to purchase all of the inputs as dictated by the agricultural "experts." Inevitably, the crops failed after a couple of years when the soil became depleted and/or the market shifted, so they were forced to sell their land to get rid of the debt. For this reason, AFEDES is promoting their traditional milpa or maize field. As indigenous peoples throughout the Americas have done, the thriving milaps we visited included a triumvirate of plants—corn, beans and squash—that work together in mutual support to ensure that there is a variety of food throughout the growing season that also leaves the soil replenished and ready for planting anew.

While in Pachali we visited a farmer by the name of Dona Francisca. In a half-acre plot she was growing carrots, onions and spinach in addition to participating in a traditional milpa with other women in the community. Dona Francisca explained why she has participated in a community of AFEDES women recuperating Mayan foodways for the past thirteen years. "Women in this community are used to people giving them food; they don't realize that they have the capacity to provide food for themselves."

Down the road in El Réjon we met with a woman who is growing food and medicinal plants mainly for herself and her children. She recounts her recent past, describing herself as a woman who was often sick and always depressed. She couldn't afford to go to the doctor. Two women in the community who were concerned came to talk to her and they encouraged her to join their small AFEDES group that was just forming. Thanks to her AFEDES companeras, she said, she started learning to grow medicinal plants and produce food on small plots of land around her home and in containers right in front of her house. She now has chicks and will soon have eggs to eat. She has even begun teaching other women to use medicinal plants. She is not yet earning income, she said, but her health has returned, she is engaged in the community and is saving money by not having to purchase all of her food or medicine.

Natural medicine—or medicines derived from plants—according to the Mayan people, is a critical aspect of their living culture. The Mayans believe that every plant has a spirit and that contained in each plant is both matter and energy. So, harvesting the plant for medicine requires understanding and having faith in the energy contained in the living plants.

Striding Towards Sovereignty

Sovereignty is at the heart of what AFEDES is aiming to accomplish—the right to self-govern, the right to hold on to their stories and values as revealed in the designs on their huipils, the right to land to establish milpas and seed saving practices to ensure future harvests, the right to the dignity that comes in growing healthy food to feed their families and heal their bodies and minds, the right to reproduce the living culture of the Mayan people, the right to protect the symbiotic relationship between matter and energy.


Justiniana, long-time member and current leader in AFEDES, wearing her hand-woven belt.

The symbol that AFEDES has chosen to represent itself is a belt woven with a design in the tradition of the Mayan huipils. The belt is multi-colored—each vibrant strand of cotton beautiful on its own but complex and whole when woven together. The various strands crafted into a design represent the diversity of the Mayan people, their languages and practices, as well as the diversity and strength of the women of Saquatépequez. Each small ball formed by tying strands of the cotton at the end of the belt fringe represents a different community, a different skill and a different capacity. As Milvian said: "We grew up in this organization. Our mothers brought us here. It has been our school of life."

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