For Indigenous Zapotec Families, Spinning Becomes a Lifeline
By Tracy L. Barnett
High up in the southern sierra of Mexico's state of Oaxaca, an innovative nonprofit business inspired by Mohandas Gandhi is helping Indigenous Zapotec families to weather the economic storm that COVID-19 has brought to the Mexican countryside.
San Sebastian Rio Hondo, a Zapotec highland village like many others, has traditionally supplemented its agrarian way of life through the wool industry. Long famous for its rich tradition of Indigenous handwoven textiles, Oaxaca has nevertheless fallen on hard times, along with most of rural Mexico, partly because of policies promoting urbanization and undermining the traditional rural way of life.
In San Sebastian, the hardship has been severe: as of the 2010 census, 55% of the population lived in extreme poverty, more than a third had not completed primary school, and more than two-thirds did not have a high school education. Unemployment continues to be high, compelling a high rate of migration out of the state and out of Mexico. Among the women, job opportunities were practically nonexistent.
This was the context that Eliseo "Cheo" Ramírez was born into. In his parents' and grandparents' time, villagers grazed sheep and helped cover expenses by making woolen textiles. In the 1970s and '80s, however, the Mexican government initiated a program to plant pine trees for lumber, and the pastures and native forests began to shrink. The industrial clothing industry began producing cheap synthetic yarns. Spinning and weaving, once a staple in every home, fell by the wayside. The children of weavers and farmers began making their way north to work in the U.S. as meatpackers and migrant farmworkers.
Ramírez' prospects for employment were so grim that he set off from home in 2006 at age 16 for the U.S., crossing the Sonoran Desert and nearly dying of thirst. The experience proved so traumatic that he never made the attempt again. Now 32, he has good reason to remain home: he's the chief operating officer and head of sales and part of the core team of Khadi Oaxaca, a farm-to-garment nonprofit textile enterprise aiming to regenerate the village way of life in a sustainable way. He no longer harbors illusions of an American Dream; his dream nowadays is to help generate opportunities that keep more of his people at home with their families.
Khadi Oaxaca follows what is known as the Gandhian economic model in three ways: It focuses on producing gainful employment for many instead of big profits for a few; it strives to build local autonomy and resilience at the village level, building in a cash supplement that supports the traditional agrarian life; and it follows the Gandhian strategy of making clothing from scratch, with workers spinning their own thread from organically grown cotton. And now, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic causing jobs to dry up everywhere, this handspun thread has become a lifeline for the local economy.
Khadi Oaxaca is the brainchild of the Mexico-educated son of a U.S. industrialist, Mark "Marcos" Brown, and with his wife, Kalindi Attar. Brown had traveled to San Sebastian as a teenager in 1974 and developed a lifelong relationship with the village. He later spent time in India, where he learned about khadi, a handspun cloth that became a cornerstone of the Indian independence movement. He lived for two years in Gandhi's ashram, studying under one of the Mahatma's last living disciples, and learned about how Gandhi's satyagraha movement used khadi as a sign of Indian national pride and resistance to the exploitative practices of the British clothing industry.
As Brown studied Gandhi's movement, the connections to the wasteful global "fast fashion" industry quickly became apparent, in the ways it has contaminated the planet and degraded the lives of millions of sweatshop workers. He vowed to live his values, learning to spin and to weave, making his own clothing, and thinking of ways in which khadi might serve the poverty-stricken people of the Oaxaca countryside that he'd come to love.
So when Brown returned to San Sebastian in 2010, he brought with him a charkha, or Gandhian spinning wheel, and a plan. Less than 1% of the thread market was handspun at that time—a dramatic contrast to his first visit in the 1970s, when many families spun their own woolen thread. In 2010, a kilogram of thread, the quantity per month that average households can spin in their spare moments, sold for just 400 pesos—about USD $18, nowhere near enough to incentivize the practice of spinning.
"Gandhi would say, you have to create a thread standard—like the gold standard used to be," Brown said. "The idea of a standard is that a woman can spin and actually survive on that spinning; she can make enough for her family to live on and meet their basic needs. Can you imagine that, spinning, where the standard can meet your basic needs of survival, where it takes you out of hunger? And that gives you a sense of security and well-being?"
Brown put the village carpenter to work duplicating the charkha. He found a supply of organic cotton, and he set about teaching the young Ramírez and his wife, Felipa, how to spin. Brown then put Ramírez in charge, and soon a team of 20 women—mostly grandmothers—were spinning, a loose affiliation of home-based businesses now seeing their labor turned into a variety of textiles and sold across Mexico and the United States. The revenue flows back to the spinners, weavers, embroiderers, and other artisans working in the village, and to the cotton growers they purchase from on the coast.
Remigio Mestas, a Zapotec textile artist, entrepreneur and cultural promoter in Oaxaca working to revive the Indigenous textile traditions, agreed to buy all the thread the women produced, which he supplied to weavers who sell through his stores. That was the beginning of a business that now, a decade later, helps to sustain nearly 500 people in the village, including cotton growers, spinners, clothing designers, and marketers.
"It's a very interesting and laudable project," Mestas said. "It could be an example for many; if it were to spread, it could address our problems of unemployment and hunger in the countryside."
Mestas also connected the group with Margaret MacSems, who co-founded a project with Mixtec farmers on the coast working to revive native coyuchi cotton production. MacSems would eventually join the Khadi Oaxaca team, becoming director of sustainability, thus connecting the enterprise with coyuchi farmers. Mestas also put Brown in touch with teachers who trained Ramírez and others how to weave with the upright pedal loom, and how to work with natural dyes.
The team has been able to raise the pay rate from 400 pesos per kilo of handspun thread to 1,500 pesos, or nearly $70 in today's dollars—a standard that makes a meaningful difference in a village economy. The thread has become the foundation of a cottage industry, now employing 350 spinners.
In the past few years, Khadi Oaxaca had seen an exponential growth in sales. Attar, as head designer, and Ramírez attended fashion expos, where she was struck by the way people would react to their displays. "They'd walk right past top designers and stop at our little stand," Attar said. "It's been amazing to me the way people have responded. It seems that doing every part of the process by hand is such an attractive quality for people."
"As (Gandhi) would always say, when we talk about village economics, if it comes from a place of nonviolence, of a truly sacred economics, then you don't need any commercialism; you don't need to market that which has its essence and its beginning in goodness," Brown said.
Now, however, the pandemic has shut down not only the expos but the entire Mexican tourism industry, which is what drew shoppers to the tourist-destination boutiques across Mexico that featured Khadi Oaxaca's unique products. That's put the group's model to the test. Less fabric is being woven, and Khadi isn't stocking finished garments, is reducing work for the sewers, stitchers, and embroiderers, and the group's core staff took a pay cut to reduce the economic impact on the artisans. Only the spinning hasn't been cut back; rather, Khadi has expanded its roster of spinners by 100 people.
The company quickly started expanding its online presence. Ramírez began posting photos of the existing stock on an already lively Instagram account, and orders began to flow in from the United States. Online sales jumped from an average of $1,300 USD per month before the pandemic to $6,500 in May. And international sales shot up from 5% of the total before the outbreak to 60% now, mostly from the U.S., MacSems said.
That growth has all come about through Khadi's Instagram account, which isn't a sales portal. The next projects are an online catalog and a shopping cart on the company website, and working to expand their presence on other social media.
Despite the cutbacks, 20 families are supporting themselves weaving cloth with upright pedal looms—fathers such as Juvenal García, who used to spend his days cutting down the pine forests in the region for lumber, and Carlos Vargas, who used to travel to the U.S. for seasonal landscaping work. Even if they had wanted to leave home, the pandemic shut down those options; but both said they much prefer to stay home and work with their families.
The largest part of the operation, however, is still the spinning. The network of spinners now extends far beyond San Sebastian into the rancherías, the tiny rural settlements where families still live in the traditional agrarian way. For Eugemia Velázquez, a 38-year-old mother of six, Khadi has provided a degree of dignity and comfort that were previously unthinkable. Before she started spinning for Khadi, Velázquez was a wool artisan like her mother and grandmother; she knitted little hats, dolls, and tortilla warmers, and every two weeks would leave them with the street vendors in the next town, who would pay her a small advance and then pay the rest later if the pieces were sold. But sometimes, none of them did, making her family's economic situation precarious.
These days, Velázquez has been content knowing that she can deliver a pound of thread every two weeks and earn enough to buy her children school supplies and other items she can't make or grow herself.
Sales doubled at Khadi from 2018 to 2019, and that was without even concentrating on online sales. This has been possible, Brown said, in part because people are willing to pay the actual cost to produce ethically and regeneratively fabricated products, and also because Khadi Oaxaca has been able to receive grants from private foundations in the U.S.
Based on the growth in sales before the outbreak of COVID-19, the business was on track to be independent of grant funding by mid-2022; now that's less certain, MacSems said. Overall sales have plummeted 56% since February. But she said she's optimistic, given the potential of online sales and the burgeoning interest in this kind of project. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, thread production has doubled, with some families saying it's their only source of income. Grant funding has allowed Khadi Oaxaca to continue buying the thread that has become a mainstay for local families.
"What we've found is that it is possible to care for each aspect of the supply chain, be ecologically mindful, empower local communities and create unbelievably beautiful textiles," Attar said. "COVID is painfully helping us globally to wake up to the fact that our Earth is indeed suffering; we are all interdependent. Our goal is to be a model and live the change we want to see in the world. May we look toward great souls like Mahatma Gandhi for guidance."
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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