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 Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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