Notes from the Field: Threads of Peru

Juliana Huaman Quispe_Rumira Sondormayo

It’s 3:15 on a Saturday morning and I quietly close the door of my Cusco apartment behind me. By 3:50 I close the sliding door of an Ollantaytambo-bound combi, a cheap van heading almost 40 miles northwest to the heart of the Sacred Valley, to the same town that around a million Machu Picchu visitors passed through last year. Unlike the thousands of tourists that pass through Ollantaytambo during the height of the dry season, I exit the combi in the town’s main plaza at daybreak with no tour guide there to greet me. It’s just my research colleague Annie and our two Quechua-Spanish translators Adrian and Raul.

We depart from the gringo-friendly route and climb up into the bed of a market truck and board as cargo among bags of rice and sugar, piles of bagged bread, barrels of cooking oil, and mounds of thin hay-like greens to feed guinea pigs. As the truck winds up the narrow dirt mountain road toward the community of Chaullacocha, I ride on a plank of wood suspended behind the truck’s cab. With my feet dangling into the truck bed, the frigid air at my back piercing like millions of tiny needles, I brace myself by clinging to the metal pipes that form the frame of a roof over the bed. I count 39 people strewn across a space roughly 10 feet wide by 20 feet long, atop hundreds of pounds of market goods. My view perched atop the truck bed includes everything from colorful traditional skirts and ponchos, baby sheep and live chickens wrapped in shawls, live chickens, women breastfeeding, and the pouring of countless cups of chicha (home fermented corn or quinoa beer) from large buckets. Every few minutes, the truck stops alongside a traditionally dressed woman, anxiously awaiting the weekly truck passing. The group of vendors riding with their cargo on board are quick to thrust their hands excitedly between the wooden boards that make up the walls of the truck bed, trying to negotiate an offer for the food staples needed by each new potential customer we come across. Some of the impoverished villagers lacking hard currency are forced to trade one of the only growable crops at the altitude, potatoes, at a steep transaction price benefitting the middlemen traders able to transport the goods down to market. Situated somewhat comfortably between customers and vendors, I soon find myself passing a bag custom filled with vegetables and bread to a smiling woman standing below, then with a handful of coins to pay the woman back inside the truck, then right in the middle of Quechua-Spanish multilingual argument regarding the correct amount to be paid. Before long, the truck continues climbing again, the laughing and pouring of chicha resumes, and the process soon repeats itself. 

After three bone-chilling hours inching our way up more than 6,500 feet, we reach a mountain pass with a view of our destination, Chaullacocha, at nearly 15,000 feet. Passing through the rocky peaks, boulder-scattered hills, and highland rivers of the Patachancha Valley led us here, to the desolate and windswept village home to the Ticllay Huarmi weaving association. The exposed valley area makes Chaullacocha a harsh living environment, so isolated that inhabitants have barely veered from the traditional lifestyles of their ancestors. Freezing daytime temperatures are common, along with hailstorms and sporadic weather changes, making even subsistence agricultural opportunities limited and challenging. Most of the few houses and buildings within view are composed of organic materials, mud bricks with straw roofs. The largest building marking the community center is a single-room primary school, which was only recently reopened (2006) and municipally re-recognized (2008) after being forced to close in the early 1990s due to rural terrorism. This isolated village is representative of countless other neglected regions in the Andes, Peru, and around South America; few of the region’s million annual tourists experience this and some of the community members will never experience life outside the rural highland areas.

As the truck stops to take care of its business in Chaullacocha, we climb down to begin ours. Before the market truck, quite possibly the only vehicle on the dirt road back to Ollantaytambo that day, leaves Chaullacocha, we have to complete ten artisan interviews to wrap up our work in Chaullacocha. Annie and I are Evaluation Research Interns for the Cusco-based nonprofit social enterprise Threads of Peru (ToP), tasked with designing and implementing the organization’s first evaluation project since its inception in 2009. ToP connects indigenous artisans with the global market, helping to preserve ancient textile techniques and empower indigenous artisans in five established weaving cooperatives in the Sacred Valley region. ToP pursues its mission with a multifaceted strategy relying on three core components: market, educate, and support. ToP’s purchase of handmade textiles directly from artisans at fair trade prices and subsequent international resale markets products at a global level and provides an income from weaving on a more regular basis than what had been experienced. To support the revitalization of traditional weaving processes in younger generations, ToP seeks to promote and educate the world about Andean textile traditions. In order to improve the overall quality of the weaving process as well as final products, ToP is committed to knowledge-improving initiatives such as professional and skills-based capacity-building workshops, creative inspiration workshops, and community development projects.

Although each community that ToP partners with is unique, conducting our socio-economic operational evaluation involving about 80 weavers in total is to better understand the artisans individually, as associations, and as a whole group. Better understanding how ToP collaborates with each of the five communities will allow for future project adaptation to improve effectiveness. While our initial baseline study is the first research of its kind being implemented by ToP, resulting conclusions will assist in decision making and program direction for years to come.

The research strategy involves the exploration of social and economic topics through a basic three-part interview which has been conducted with almost all partnering weavers. The interviews have been structured into three parts, including (I) an ethnographic survey, (II) a “defined” economic survey, and (III) a “hypothetical” economic survey. The ethnographic survey is enabling the development of comprehensive artisan profiles to better understand who the artisans are, the “defined” economic survey is highlighting the specifics of weaver income and expenses, and the “hypothetical” economic survey is exploring weaver ambitions and how Threads of Peru is affecting their achievement. As Annie and I near the completion of two months of data collection, analysis will soon begin and ultimately result in a thorough research report before the year’s end.

After interviewing so many artisans, we have learned a great deal, ranging from individual-specific insights to trends that apply across the entire data set. The baseline ethnographic component will help us better understand weaver ages, places of birth, civil statuses, levels of education, degrees of Spanish language and literacy, and families. The ¨defined¨ economic section has revealed important nuances and preferences relating to the weaving process along with breakdowns of family income and expenses. Lastly, the ¨hypothetical¨ economic section has highlighted weaver desired family incomes, opinions about leaving their communities, and weaver ambitions across a variety of topics.

As we shift our attention toward compiling and analyzing the expansive data set will be working to identify trends, outliers, and valuable case studies. Such information will be used to more acutely explain ToP’s work and also form recommendations for future project adaptation. Results and conclusions drawn from this research will help ToP maintain complete transparency in its work and ensure that the organization is constantly adapting to meet the pressing needs of the communities supported.

Despite the destitution prevalent in so many isolated highland Andean regions, the weavers that ToP collaborates with are constantly at work to turn opportunity into future investment. ToP supports indigenous artisans in reaching their own family and community goals of education, nutrition, health, and a brighter future by connecting their coveted textiles to a broad global market. When offered the chance to use their traditional weaving skills for income generation, most weavers express solace in being able to maintain the proud cultural practice and apply the techniques that have generationally been passed down in the art. For a majority of the weavers, alternatively abandoning weaving in search of other economic activities would mean completely starting over, likely in an unfamiliar urban setting with little to no education or technical training. By working with existing weaving cooperatives on general capacitation initiatives, ensuring self-leadership, and establishing internal quality control processes, Threads of Peru seeks to prepare even the most remote partner weaving associations with the necessary knowledge for modern international business. From some of the Sacred Valley region’s most marginalized communities come flawless handmade and naturally dyed textile products, not only rich in cultural background but defined by real examples of empowerment and self-advancement. A story lies behind every product Threads of Peru sells; there are names, faces, and lives changed almost every day by the power of conscious consumers worldwide.

Photo: Juliana Huaman Quispe, from the community of Rumira Sondormayo