Fair Trade for the Long Haul

pine tree seedlings for basket making

A basic principle of fair trade is a long-term commitment to producers. What exactly does this mean? Here is an example from our work.

Mayan Hands has done our best to be a reliable source of work for our artisan partners throughout our 27 years of existence. Whenever their products have lost favor in the marketplace, and this has happened several times since we began working, we research potentially successful alternatives for the artisans. As we know, market trends change constantly and the tastes of consumers evolve accordingly.

Our pine-needle basket project was born from such a situation. The market for the embroidered t-shirts that our artisan partners made, quite popular in the 1990s, fell into disfavor in the early 2000s. Mayan Hands could no longer sell their t-shirts.   That’s when, together with Jane Mintz from Maya Traditions, we invited Michele Hament, an accomplished basket artist from California, to teach pine-needle basketry to our artisan partners in Guatemala. During her week-long workshop, the women learned this amazing and intricate art. They are so creative and skilled that within a few months they were already designing and producing fine baskets and they have continued doing so for the past 10 years. Our customers love the baskets! It’s hard to keep them in stock, so we have trained several other cooperatives of women to make them. At this time, we have six basket-weaving groups. And the demand keeps growing.

There was a glitch in the process, however. The baskets require a special kind of pine needle, thicker and longer, from a specific variety of pine tree that is rather uncommon. As more and more women began making baskets, they had to go searching far and wide to find these trees. Transportation is expensive. They also pay a fee to the owners of the trees, even when the artisans themselves collect the needles from the ground.

Early this year we came up with an idea: why not buy the seeds of this specific variety and plant the trees in the communities, near the basket weavers’ homes? In June we purchased 2000 seeds and are starting them out in a nursery. Agronomist Diego Ujpan, is nurturing them and will have them ready to plant, together with the artisans, in May of 2018 at the beginning of the rainy season.

We’re not sure just how long these trees will take to grow to the point when they can provide all the pine needles the artisans need, but we can see the day when the women won’t need to travel far and pay a lot for their pine needles… the day when these will be within walking distance from their homes. The day when they gain control over the entire process of basket making.

And that’s what fair trade is all about!

 Many thanks to Julio Cardona, Mayan Hands manager in Guatemala for his contributions to this blogpost.




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