In eastern Bolivia, indigenous youth are learning
artisanal techniques of the past
while embracing the economic realities of today.
Story: Anouk Desgroseilliers
Photos: Miguel Hortiguela
Twenty-two-year-old Naty Diana Chuve Rojas has hope for her future. “I plan to enroll in university next year and take international relations or sociology.”
But not so very long ago, a post-secondary education would have been seen as next to impossible in her native village of Los Tajibos, an indigenous community of only a few hundred inhabitants, about 45 minutes away from the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The main economic activity in Los Tajibos, and in the surrounding villages, is subsistence farming – and has been for a long time.
Other youth from the area have set out on the path that Naty Diana is preparing to walk, but many have been side-tracking along the way. “Once they arrive in the city, many of them get caught up in the jobs they take to make ends meet and drop out of university,” explains Miguel Charupá, himself from an indigenous community.
That’s why he founded the UNIARTE artisans’ association in 2004. “The goal was to give students a way to earn money while promoting our culture.”
Today, about a hundred local artisans, two-thirds of whom are women, belong to UNIARTE. They represent the two indigenous groups in the area, the Chiquitanos and the Guarayos. The association purchases their weaving, embroidery, pottery, wood carvings and other handicrafts and sells them in its store in Santa Cruz or at craft fairs.
Most UNIARTE artisans make their handicrafts in their own home. Those who make pottery have access to a small workshop near Santa Cruz.
“I earn about 450 bolivianos (Cdn$65) a month for making cushions and bags. And I can make my own schedule,” Naty Diana says. Between this income and the fact that she can live at her uncle’s house in the city, she will be able to pay her way through school.
As bright as Naty Diana’s future appears to be, the outlook for UNIARTE is not quite as sanguine. The association is not financially self-sustaining. Its survival depends on international cooperation funds and support from the city of Santa Cruz.
As a result, Miguel Charupa reached out to Cuso International in 2008 for support for UNIARTE’s administrative team of about a dozen people: “We needed a hand to structure our management processes.”
That’s how Cuso International volunteer Jorge Roca, a Bolivian-Canadian economist, joined the UNIARTE team. “They needed to set up inventory management and accounting systems and assess the production expenses as well as the cost and investment structure for each product,” he explains.
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