29 March, 2013

Weaving our history

In Peru, Yánesha women still retain numerous coloured varieties of cotton which are in danger of disappearing a result of the retreat of the forest.

In Peru, Yánesha women still retain numerous coloured varieties of cotton which are in danger of disappearing a result of the retreat of the forest.

‘I like weaving. I was born for it …. to weave like a spider.’ proclaims Adriana Colina proudly. She is 63 years old and lives in Nueva Esperanza, a community at the border between the Yanachaga Chemillén National Park and the Communal Yánesha Reserve, in Peru’s Selva Central.

According to the oral Yánesha tradition, God sent his daughter Palla to teach human beings how to plant cotton. He also asked his servant, the sister spider, to show the women how to spin yarns and weave the cushma, the traditional tunic worn by the Yánesha people.

For more than twenty years, Adriana has been producing all sorts of garments and bags for her seven sons and daughters and more than fourteen grandchildren, as well as for any neighbour who asks for her services. ‘My eyesight isn’t what it was. When I make a mistake, they tell me ”You’re going wrong here.” and I put it right.’ she says laughingly.

Yet the skills at the command of this woman go beyond anything that can be seen today or remembered from the past. In a symphony of twisting, plaiting and movements that the eye can barely follow, she manages to produce the most intricate and beautiful geometric designs.

‘I didn’t know how to spin or weave, but I liked watching how my mother did it. I thought it was marvellous the way such a fine thread was created. I tried to learn when I was 15 years old, but I didn’t manage to master it all because it seemed so difficult. What’s more, when you’re a youngster you tend to lose interest in these things.’ she explains.

Adriana’s love for this art revived five years later when two members of the local Mothers’ Club shared their knowledge of cotton-growing and weaving with the other women. ‘That was when I took it up again.’ she recalls.

Nowadays there remain just three women with weaving skills in Nueva Esperanza, and the few surviving cotton plants are in danger of disappearing. Excessive rainfall rots the buds and the continual felling of the forest results in the retreat of the Yánesha people and hastens the loss of their traditional knowledge.

Transcendental yarns

Colours such as pastel pink, dark brown and white are an example of what the Yánesha women have made an effort to preserve. Adriana is acknowledged among the members of her community for having an abundant supply of cotton in these three treasured shades.

‘I explain to them that you have to sow the cotton as soon as the field has been cleared and burned off. You have to sow the cotton first so it beats the other plants in growth. If the cotton grows in the shade of the cassava or bananas, it’ll become spindly and less productive.’ she says.

With the participation of historian Marcela Cornejo, CHIRAPAQ, Centre for Indigenous Cultures of Peru, is retrieving information on the use of native cotton and plants that yield dyestuffs in the design and production of garments and accessories where the traditional techniques of the Yánesha people are applied.

This work is promoted in alliance with the Federation of Native Yánesha Communities FECONAYA and with support from TEBTEBBA Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy, Research and Education, and the TAMALPAIS association.

‘Investigations carried out to date tend to support the notion that the cultivation of cotton originated on the Peruvian Coast and from there was dispersed, mainly via rivers, into the Amazonian areas of Peru and Brazil, to arrive finally in the Guianas.’ she explains.

It is still not possible to determine the date when cotton was first grown in the Amazon Basin. According to Cornejo, its use goes back several centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru, and the earliest documented reference dates from 1557.

‘The ever-increasing penetration of industrially-made fabrics at low prices, such as calico, the preference for western-style clothing, the erosion of the territory and the lack of recognition and support for the indigenous craftswomen who continue to nurture this cultural legacy are factors which have reduced its cultivation.’ she points out.

Cornejo explains that in this zone, the cotton seeds vary from community to community on account of different micro-climates, and they are exchanged by the women themselves as they seek to experiment with different tones in their cloths. ‘Unfortunately, there is no record of the variety of cotton colours hidden deep in the Selva Central.’ she concludes.

A sanctuary for colours

At the end of 2012, the Peruvian state approved a ten-year moratorium on the entry of genetically modified organisms, known as ‘transgenic’ organisms.

For CHIRAPAQ representative Nadesca Pachao, the debate revolves around questioning their effects on health and the natural environment. ‘Yet the majority of the population is unaware that the diversity of plants, such as Amazonian cotton, grown by the indigenous peoples could also be at risk.’

According to Pachao, transgenic cotton varieties are attractive because they afford a marked increase in yields. If the moratorium is not renewed, the probable entry of these varieties would pose a risk of genetic contamination of the native cotton varieties, whose investigation, production and commercial promotion deserve greater investment.

Other factors also come into play. ‘Transgenic cotton varieties require the use of specially designed agro-chemicals which create economic dependence and may affect the natural environment.’ she warns.

The moratorium requires the establishment of a base line on biological-diversity issues in which CHIRAPAQ and FECONAYA hope to include the native cotton varieties and the characteristics of the environment where these communities cultivate their most-used species.

‘Owing to the difficulty of access to the zone and thanks to the traditional knowledge of the Yánesha women, we believe the Selva Central can become a sanctuary for Peruvian native cotton varieties.’ she explained.