Photo: Weavers from indigenous communities across Guatemala gather outside the congressional building to demand the protection of their collective intellectual property rights. Photo by Jeff Abbott
Indigenous weavers in Guatemala are challenging the appropriation of their identities by both national and transnational companies. On November 24, hundreds of indigenous weavers from across the country made the journey to Guatemala City to present congress with a series of reforms that would lead to the legal protection of their intellectual property rights as weavers.
“We came here to present this proposal so that our weavings will be respected,” said Floratina, a 81-year-old indigenous Kaqchikel weaver from the community of Santo Domingo Xenacoj. She has woven for 70 years of her life. “We are struggling so that our craft does not end. We demand that our works are not taken to other countries to make money, and also that other countries do not come to take away our [weavings], as they always have had the custom of coming; and they continue to come, they do not stop. Now there are machines coming from China and Taiwan to make our weavings. We ask that the authorities respect our identity.”
This recent movement in defense of indigenous weavings emerged in May 2016. It has grown to represent weavers in eight departments in the country, representing Maya Kaqchikels, Kiches, Mams, Tz’utujiles, Pocomchís, and Sapatecos. This is a reflection of the work carried out by the members of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES) to organize weavers across the country.
“We have advanced a lot,” said Angelina Aspuac from AFEDES. “Every day we are more organized. We have mobilized representation from many communities. We had a national reunion, where there was a representation of many people, and we planned the proposal for the reform of the laws to protect the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples.”
The movement has grown thanks to a series of meetings organized by AFEDES within different communities across Guatemala. These gatherings galvanized support and developed proposals ahead of the recent protests targeting congress.
“There are changes to six articles that we are proposing,” said Aspuac. “[Among them] we are proposing a definition of what are the collective intellectual property rights that are in accordance to the organization of the communities. Another proposal is the recognition of the communities as collective authors.”
According to Juan Castro, a lawyer with the Association of Mayan Lawyers, the organization representing the weavers, the women are seeking the recognition of their ancestral knowledge and acknowledgement of their work.
“The proposal includes the concepts of the collective intellectual property rights,” said Castro. “And the recognition of the indigenous peoples as the authors and creators of their weavings.”
Members of the Women’s and Indigenous Commissions in the Guatemalan congress met with the weavers inside the congressional building, where representatives from the communities delivered their proposed reforms to members of Guatemala’s congress. Various members of congress, including Sandra Moran from the left-wing Covergenciaparty, assured the women that they would do everything that they could to pass the reforms. The reforms need 105 votes to pass. Given Guatemala’s history of institutional discrimination and racism against indigenous peoples, it will be an uphill battle to pass the reforms in congress.
Among the proposed reforms is the recognition of a prior consultation of communities, in accordance with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, over the use of any weaving by companies. This would guarantee that the weavers would have a voice in the use of their work.
Guatemalan companies such as Maria’s Bags, a high-end designer purse line, has utilized Mayan designs without consulting communities over the designs. The purses run for hundreds of dollars in New York and London, as well in Guatemalan tourist centers such as Antigua. Maria’s Bags has also come under fire for their use of the name Maria, because of the discriminatory term that is used for Mayan women.
Guatemalan clothing designer Saul has also come under fire for their use of Mayan designs from Santiago Atitlan and Sololá in their clothing lines. The designs were utilized without consultation with the communities.
The Misuse of Sacred Items
The protest comes as weavers have seen the increased appropriation of their designs by companies and the introduction of computerized weavings, which threaten their livelihoods. Faced with this appropriation, the women from AFEDES organized weavers from across Guatemala.
Along with the protests, AFEDES filed a declaration of unconstitutionality in the country’s Constitutional Court over the country’s industrial laws. They claimed that the laws do not guarantee the protection of the weavers’ collective intellectual property rights.
Both national and transnational companies are utilizing the designs in the production of clothing, purses, and shoes for tourists. Yet the indigenous weavers do not benefit from the sale of their weavings.
Furthermore, these products rarely take into consideration the importance of the designs to indigenous communities. Each community has their own unique designs and knowledge that reflects that community. The indigenous weavings are more than just beautiful works of art; they are the carriers of the history and stories of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. The weavings from communities contain images such as the plumed serpent, sacred maize, or sacred birds, such as the K’ot, a two headed bird that is said to be the protector of the people. The designs also reflect the Mayan cosmovision, which is literally woven into every piece. There are also designs that are only used in ceremonies, or by indigenous authorities and by spiritual guides.
The appropriation of these sacred designs reflects the societal disrespect for the symbolism of these clothing items. For example, in tourist centers such as Panajachel Sololá, servers in restaurants wait upon tourists dressed in the clothing of Maya spiritual guides.
In 2011, a design for Miss Guatemala in the Miss Universe beauty pageant by Guatemalan fashion designer Giovanni Guzmán brought the harmful appropriation of indigenous culture to the forefront. The design, which utilized the ceremonial clothing of the authorities of Chichicastenango, brought widespread condemnation by indigenous authorities.
“The use of Mayan ceremonial dress is a clear violation of cultural and collective rights of Indigenous peoples,” wrote representatives of indigenous authorities in a statement on the beauty pageant. “There is a lack of respect for the Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala. These pieces are exclusive to ancient Mayan authorities of profound significance, historical, cultural, spiritual and philosophical character.”
The use of Mayan weavings by fashion designers is not the only threat to indigenous weavers. Modern technology has also contributed to the displacement of weavers from their ancient knowledge of weaving. The use of computerized techniques of weaving has increased significantly in recent years across Guatemala. The companies often arise from the wealthier segments within indigenous communities, or from China. This expansion has affected many communities which have seen a rise in the sale of computerized weavings. The güipiles, the tops utilized by women across Mesoamerica, woven with computers, may cost less, but such production of weaving increasingly pushes indigenous weavers out of their own markets.
A Global Dispossession
Indigenous peoples across the globe have seen the appropriation of their sacred designs by transnational companies.
A particularly high profile international case involved the US-based clothing company Urban Outfitters, which in 2011 faced a lawsuit brought against them by the Navajo Nation for the use of the Nation’s name in one of the company’s collection. The line included the egregious “Navajo panties.” But in 2015, the New Mexico’s District court ruled in favor of the company, stating the Nation’s name was not “famous enough.”
In 2015, French designer Isabel Marant was accused of copywriting an indigenous Mixe design from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. Marant has denied the accusations.
This globalized indigenous cultural struggle is reflected in Guatemala, where indigenous weavers from Mexico accompanied the Maya weavers in their recent protest. The two communities have begun to see their common ground in the struggle to protect their weavings and ancestral knowledge.
“We are accompanied by a delegation of women from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico,” said Aspuac of AFEDES. “They want to know our experience because they have the same problem as here in Guatemala. We are having an exchange of experience.”
”They are in the same struggle there in Mexico,”she adds. “The state always wants to try to take the cultural heritage from the communities. We are saying that this is the property of the communities. There are people in Mexico that are trying to dispossess the people from their ancestral knowledge.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, the North American Congress on Latin America, and Truth-Out. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo