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Empowered activism is cultivating a marketable skill – A dispatch from Colombia

Empowered activism is cultivating a marketable skill – A dispatch from Colombia

 “Part of doing something is listening. We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.”  – Madeleine L’Engle

We all catch ourselves making remarks like “I’m starving” or “we’re dying of hunger”, but fortunately for most of us in my middle-class demographic, hunger is in truth a mild issue, felt for a few hours at a time or during intentional fasting. Hunger means something quite different when it is not by design– when you have no idea when you might next have a meal…

I have only felt hunger once in my life.

I was living and conducting fieldwork in one of Colombia’s poorest regions, La Guajira. An activist disguised as an academic, I was there to accompany Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in a social movement against a multinational coal mining company. Of particular interest to me was a controversial river diversion that would impact dozens of Wayúu villages that relied on the river for water and food. I traveled with my fellow researchers to a remote community where we planned to spend a few days getting to know the Wayúu families deeply involved in the resistance. From there, we set off to visit other villages to gauge their situations and their engagement in the movement.

Food Insecurity

La Guajira is perhaps one of the hottest places on Earth. The removal of more than 70,000 hectares of dry tropical forest to make room for one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines has created a heating effect that is impossible to escape in communities near the mine. The heat from the mine combined with a warming climate and water scarcity make crop cultivation borderline impossible. In many remote Wayúu villages in La Guajira, finding enough food to eat more than once a day is a luxury.

Our third stop in our field trip was to a community that was fortunate to have access to a clean river with some small fish and an abundance of water. I had anticipated that living conditions there would be somewhat better than those of other villages on our itinerary. What I found, however, was the same food insecurity plaguing the entire region. We were already running low on supplies because we gave away more food than we planned in the other villages. Every community thus far had either fed us, as is customary in Wayúu hospitality, or had a small store nearby where we could stock up if we ran out of the necessities – rice and pasta. Several hours after arriving midday we realized no one there would be inviting us to share a meal, and we’d have to fend for ourselves

We had a couple of protein bars that we ate before bed, hoping the new day would mean a chance to find food. In the morning, we shared the papaya we had brought with the family hosting us for breakfast. Those few bites of fruit tied us over for a few hours while we taught a class for all of the children in the village.

By the end of class, the kids were dropping hints about how hungry they were. We asked the mothers what they normally do for lunch and they just shrugged. Like our students, we were getting hungry too. By 2 pm, having gone more than 36 hours on a couple hundred calories, we were getting anxious. We told the mothers to hang tight while we went looking for food at a little store in a community about twenty minutes away driving. With enough supplies to make a late lunch and a dinner for all the children and their mothers, we returned to the village and got to work on cooking up the first meal they would have had in the last two days. I found myself wondering, what would they have done if we hadn’t shown up with a vehicle and extra cash?

Later that evening, I started pulling out the pasta we bought to make for dinner for everyone. One of the mothers immediately took it from my hands and returned it to storage, saying, “Let’s save this for tomorrow.” My heart sank. Of course, she had to stretch this as long as she could. She had no idea when there would be food again.

From “saving” to serving

The challenges of successfully organizing a resistance movement in the context of extreme poverty against one of the largest corporations in the world cannot be overstated. How do you hold a community meeting when the day must be spent searching for water and making food happen? How do you organize meetings between multiple remote communities in the hot desert when there is no money for transportation? How can you have the emotional and intellectual capacity for anything beyond survival when your child is crying from hunger?

Before this experience and before moving to La Guajira, I had managed to convince myself that my presence and my perspective in the political struggle would be of great value. Together with the community leaders, I imagined, we would hold one of the largest coal mines in the world accountable for more than 30 years of human rights abuses and violence against nature. Because the activist academics who originally introduced me to La Guajira were held in reverence in the region, I was welcomed graciously by Indigenous leaders and allowed entry into their inner circle of righteous activists. I thought I was connecting and making a major difference to my hosts– until the day I was put in my place by a group of Wayúu women.

My key informant was bringing me to meet communities alongside the railroad so I could assess the impacts of the transport of coal on Indigenous communities. I was there to dig up dirt on behalf of a UK-based law firm that was suing the company, while simultaneously trying to document community preparedness in the face of a separate legal suit that gave impacted families an unprecedented opportunity to demand reparations. So here I was, locked and loaded, ready to help in all of the ways that I believed were of value.

We arrived at a group of Wayúu women sitting with arms crossed, unfazed by my presence. Sitting in silence for fifteen minutes while the village leader prepared coffee, my Wayúu friend joked that according to Wayúu law, discussions cannot be had until coffee is poured. I smiled in response. That seemed reasonable, I thought. But even after coffee was poured, the women continued to speak in Wayuunaiki amongst themselves while giving me sideways glances. We were off to a great start!

Finally, I broke the silence by asking them about the impacts the railroad was having on the community. The traditional leader of the village piped up, “We have nothing here. No one has ever helped us. We have no water and we can barely feed our children. And we’re sick of alijunas (non-Wayúu) coming to our community and making promises they never keep.”

I was saddened to hear them recount their experiences with journalists and nonprofits coming to the community to extract stories and photographs that would bring the façade of meaning to their work while the Wayúu families remained in the same vulnerable conditions. I vowed that I wouldn’t make any promises that I could not keep.

Then I asked them what the community needed most. They unanimously agreed that they needed to sell their weavings so that they could feed their children. Right at that moment, we went into business together, and One Thread Collective was born.

It took me some time to come to grips with the fact that the white savior role I had dreamed up, helping communities organize themselves legally to push back against the mining company, was a fantasy. Not only was I unqualified to help in that way, but as the community members made clear, they really just needed to feed their children.

I eventually accepted that even though buying and selling woven bags was not what I had imagined I would do with my anthropology degree, it was the role I was given.

I began going to the community every two weeks to meet with the women and purchase their hand-woven mochilas, traditional Wayúu crossbody bags. Eventually, I joined forces with now-business-partner Megan Battaglia, a sociologist who was also working with Wayúu communities. And so goes the tale of an anthropologist and a sociologist who decided to start an ethical bag company in La Guajira, Colombia – a life plot twist that neither of us could have imagined.

Win-win-win business models

Our first priority was to run One Thread Collective in a way that was truly free of exploitation. This has meant that, for the time being, Megan and I do not take a salary. More importantly, it has meant that our core mission is to help each artisan develop the tools she needs to manage international clients, fulfill large orders, and achieve financial autonomy. Rather than creating a relationship of dependency in which the women rely solely on One Thread Collective (or any single company) for their income, our goal was to empower the women with the skills they need to work more efficiently with any client.

Wayuu woman at her loom
Wayuu woman at her loom | Photo credit: Jackie Gilbert

The empowerment workshops we offer to all of the artisans in our collective incorporate lessons about how to purchase materials more efficiently, advocate for fair wages, improve the quality of their products (so that they can raise their prices), and create new types of products that are easier to sell in a world-wide marketplace, to name a few.

Our second priority was to reduce barriers to economic autonomy. During our time in the field, we learned that the Wayúu women who were selling their bags in the local markets were barely breaking even and sometimes losing money by selling at local market price in the city. Imagine spending two weeks weaving your heart and soul into something and being forced to sell it out of desperation just to recoup what you spent on yarn and transport and then, if you’re lucky, buy a small bag of rice. We level the playing field by covering all out-of-pocket expenses, such as safe transport to and from the city and cost of materials (e.g yarn, measuring tape, needles). We also help the women open bank accounts and acquire cell phones, either through donations or loans.

Finally, our third priority was cultural sensitivity. If our purpose in doing this work is to support Wayúu cultural traditions while guaranteeing fair wages, then we would have to work within the norms and customs of the Wayúu. For example, when a relative dies, Wayúu law dictates that women may not weave during the month of mourning. This happens often, delaying production and making it difficult for us to accommodate large custom orders in a timely manner. To work around these situations, we give longer lead times on our large orders and work with multiple family clans.

Empowering Indigenous Entrepreneurs

One of the inspirations for starting One Thread Collective was the fact that the very people behind the coal mine responsible for an environmental disaster and irreparable social damages were also “helping” Wayúu women sell their bags. The Cerrejón Foundation, funded by profits from the exportation of 30 million tons of Colombian coal annually, has numerous social and environmental programs that allow the mining company to clean up its image and appear to be acting as a responsible neighbor. This pleases stakeholders and buys compliance from local communities, but leads to an even more complete cycle of dependence for the artisans. Truly, greenwashing at its finest!

Imagine this scenario – a Wayúu man works for Cerrejón digging out a river diversion that will redirect water away from his village, allowing the company to exploit millions of tons of coal from underneath the river bed. His wife sells her weavings through the Cerrejón foundation for a tiny profit. Their kids are fed and have shoes and clothes for school in exchange for the parents’ continued compliance with an extractive project that threatens their community’s very existence. This is a common dilemma in La Guajira, Colombia.

When I made the connection that supporting self-determination in native communities through the economic empowerment of women was a form of activism, it opened my mind to the idea that business can be a tremendously powerful engine for positive change. We hope that in leading by example, One Thread Collective encourages its competitors to be more ethical and really take a step back to look at whether or not their profits correspond with real benefits to communities.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges of devising a business model free of exploitation that leaves communities in a more empowered position, the eternal optimist in me knows that a scenario exists in which everyone benefits. Because isn’t that what we all want, anyway – a future in which all humans live with dignity? I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite anthropologists, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Published by The Optimist Daily

By Jackie Gilbert

About the Author:

Jackie Gilbert spent 8 months in La Guajira, Colombia as a Fulbright researcher conducting anthropological fieldwork in Wayúu and Afro Colombian communities impacted by large-scale, open-pit coal mining. In her visits to dozens of rural communities and many overnights in Wayúu villages, she learned about the Wayuu’s way of life and spirituality, particularly their beliefs around dreaming and their relationship to the natural world. She also developed an intimate awareness of the challenges the Wayúu face due to water and food scarcity, state abandonment, corruption, and contamination and privatization of indigenous territory by large extractive corporations. 

Throughout her time in Colombia and since her return to the US, Jackie has been deeply involved in grassroots/international organizing and environmental advocacy work in response to human rights abuses by a multinational mining corporation. Since March 2020, she also has helped organize initiatives in response to the economic impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable rural communities in La Guajira. 

Jackie frequently participated in the activities of the Fundación Talento Colectivo while living in Colombia, where she became interested in the beautiful Wayúu ancestral tradition of weaving. She sees One Thread Collective as an opportunity to help empower women artisans to be less dependent on corporate foundations, such as the Cerrejón Foundation, to sell their art.


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