How Climate Change Impacts Textile Heritage

Last month I spent a week in Madrid at COP25, the twenty-fifth conference of the parties who signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The convention’s founding agreement, written in 1992, pledges to limit human-generated greenhouse gas emissions to a level below that which would interfere with the global climate system. Two major follow-up documents (1997’s Kyoto Protocol and 2016’s Paris Agreement) and the annual COP meetings attempt to lay out a plan for participating countries to meet that global emissions goal. As anyone who follows the news will know, we are far from meeting emissions targets, and, at least in the United States, the subject of whether or not to even participate in this global effort is politically fraught.

You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with Andean textiles?” The answer is: quite a lot. The burdens of climate change, be they environmental, economic, or cultural, fall heavily on the developing world. The impact is especially harsh on indigenous peoples, including the Quechua weavers of the Andes, and their ancestral ways of life.

An Uncertain Future

Droughts, earthquakes, floods, and other extreme weather events will continue to become more frequent and more severe, and day-to-day life will change slowly but surely as the climate continues to shift. Adapting to climate change and mitigating its effects place incredible strain on developing countries, and especially on rural or small-scale communities. In weaving communities like those we work with in the Andes, these issues are deeply linked to every part of life, including textiles. Where will fiber for spinning come from if pasture for llamas and sheep dries up? What will happen to the supply of dyestuffs as the range of the cochineal beetle and other dye material shifts due to temperature change? Why teach children to spin, or weave, or knit if uncertain weather patterns mean agricultural failures, and stress over food security becomes a more pressing concern?

A press conference at which indigenous leaders called for a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Amazon headwaters region in Peru and Ecuador.


As the source of a disproportionate amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s developed countries have pledged their support—both technical and financial—to help developing countries meet the challenges that come with climate change. Unfortunately, this commitment has been much easier said than done. These tensions were open and sometimes heated during my time in Madrid. Over 25,000 people attended COP25; among them were representatives from nearly 200 UNFCCC member countries charged with negotiating the specifics of the global response to climate change. Each day, “stocktake” meetings provided a summary of the day’s progress. Often, the leaders of various sub-committees spoke eloquently about the parties’ commitment to progress and their willingness to compromise, but then concluded that no agreement had yet been reached.

Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s Minister of the Environment and President of the COP25 conference, gives an update at one of the daily stocktake meetings.

Outside the negotiation rooms, indigenous voices were prominent: they demanded change, swift and transformative. At one press conference I attended, indigenous leaders from Ecuador and Peru called for an immediate moratorium on new oil and gas development in the Amazon’s Sacred Headwaters area. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who brought worldwide attention to the youth climate movement, gave over her entire press conference to indigenous youth activists who would otherwise never have garnered that degree of press attention.

One day, on my way to the daily stocktake meeting, I heard a chorus of voices growing louder as I approached the main meeting hall. I rounded the corner to see a crowd of onlookers ringing a group of indigenous and youth protesters. They chanted “step up, pay up” in reference to the unmet promise of financial support from developed countries. The protest was swiftly quashed by security guards who swept everyone in the area out a large loading bay door; the scene was especially ironic given that the protesters’ unwelcome demand for accountability happened to take place beneath giant screens scrolling COP25’s official hashtag, #timeforaction. The stark differences in the way that various groups were received make it clear that indigenous concerns are not being taken seriously enough.

Continuing the Conversation

Climate concerns are inherently linked to concerns about the continued existence of the world’s indigenous and ancestral ways of life. The textiles we love—so laden with cultural depth and technical expertise—will change as the world changes. Revitalizing and preserving Andean textile traditions requires an understanding of the broader context in which they exist. The conversation is a challenging one, and one that is far from over. This post is the start of a semi-regular column on the ATA blog that will explore these connections. We hope you’ll explore along with us.

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