Seeds of Change in Bolivia

What a fortuitous day greeted us during the ATA tour to Bolivia in August. Upon our arrival to the CIDAC-Artecampo center in Santa Cruz, we were welcomed by Paula Saldaña, the director of CIDAC. She warmly exclaimed, “You’re Andean Textile Arts! Thank you so much for funding two of our projects in 2019.” She quickly apologized for the lack of communication since then, explaining that it had been a challenging time. (Paula started as director in 2021.) This day we would learn what a difference those funds made to the artisans during a time of great need.

During our first visit to Bolivia in 2019, we visited the CIDAC-Artecampo (CIDAC is short for the Center of Research, Design and Marketing of the Santa Cruz Artisanry). It was founded in 1980 as a nonprofit, social development institution working to promote the recovery, preservation, revaluation, and development of popular and native art of Indigenous, agricultural, and intercultural communities in the lowlands of Bolivia, as a sustainable economic source, thereby improving the quality of life. Currently, the communities are comprised of fourteen associations of 600 families, and 95 percent of the members are women.

It was during the 2019 visit that we learned about the jipi japa plant used by the weavers in making fine, palm-leaf-fiber hats (similar to “Panama”-style ones). Due to deforestation in the area where the species was being grown, the weavers needed to plant seeds elsewhere as they were quickly losing the raw materials to make a living. They desperately needed the right land, and to plant seeds before the rainy season.

The other emergency need was the replenishment of the revolving fund so the artisans could purchase raw materials of cotton yarn, embroidery thread, wood, clay, and other supplies to make their products for the next season. With decreased tourism due to social and political unrest, funding for these basics had diminished.

Shortly after returning to the U.S., ATA and the Delta Foundation directed funds to these two projects. Now, fast-forward four years and our first return visit to Bolivia. This day our tour group was going to Candelaria to visit the land and the jipi japa palm trees, the results from the planting of jipi japa seeds!

Jipa Japa Palm Weaving

The weaving of jipi japa palm hats and objects has been preserved as an artisanal activity of the missionary era. Years ago, it was a man’s activity, but over time women learned and dominated this craft—it’s portable so it can be done anywhere, thereby generating income for the family. At first, raw (colorless) and closed hats were produced. Then the CIDAC-Artecampo introduced fiber dyeing, along with new product lines for hats, palm mobiles, pendants with motifs of local flora and fauna, and more.

After a short bus ride to the Artecampo store in Buena Vista, we met with women from the Ichilo Palm Weavers Association who demonstrated the palm preparation process. It’s here where the palm fiber is prepared for weaving: Palm fronds are boiled until open, then dried. Once dried, they’re whitened in a smoke box using sulphur. The final step is the dyeing of some fronds to create an array of colors. (The smoking produces palm fronds that are more pliable and whiter. The more pliable the weave, the finer the fiber can be split and woven, and the final product can command a higher price. Plus, the whitened fronds absorb the dye more readily.)

This was going to be a fun day based on the conviviality and jovial nature of these women! After some cocoa drinking and empanadas, we ALL crowded into the bus and drove off to Candelaria. Once there, we walked a dirt path until reaching the two hectares of land owned by the association. What a glorious site. The jipi japa palm trees were growing on one hectare of the land—all from the seeds stemming from the funding in 2019! The women quickly began harvesting some of the fronds, which they do monthly. (It takes sixteen plants to make one hat.) Paula updated us on the project while we took photos and walked through some of the area.

We weren’t done yet. The women had planned an afternoon inclusive of lunch and teaching us how to weave with the palm fibers. After one more short bus ride to a small sports shelter and a hearty box lunch, it was lesson time. We were each assigned a teacher, and, sitting quite close, we earnestly watched their fingers fly as they crafted small chickens, turtles, mats, flowers, and more, all from the jipi japa palms. When it was our turn to weave, our fingers weren’t quite as flexible, the object being crafted handed back and forth between teacher and student many times.

Upon departure, we left with a deep appreciation not only for this group of women and their artisanry, their nurturing of the jipi japa palms and land, and their passing on this tradition to their children, but also to the CIDAC-Artecampo for the training and support they provide. Paula did mention that there is still one more hectare of land to be planted, and they are in need of seeds.

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