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The house in Piedra Gorda is like Arachne’s workshop, straight from the Greek myth. Each family member is engaged in some part of the weaving process: combing out tangles from the fresh fibres, spinning the string, winding the shuttles, or manning the giant loom itself.
The operator’s feet pump up and down as he bends over his work, skin dusty with stray broken fibres, shuttling to the left, to the right and back again.
The cultivation and processing of fique or sisal fibre has been a way of life in Piedra Gorda, a village in Santander, Colombia, for hundreds of years.
Researchers from Bioversity International and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) recently spent time here to identify local vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and barriers to the adoption of climate-smart agriculture.
Practices that promote climate change adaptation, mitigation and food security can be theoretically as simple as finding additional new ways of making a living.
FIQUE OUT OF FASHION
Fique production may be a strong tradition, but as a source of livelihood it is becoming less viable.
Javier and his family weave netted sacks for storing foodstuffs, but plastic sacks have almost replaced the fique version entirely thanks to their cheapness and abundance.
“For the time I spend making them, I don’t sell the sacks for a very good price. But that’s what we know how to do, so we keep doing it,” Javier explains.
Asked what he cultivates apart from fique, Javier rattles off the usual list of Colombian staple crops: maize, cassava, beans and plantain. But he admits he only grows them half-heartedly. “I plant these things for my family but sometimes I just lose it all because it doesn’t rain,” he says.
The dry season in Piedra Gorda is much longer than it used to be, “and we can’t predict anymore when the rains will start,” he adds. “Sometimes it will rain a lot and then there will be a long dry period before it rains again - just long enough to dry up all the crops.”
When this happens, fique is Javier’s only fallback. It gives him something to survive on. “What else can I do?” he asks, directing the question at his threading machine which has been spinning the entire time.
Javier has never really changed the way he does things from year to year. "I just do the same thing I always do and hope that the rain is good this year,” he says with a shrug.
But what happens when the increasingly unprofitable fique stops earning them even the few pennies it does now?
A NEW SPIN ON TRADITION
The endless rhythm of the fique loom may seem like a convenient metaphor for a cycle of poverty without an exit.
But for some residents of the nearby village of Macaregua, fique has actually become a surprisingly versatile and dependable income source - thanks to the tourism industry.
Juan, a farmer from Macaregua, works part-time as a weaver for an artisanal shop in the town of Curití. Colorful bags, rugs, belts – all the products here are made of fique.
Even the woven sandals on Juan’s feet are made in the workshop. “I’ve been wearing these sandals every day for the past three months, and they still look pretty good,” he says with a grin. The workshop employs over 80 workers from the surrounding areas.
A growing trend of tourists with disposable incomes looking for the original, the handmade and the unique could be just the facelift fique needs.
Juan for one is exceedingly pleased with his job, and gushes about the benefits of being an artisan.
“I can work from my farm,” he says, “I have a loom here that I sometimes work on when I can’t go in to town. My hours aren’t fixed - I don’t have to work in an office. I get to use my hands and I get to be creative with the designs.”
While Javier speaks of the fique trade with an indifferent shrug, Juan overflows with positivity.
“One time a group of tourists came into the shop and altogether they spent 9 million pesos (about $500,000). Just like that, in one visit. You can’t say there’s no money in this business, no future,” he concludes confidently.
MYTH VERSUS REALITY
The myth of Arachne and Athena doesn’t have a good ending: Athena gets mad, turns Arachne into a spider, and dooms her companions to continue weaving until the end of time.
Fortunately, such a fate is unlikely for the inhabitants of Piedra Gorda - especially if they can learn from the example of Macaregua.
CCAFS research has found that farmers who diversify and make changes in their livelihood activities tend to be more food-secure under uncertain climate conditions.
This certainly applies to the case of Javier and Juan: whereas a lousy rainy season could mean devastating losses for the one, the other has a highly dependable income source to fall back on.
For the tenacious weavers of Santander, innovation and diversification could mean the difference between a hungry year and one with enough food.
Tradition need not be abandoned in the name of climate adaptation, but creativity and entrepreneurship are required to ensure it keeps up with the pace of change.
Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher and science writer based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, working on CCAFS Theme 1: Adaptation to Progressive Climate Change.
A Spanish-language version of this article was published in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
This blog is part of a series on Colombia (see link to first blog below) – the third one will be out next week.