Things to consider before buying Wayuu bags

According to the NY-Times, ethno bags had already reached high popularity in 2011. Why? It goes back to 2001, when the Venezuelan model Patricia Velazquez, starring in the movie The Mummy, gifted Wayuu bags to her colleagues on set. The success of the model of indigenous roots was great. Patricia founded the Wayuu-Taya foundation in favor of Wayuu children in Venezuela. The foundation’s goal is to create community centers, such as the one in El Mojan in Venezuela, that allows assistance in health, medicine, nutrition and provides preschool and elementary education for indigenous children.

Cristina Uriana, Nazaret 2018

Who are the Wayuu?
The Wayuu indigenous inhabit the northernmost tip of South America. Counting 600.000 people, they make up the greatest community of indigenous people in Colombia and Venezuela.

What is a Wayuu bag?

Bags that are handmade by Wayuu indigenous women using the crochet technique, mostly in rural areas such as the Caribbean desert but also around cities such as Riohacha, Maicao and Maracaibo.

The Wayuu bag market

In early 2000 many tradespeople, brands and designers started to sell Wayuu bags. This is always done with the premise of supporting the Wayuu people financially. But is this true? Research of the Colombian TV channel RCN reveals the opposite. It is a pity that even the indigenous people contribute to the exploitation of their own kind.

What can be done against the exploitation of the Wayuu indigenous people?

1. Buy bags made of sustainable materials.
The Wayuu women crochet bags using polyacrylic yarn. Unfortunately, neither in Colombia nor in Venezuela there is organic cotton widely available. Most crafts in the region are made of oil-based yarns, which always leave waste behind. Producing with polyacrylic yarn is problematic not only because of the amount of plastic that is introduced into La Guajira, but mainly because plastic does not decompose entirely. Rather, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments called microplastics, which are invisible to the naked eye and invade everything in our environment and body. Buy certified organic bags now: webshop.

2. Buying high quality, one looped bags.
Before the Wayuu bags conquered the international market, Wayuu women weaved their bags with one thread of yarn. In their culture, bags are crocheted as a socialising instrument, teaching them virtues like perfectionism, perseverance and patience.
Since the bags are being sold worldwide, intermediaries let them be produced with a double thread of yarn, causing a loss of quality and cultural significance. The fabrication gets shortened from four weeks to three days, the pattern is imprecise and the loop is often loose. With those bags of two threads, it only takes 1.5 stitches to crochet one centimeter. Therefore, bags made with two threads of yarn, take three times less effort!

3. Ask for the origin of the bag.
Beware of bags deriving from the Riohacha market, this can be taken as a bad sign. The Riohacha market is the base of many resellers worldwide, who buy the Wayuu bags at famine wages. A cheap bag costs about 18 USD. According to the Colombian TV channel RCN, indigenous peoples receive as little as 2-8 USD. What the women receive does not even cover the transport costs they had to pay in order to get to the place where they can sell their bags. Needless to say, what they receive does not cover the material costs and it does not pay for their beautiful craftmanship. Maybe your desire was to improve the life of a Wayuu woman, but maybe you only ended up increasing sales for a middleman who has not fairly paid the artisan.
The information revealed by RCN is disillusioning and shows that it is not enough to just buy a Wayuu bag. Wayuu are human beings, some are good, some take advantage of their fellow people. Ask where the bag was made, ask who made it. Mama Tierra bags proudly carry a certificate of origin stating who made your bag. The certificate is filled out by the artisan herself.

The Riohacha Market

4. Prefer bags being sold from NGOs
NGOs or non-profit organizations are legally bound to fulfill their purpose, which is of social nature. A company’s purpose is to increase profits for their owners, sometimes at the expense of their employees. Unfortunately, it is common that also indigenous people pay very little salaries to their fellow people.

5. Ignore amazon and ebay, where two looped bags can be found for 40 USD. They might be similar to the Wayuu bags, but for sure they are not original pieces with the cultural and spiritual meaning of an authentic Wayuu bag. The bags that are made with little effort are not part of the Wayuu culture. They are simply imitations that drive the original Wayuu bags out of the market.

We at Mama Tierra support indigenous women and their children. It is our opinion and drive as a non-profit organization, that all the revenues from their artwork should go back to their community. Their talent should benefit mostly them.