What is Mama Tierra?
Mama Tierra is a Swiss Non-Profit organization supporting indigenous people since 2015. Human rights activists founded the non-profit organization to drive social change and gender equality for indigenous women in Colombia and Venezuela, while protecting Mother Earth.
We created the Mama Tierra accessory brand to empower indigenous women, who craft with great dedication our products. By merging indigenous myths and traditional savoir-faire with bohemian designs, Mama Tierra creates a meaningful aesthetic. Thereby brightening the life of women with premium handcrafted accessories, that carry symbolic power.
Why was Mama Tierra founded?
A catalyst for Mama Tierra’s creation was the great crisis suffered in Venezuela. Katherine Klemenz and Lourdes Grollimund met in Switzerland in 2014 during protests against human rights violations in Venezuela. Both longed to do something for their birth countries. It was then when Mama Tierra was born: an NGO that empowers women through fair paid work, creating design pieces with the finest craftsmanship from Colombia and Venezuela.
Why do you empower women?
Our organization empowers indigenous women by producing, distributing and researching about their crafts, aiming to support their financial independence. Indigenous women inspire us: They earn the family’s living, bring up the children and pass on the indigenous heritage. The strategic focus is on women because they are the strongest link in many indigenous societies, but this is particularly true in the Wayuu culture, as they have a matrilineal kinship structure. This means that heritage, such as land and last names are passed through the mother instead as in western societies through the father line.
Who are the Wayuu people?
The Wayuu belong to a Caribbean indigenous group of 600.000 people who inhabit the northernmost tip of South America. There are no paved streets, instead Jeeps, donkeys and motorcycles transport the indigenous over bumpy paths across the Caribbean desert. They live in the rural and biodiverse desert between Colombia and Venezuela.
Why do you think it is better to work with people in poverty as an NGO?
Because it allows for the focus to be on the people, on their needs and improving their living conditions. A non-profit organization such as an association, offers the possibility to all people interested in the brand, to actively participate as members. The strategic orientation of the brand is ruled by a board, its members and statutes based on social principles. In our case the indigenous women periodically organize assemblies and discuss the production process as well as needs in the community that we as organization want to cover.
Red more here Manifesto
Why do you support Wayuu indigenous?
Mama Tierra has chosen to work mostly with the Wayuu indigenous since, as a disadvantaged minority group, the Wayuu struggle for survival. As a disadvantaged group, Mama Tierra provides these people in starving levels, in extreme poverty in hard-to-reach areas with what they need: a job and funding to solve the problems their government does not.
The La Guajira area has the highest malnutrition index in Colombia. According to reports, between 2012 and 2015, almost 5000 Wayuu children have died from preventable causes such as diarrhea and hunger. This number is rising sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which in March already pushed the indigenous people into a food crisis.
In addition, climate change is making their land increasingly infertile. These conditions make agriculture and food cultivation hardly possible. Due to the difficult economic and political situation in Venezuela, over 90% of the Wayuu people in the north of Colombia in the Uribia Department live in abject poverty. Many are almost unable to support themselves.
Companies market the artisans’ products as trade fair, without meeting basic needs
Following the mentioned study from the Colombian channel RCN Wayuu women earn very little for their work, they travel up to 12 hours to reach the city to sell their bags, invest their capital to buy the material and are not able to feed their families with their work, since Wayuu women only earn up to 2 USD on average for each bag. Regrettably, there is no legal framework to demand companies to pay fair wages.
How much goes back to the artisan when buying a bag?
Mama Tierra as NGO pays up to 20 times more as in the streets of Rio Hacha, the common market for Wayuu crafts in Colombia. This is not counting the social projects the artisans benefit from. Our project managers calculate the needed living wages depending on the artisan’s local economy. It is important for all Mama Tierra members, that the indigenous people earn fair wages.
At the end everything goes back to the project. If we earn 100 Euros or 1 million, everybody works for a fair fix amount of money and some fringe benefits. An association is different than a company, where revenues are paid out to shareholders or investors. All profits are invested in solving social problems the Colombian or Venezuelan governments do not address, like hunger, access to clean water, gender equality, racism, education (the list is long).
Why not just get donations?
With Fair Fashion, the NGO aims to defeat the great poverty in this region. Mama Tierra offers to the Wayuu women existence-saving wages and thereby financial independence. This is the way we empower indigenous women to reach gender equality. They want to work, rather than be beneficiaries of any NGO.
The NGO opens trade routes for the Wayuu, taking their material culture to the global market. Thereby benefiting indirectly 833 people monthly.
Selling indigenous craft has enable the organization to draw attention to the issues of the Wayuu people, while speaking about something exciting like fashion, colors and patterns. With the revenues of the crafts, Mama Tierra has funded different programs such as nutritional programs for elderly people, publication of a poems anthology, initiation of environmental project in Venezuela, payment of medicines for women and children, maternity leave contribution, soap workshops and solar energy accessibility.
How do you help women in the production? How is the cooperation?
The organization offers its own upfront payments and materials (i.e. yarn, needles, scissors, measuring tape, zippers). This greatly helps women as they do not have to worry about using their own capital to get started. In the field, three expert weavers hold the position of Mama Tierra coordinators and are, among other things, in charge of teaching less experienced women to create high quality crafts. Quality in crafts is a key success factor in sales but also, quality is important for the indigenous women themselves.
Working from home allows the artisans to look after their children and the elderly among them. Being in their home also allows women to watch after their livestock.
We communicate daily with the coordinators. We know how the work is going but they also tell us if there is anything hindering them and together, we address the issues and are able to solve them.
Preserving traditions and artisanal techniques
One of Mama Tierra main concerns is to preserve the traditional handicrafts of the indigenous people. Mama Tierra therefore works together with indigenous women from Colombia and Venezuela, who partly produce the bags and cases in traditional techniques from pre-colonial times and can thus secure their livelihood.
Additionally, Mama Tierra produces with the Wayuu women only handicrafts that are consistent with their culture, like the bags made with only one thread. These are Wayuu bags of the highest quality, which should be appreciated financially. Because at low wages, a negative effect occurs: the indigenous people make the bags faster, with simpler patterns and in lower quality. By shortening the production time from ten days to two days, the bag loses its spiritual and cultural significance as well as longevity.
What materials do you use for production?
All Mama Tierra accessories consist of sustainable materials such as GOTS certified cotton yarn from Peru. Since most indigenous textiles in the Caribbean are made from plastic based yarns, the production of the Mama Tierra accessories, thus contributes to a reduction in plastic waste in Colombia’s most rural area called La Guajira. Find Mama Tierra products made with organic cotton GOTS certified products
We speak about cultural appropriation when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in a stereotypical, exploitative or disrespectful way. Mama Tierra as NGO is sensitive about power differences, colonialism heritage and discrimination while working with indigenous peoples in every step along the social and cultural project as well as craft production.
At Mama Tierra we study the Wayuu culture and promote it. Because we think that this is the best way to counteract the systemic racism this indigenous group faces.
On the other hand, Mama Tierra follows the desire of Wayuu women to be independent by selling their crafts. We believe in cooperation to drive gender equality and sustainable development through fair fashion and community-led actions.
Last but not least, Katherine Klemenz, one Mama Tierra’s founder, has indigenous Wayuu roots. Since Katherine’s mother was adopted, she longed to know more about her indigenous background that she never had the opportunity to experience.