Chile is a country with a rich and diverse artisan heritage. A brief stop in any market, from San Pedro to Chiloé reveals a plethora of fine handicrafts: elaborate silver necklaces bejeweled with lapis lazuli, copper earrings banged into the shape of moons or stars, wooden and onyx figures from Chile’s expansive mythology that grin and wink at the passerby, hand woven alpaca wool hats, gloves, and socks lined up on the table in technicolor, promising warmth on even the coldest, rainiest day. Whole towns subsist on their artisan work, as in the case of Pomaire, a quaint village near Santiago that sells everything from piggy banks to crock pots made from a dark, chocolatey clay.
Yet these very same traditions that travelers so often find enriching require constant efforts to maintain, as the life of an artisan is often a volatile one. Taking this as its raison d’etre the Fundación Artesanías de Chile was formed in 2003 with the aim to preserve and promote traditional craftsmanship in the Andean country. Today with nearly 1,860 artisans and net sales of $1 million Dollars in 2011 alone, the organization is well on its way to reaching that goal.
As Executive Director Dalia Haymann explains, the foundation’s goals are twofold: to get the best prices for Chilean handicrafts and in the process heighten awareness and appreciation for these local arts.
“Currently there are various companies and firms that offer commercial space to artisans, but at issue here are the conditions that they offer the artisan sector – understanding that handicrafts aren’t just any consumer good, but rather much closer to a work of art and cultural heritage,” she says.
While handicrafts are often marketed as a way for tourists to remember their time in Chile, Haymann believes that this perception of artisan work should be reconsidered. “Handicrafts aren’t just souvenirs, they’re an inherited trade. We’re trying to change this perception of artisan work in order to position it in society as a trade that is rich in patrimonial and social value, and one that transmits the essence of our culture as country.”
To reshape the image of artisan work it has been necessary to improve the conditions in which artisans work and live. Though the foundation hasn’t officially been Fair Trade Certified yet, it has adopted the movement’s most important principles: to provide just and sustainable working conditions through competitive pricing on a global market.
The foundation works through a variety of different channels, but there are two main ways in which artisans can participate. In the first, a crafter may work on a six month renewable contract, providing an established monthly quota of work. In the second, the foundation makes one-time purchases of works that, due to the nature of production, cannot be fabricated on a monthly basis.
As Haymann emphasizes, the artist maintains full control throughout the process. “In Fair Trade, or ‘solidarity trade’ as we call it, artisans themselves put a price on the products, so they’re always advancing themselves and never for any reason do they bargain, as that’s not part of our mission,” she says.
The foundation also runs social programs that train artisans in handicrafts that are in danger of dying out, such as the intricate woven clothes of the Atacameños in the north or the bulrush basket weaving traditions from La Serena and Chiloé. Last year the foundation brought nearly 10,000 handicrafts to exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC where they sold with great success.