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GUATEMALA: Foreign companies plagiarize Maya ancestral designs
Louisa Reynolds
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Indigenous women fight for collective intellectual property rights over traditional Mayan textiles.

The case of a Mayan woman, who was threatened with a lawsuit by an Italian fashion designer if she dared to produce textiles with the same design as those she had commissioned her to weave, has become the rallying cry of an indigenous women’s legal battle to protect ancestral designs.

The weaver comes from Santiago Sacatepéquez, a predominantly Mayan Kakchiquel municipality located 27 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City, and chose not to reveal her identity due to fear of reprisal from the designer.

“[The designer] paid the weaver and said: ‘Here’s your money but don’t reproduce the same design because I’m going to register it under the intellectual property law, which means I can sue you if you do so. The law is on my side’,” Angelina Aspuac, a member of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), a grassroots indigenous development organization that is campaigning to amend Guatemala’s current intellectual property law to include Mayan people’s collective rights over ancestral designs, told  Latinamerica Press.

On May 6 this year, AFEDES filed a legal motion arguing that the current law is unconstitutional because its failure to acknowledge indigenous communities’ collective rights over their ancestral knowledge constitutes a legal loophole that has allowed foreign companies to plagiarize textile designs.

In a hearing held on June 28, AFEDES urged the Constitutional Court to instruct Congress to amend the law so that Mayan weavers are afforded the same legal protection as book authors or musicians.

“We’ve found garments with our designs in famous stores in Washington and New York but the label says ‘made in China’. There’s no recognition of our authorship,” says Aspuac.

Guatemalan weavers have taken inspiration from legal battles won by indigenous communities in other countries, such as Panama, where a law on indigenous people’s collective intellectual property rights was approved in 2000. Under Panamanian law, indigenous people must be paid royalties for the reproduction of ancestral designs.

In the United States, the Navajo tribe also launched a trademark infringement lawsuit against clothing retailer Urban Outfitters in 2012, for launching a “Navajo” garment label without paying the community any royalties. On Nov. 19, both parties reached an out of court settlement on terms that have not been disclosed. Had the two parties failed to reach a settlement, a federal law would have forced the retailer to pay the Navajo tribe up to US$1,000 a day for each type of item or display in which their name was used. 

Fine textiles sold for a pittance
Aspuac explained that weaving is a craft that Mayan women practice as a means of preserving their ancestral culture, not as a profitable activity. Ancient Mayan books, known as codices, shows women spinning and weaving with backstrap looms, as they still do to this days.

However, dire poverty is forcing an increasing number of weavers to sell a huipil (a traditional Mayan blouse that can take up to three months to produce) for less than $13 when high-end ethnic fashion designers sell fine handbags made from Mayan textiles for up to $1,000.

This is hardly surprising given that indigenous women are the most marginalized and vulnerable demographic group in Guatemalan society. According to official statistics, around 40 percent of the country’s population is indigenous and within the indigenous population, women have the worst human development indicators. Whereas the average literacy rate among the indigenous population aged 15 or above is 51 percent, only 37.1 percent of indigenous women are literate.

In order to keep production costs down and maximize profits, many fashion designers buy second-hand textiles for as little as $0.06, many of which are historic pieces of great cultural value, that are ripped apart in order to produce shoes or belts.

“Companies are buying second-hand textiles that often have a great historical value, that expresses our profound love of life, which are used to make accessories such as shoes, with no awareness of what they mean to indigenous people,” says Aspuac.

The women fighting to amend Guatemala’s intellectual property law have emphasized that they are not trying to prevent other weavers from selling their textiles and that under the new law, Mayan communities would collectively decide which designs should be preserved as part of their cultural heritage and which ones can be reproduced and sold for profit.

A legacy of racism
Research shows that the theft of ancestral textile designs is nothing new and dates back to the colonial era, when Mayan women were used as forced labor and had to produce textiles that were exported to Spain, Mayan anthropologist Sandra Xinico Batz, told Latinamerica Press.

At the heart of the issue, says Xinico, is a deeply ingrained racism that exploits Mayan art and crafts as folklore whilst failing to acknowledge Mayan artists and pay them fair prices.

“The theft [of our culture] is only one aspect of the problem; it’s part of a [cultural] homogenization policy that separates indigenous people from their heritage so that it can be exploited for profit. Racism renders indigenous people invisible and belittles them as a means of devaluing their productions, which are very rich, so that textiles can be sold for huge sums of money,” says Xinico.

On the other hand, Guatemalan fashion designer Ana Liz Tanner, founder of the Morralito ethnic accessories brand, agrees that weavers should always be paid fair prices but says that amending the current intellectual property law could backfire and deprive the Mayan women it seeks to protect of the only source of income that they often have.

“How would this affect the women who live on this work? All of the women whose livelihood depends on weaving will be left with nothing,” Tanner told Latinamerica Press.

Tanner says that Morralito works with a weavers’ association in the highland department of Quetzaltenango that sets its own prices, although she admits that it’s up to each company to behave ethically and pay fair prices.

The designer also stressed that her company produces designs based on traditional Mayan motifs and then asks the weaver to reproduce them, which means that garments are never torn apart to produce accessories. She says she feels entitled to do so because these designs are part of Guatemala’s national heritage. “In the end we’re all Guatemalan and we all have the same roots,” she says. —Latinamerica Press.


Mayan women practice the art of weaving to preserve their ancestral culture. / Louisa Reynolds
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