Craft Production and the Challenge of the Global Market: An Artisans' Cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Cohen, Jeffrey H. | Human Organization, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Craft Production and the Challenge of the Global Market: An Artisans' Cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico


Cohen, Jeffrey H., Human Organization


In 1987 the Artisans' Society of Santa Ana was founded to bring the global market for handmade woolen textiles to Santa Ana del Valle, Oaxaca, a rural Zapotec community. Santa Ana is part of Oaxaca's well-documented treadle loom industry, but remains in the shadow of its economically dominant neighbor, Teotitldn del Valle. The Artisans' Society was established in response to Teotitldn's control and was generally well supported by villagers. However, the cooperative has not accomplished its goal of gaining better market access for local weavers. Over the last decade the Society has struggled, nearly collapsing in 1995. The example of the Artisans' Society allows an opportunity to examine the advantages and disadvantages of cooperatives as avenues toward economic development. The problems facing Santanero weavers are not solely local. The evidence presented suggests our anlysis must take account of the control and flow of information and market knowledge; the place of the cooperative in regional, national and international economic processes; and the critique of local socio-economic trends.

Key words: economic development, cooperatives, markets, textile production; Mexico

Oaxaca's treadle loom weaving industry is centered in the homes, workshops and galleries of Teotitlan del Valle, a village of 5,000 Zapotec-speaking peasant farmers and artisans located approximately one-half hour east of the state capital, Oaxaca City. Santa Ana del Valle, a smaller, rural Zapotecspeaking community of 3,000, is located a bit farther from the capital and just to the north of the regional urban market center of Tlacolula. The business people of Teotitlan del Valle, who are of Teotiteco descent, are celebrated for their entrepreneurialism and the high degree of control they exercise over the export market (Freundheim 1988). Teotitlan del Valle and its population are symbols of the kind of success and economic power that can come with community-based, indigenous development (see Stephen 1987). However, Teotitl*n's market success and the wealth generated through the sale and export of wool textiles are unevenly shared within the community and with weavers based in the town of Santa Ana (Cohen in press; Stephen 1991c).

A large segment of Santa Ana's populace weaves (INEGI 1992), yet the community has seen little of Teotitlan's success. Santa Ana is seldom a stop for tourists and receives trivial coverage in the popular press. Cook and Binford (1990) in their important analysis of regional craft production in Oaxaca describe the differences between Teotitlan and Santa Ana as follows:

The Teotitlan weavers do more dyeing, do a better job of dyeing with synthetic dyestuffs, and also use more homemade vegetable or cochineal dyes than their Santa Ana counterparts. The same pattern carries over into product design. The Teotitldn weavers have a larger repertory of designs as well as more sophistication in designing than do Santa Ana weavers.

Four factors are central to this unequal relationship. First, Teotiteco merchants dominate the local export market for textiles. Second, intermediaries of Teotitlan control access to the export market through the contracts they hold with pieceworkers and producers in both communities (Cook 1990; Stephen 1991c). Third, Teotiteco gallery owners pay fees to area tour guides to bring tourists to their shops, which further undermines the attempts of Santa*eros (Santa Ana citizens) to gain market access.' Finally, a recent obstacle to Santa*ero success and a block toward further economic development is the slow decline of the textile market that many local weavers noted in interviews, and which Cook and Binford note began in the 1970s (1990:87).

In 1987, Santa*eros established a weaving cooperative with government funding and training provided by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) in response to what one INAH official described as "the exploitative motives" of Teotitlin's businessmen and women. …

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