Boston — Oriental rugs sway in the wind at a flea market. On the card table next to them, African masks glower at shoppers. Buyers beware. That Persian rug may have been manufactured in India using cheap labor, modeled after a popular pattern. The Masai mask might be a fake, too, made by Ivory Coast carvers who can duplicate any style for a handy fee.
Handicrafts, like tourism, are a boom industry for many developing countries, who supplied 37 percent of the $2.6 billion world demand for salad bowls, wooden giraffes, baskets, and other craft products last year. Sales reflect the popularity of handmade products, a trend that began in the '60s and remains strong, say US craft importers.
But the quest for lucrative markets can mean trouble for nations experiencing erosion of cultural heritage, folklore, and historic tradition to swelling mass production and entrepreneurs who steal local designs. These countries hope to cash in on new markets, while safeguarding old traditions.
An international law to copyright folklore is one way to protect heritage. Such a proposal has been forwarded by 17 experts from UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization who met in Paris in February.
The proposal, which defines folklore as the ''totality of the traditional aesthetic heritage developed and maintained by a community,'' provides a framework for documenting and protecting anything from folktales and riddles to songs, dances, and crafts.
The feasibility of the proposal is doubted by Alan Jabbour, US representative to the meeting, who sees problems with the enforcement and contradictions in assigning labels like ''Navajo blanket'' to what are ''evolving traditions.'' Others, like David Ladd, director of copyrighting at the Library of Congress, say folklore represents ''remote, anonymous authorship,'' which is difficult to copyright.
The impulse for the meeting came from developing countries that were experiencing ''exploitation of cultural property,'' says Mr. Jabbour, who supports the effort to deal with the complex problem.
Examples of ''cultural exploitation'' abound. Companies like Martex, Cannon, and Sears freely use African designs for towels and sheets without reporting their source, says Rosalyn Walker, currator of education at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Ms. Walker, a native of Nigeria, recognized ''direct copies'' that these companies were making of patterns from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, the Kuba in Zaire, and the Senufo in the Ivory Coast
''What bothers me is that they don't identify the source of the designs,'' she says.
Copyright laws would require textile manufacturers to fill out requests listing why and how they wish to use African patterns. Applications would be reviewed by some ''competent authority'' that would either approve or reject them.
Cooperatives are springing up in Africa and elsewhere to encourage traditional crafts and to orient production toward Western markets. They offer centralized locations for marketing goods, promote uniform quality, reduce middleman costs, and add volume to overseas shipments.
In Kenya, for example, Akamba carvers still squat on dirt floors to chip out wooden game animals, tribal masks, and salad bowls. But instead of bargaining with dealers and tourists, they are paid by the carving from cooperatives.
Drawbacks to cooperatives can be numerous. The chiefs and dealers may swindle the craftsmen, says Dr. Daniel Crowley, professor of African cultures at the University of California in Davis. Cooperatives can also mislead craftsmen, says Margaret Knopfelmacher, co-owner of Crafts Caravan in New York. She recalls one cooperative that was encouraging production of doilies and tablecloths when napkin rings and masks were selling better in the West.
Government leadership can help nations tap Western markets as well as nurture old traditions. For example, Kenya's Ministry of Commerce stimulated exports of the last four years. The increase was due mainly to a subagency called the Kenyan External Trade Authority (KETA), established four years ago to promote export of Kenyan handicrafts and give professional marketing advice to local cooperatives.
One promotional technique used by KETA involves sending Kenyan craftsmen to US department stores to demonstrate their skill. This month P. T. Muia, a Kenyan wood carver, will be touring Washington, Houston, and New York, reports the Kenyan Embassy.
To protect craft traditions, the Kenyan government, along with Nigeria, has tightened trade regulations. Export of ivory carvings and antique crafts is forbidden. Strict trade regulations help reduce occurrences like the plane loads of ''African'' woodcarvings made in Normandy and flown into Africa for tourists -- a common occurrence says Dr. Monni Adams, currator of African art at Harvard's Peabody Museum.