Locals Turn Waste Into `Eco-Crafts'

PETEN. North America's LARGEST RAIN FOREST

`ECO-ARTESANIA" or "eco-crafts" is one recipe for saving a forest.

Blend native culture with sound ecological principles, and the result is a product that sells in a first-world market of environmentally aware consumers. Take, for example, one of the hottest products to come out of the Mexican tropical forest: children's blocks.

Several communities within the Quintana Roo Society of Ejidal Forest Producers have found a market for a 30,000-cubic-meter stockpile of "waste" wood left over from a sustainable forestry harvest project. To get at the "valuable" mahogany and cedar, foresters often cut many other hardwoods not considered marketable - until now.

Selling primarily through a shop in Cancun, Mexico, that caters to the international cruise-ship crowd, one ejido (a Mexican communal farm) sold the children's blocks as fast as they could turn them out. In the last four months of 1991, about 300 boxes of blocks were sold. And a group of women from another ejido began making canvas bags for the blocks. Indeed the bags alone - decorated with animal, floral, and Mayan designs - were considered valuable enough to win an order for 100 at the New York Gift F air in February.

"We focus first on the market, to find one or two or three products for which there is a demand. After the demand is established, or in parallel, we organize to increase production," says Marta Toruk, president of the Mexican Association of Art and Popular Culture (AMACUP). This private, two-year-old nonprofit organization has been working with the Quintana Roo ejidos and other communities in the region to develop eco-crafts.

"To date, this is probably our most successful project economically and esthetically," Mrs. Toruk says. Carpenters in three shops from different communities are now being trained to keep up with the demand for the blocks.

AMACUP has assisted several other communities in developing products, including a group of Nahuatl Indians in Chilapa, in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Until recently, the town sold its line of hand-woven palm hats, bags, and mats to a government distribution entity. But the government organization folded, leaving them on their own. To make the products more marketable, AMACUP advised them to change the color combinations and to get rid of the vinyl hat bands.

"In five months, they've advanced spectacularly," Toruk says. Profit margins have widened and the community has begun selling its products in overseas markets and directly into the Cancun tourist market.

With money from a private foundation, the community has decided to diversify its income by replanting an abandoned government nursery with palm plants and other native plants that are used for roofing materials, firewood, and a natural detergent.

One challenge typical to these communities, Toruk says, is the relative isolation and lack of access to technical expertise. This means higher shipping costs to deliver products to market or supplies to the communities. "We work with the community to understand who are the necessary intermediaries and how not to give up control of product or pricing to them," she says.

Using her experience as a former undersecretary in the Mexican Ministry of Popular Culture, Toruk has developed AMACUP into a leader in "eco-artesania" development.

"We try to do small but successful projects. For each attempt to be successful, it must be of a manageable size. When it's small, you can iron out snags and gradually increase production."

AMACUP was recently invited by the Organization of American States to hold a series of development seminars in four Latin American countries.

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