Needle, Thread - and a Web

Panama's Kuna Indians sell molas over the Internet

As night falls on this small island off Panama's Atlantic coast and three women sew traditional molas by the light of candles and kerosene lamps, the Internet is the last thing that comes to mind.

Yet the high-tech pipeline plays a central role in this scene.

The Mola Producer's Cooperative, to which these Kuna Indians belong, now sells its bold geometric fabrics not only to tourists but also to customers thousands of miles away, via a site on the Internet's World Wide Web.

The marketing experiment is part of a broader effort that could become a model for indigenous peoples trying to preserve traditional crafts and sustain their economies.

It is orchestrated by Peoplink, a nonprofit organization that aims to help indigenous artisans from the Americas, Africa, and Asia reach more consumers.

"We have [partner organizations] in Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, India, and Bangladesh, with Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Cameroon on the way," says Daniel Salcedo, Peoplink's founder and president.

Mr. Salcedo approached the Kunas after hearing about the famous molas through a friend who worked in Panama with the US Peace Corps 30 years ago.

Initially some Kunas worried that the project would be a waste of money, but the mola cooperative won over skeptics, and in August 1996 their page was posted onto the Peoplink Web site (www.peoplink.org). There's also an educational site about molas: www.midtown.net/~molas

Flordelina Denis Dack, the manager of the mola cooperative, says its 1,500 members so far have seen modest benefits from their investment.

"At the moment it's more for promotion, rather than sales," she says. "We are hoping that in the future it will bring more business." Last year, 10 percent of the cooperative's $46,000 in mola sales was Internet-based.

"Sometimes [customers] see the page and come personally. Others order straight through the Internet," she says.

Along with lobster, tuna, and crab fishing, mola production has become a mainstay of the Kuna economy. The cooperative spans 14 communities - many with no access to telephones or electricity - in a semiautonomous comarca (reserve).

Women have gained greater economic and social power, often holding family purse strings.

What the Internet offers is a new avenue for sales, without the problems associated with increased tourist development.

At the co-op's small office in Panama City, Ms. Dack and her assistants photograph mola designs with an inexpensive digital camera. The images go by electronic mail to Peoplink's office in Maryland and are posted on the Web.

So far, Peoplink is not covering its costs. Salcedo subsidizes the project from his own funds, but expects the system to be self-supporting eventually with a 30 percent sales commission - much lower than the 1,000-percent mark-up a typical wholesaler might tack on.

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