Peruvians look to the fuzzy vicuña as answer to poverty

Two new changes in US law now open the way for the sale of valuable vicuña wool in the United States

Hunched over her wooden loom, Juana Teran presses rows of brightly colored wool into a throw rug she hopes to sell to traders in Lima, Peru's capital, 350 miles south of here.

Mrs. Teran and her husband, Segundo Quispe, who is putting the finishing touches on a small woolen satchel, supply the tourist markets in Lima. But they have bigger plans for a much bigger market – the United States. And they are pinning their hopes on the vicuña, a little-known Andean animal about the size of a doe.

A cousin of the llama and alpaca, the vicuña has one of the finest wools in the world. Recent changes in US law now make it possible for vicuña products to be sold in the US. With unprocessed vicuña wool selling at nearly $200 a pound, Peru's peasant communities see dollar signs when they look at the 140,000 vicuñas roaming the high Andean plains.

"We are going to be able to earn a better living with the vicuñas. People pay a lot of money for their wool," says Teran.

Earlier this month, as Teran and Mr. Quispe were finishing their crafts at the Porcon Farm, President George Bush was signing a new law that eases export restrictions on 6,000 products made in Peru and three other Andean nations – Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. Under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, wool from Andean alpacas, llamas, and vicuñas can now enter the US tax-free.

Even more important to the people on Porcon Farm and other peasant communities throughout the Peruvian Andes was the July 1 decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, downgrading vicuñas from endangered to threatened species status, and permitting the import of vicuña products.

The Peruvian government views the changes as a opportunity to promote development in the country's long-neglected Andean communities. The bulk of the vicuña herds are found in the departments (states) of Ayacucho, Apurimac, Huancavelica, and Puno, where poverty has hit more than 70 percent of the population.

"The recent changes [in US law] are spectacular. They will benefit the communities that care for vicuñas," says Enrique Moya, head of the government program that oversees vicuña herds. "We will start exporting to the United States next year. Conditions are ripe for this product."

An Italian-Peruvian consortium is currently Peru's only producer of vicuña wool products, ranging from overcoats to scarves. A yard of the finest vicuña wool cloth retails for $3,000 to $4,000.

Vicuñas roam over the Andean plains but, unlike alpacas and llamas, aren't domesticated because they won't reproduce in captivity. They are also found in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador, but Peru has the largest herds.

Although their image graces Peru's coat of arms, until recently the country had a difficult time preserving the herds from poachers. In the 1960s, the number of vicuñas fell below 6,000, and in 1973 they were added to the international endangered species list. Sale of vicuña wool has been prohibited in the US since then.

Mr. Moya says the prohibition on vicuña wool actually contributed to the near extinction of the species. "There has always been vicuña wool on the market, but it was on the black market. We had only 6,000 vicuña because poachers hunted them to satisfy demand," he says.

The Peruvian government liberalized its policies on vicuña wool in 1992, and Andean communities immediately resumed the centuries-old practice of herding and shearing the animals in a ritual known as the chaccu. The chaccu lasts several days, with men from the communities fanning out over the plains and slowly guiding the herds to makeshift corrals. Once penned, a swath of wool is sheared off their backs, and then the animals are released. Each vicuña produces about one-quarter of a pound of wool.

The vicuña popped up on the radar screen of US politics well before the recent changes in US law. Back in 1958, Sherman Adams, a former governor of New Hampshire serving as President Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff, was forced to resign after it was reported that he received a gift from business interests. The "smoking gun" was a pricey vicuña overcoat.

While undoubtedly pleased with the possibilities offered by the new US legislation, Moya cautions that it cannot be seen as a panacea. He is concerned about false expectations. "We certainly have new opportunities, but the vicuña cannot be seen as some sort of golden fleece. We have to produce quality products and we have to get the communities to do more than simply sheer the animals," he says.

Moya will have no problems convincing the peasant farmers that they should do more than round up the animals and sell the raw wool. "They tell me a scarf sells for $400 in Lima, so we are going to be making scarves," said Teran.

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