I tried to set up an appointment beforehand but was told that the workers were busy and might not have time to talk. I took my chance anyway.
I knocked on the heavy double door of the former hospital building. When the door opened, Rosa, the stalwart matriarch of the co-op, welcomed me. She wore one of the cooperative’s panama hats with a black cardigan and red skirt. Her braided hair gave her a traditional Ecuadorian look. She welcomed me with a smile and insisted that I join the workers for a home-cooked meal. It was yet another example of the hospitality and generosity of time I experienced on my travels.
I was nine months into my Fair Trade journey, riding my bicycle from Vancouver to South America, visiting as many cooperatives as I could. I wanted to learn more about the people living in producer communities, and how Fair Trade plays a role in their lives.
The Asociación de Toquilleras de María Auxiliadora (ATMA) is a women’s Fair Trade cooperative that produces artisan crafts, and in particular, panama hats. It is located among the beautiful Andean highlands of southern Ecuador, on the edge of the dusty, patchwork town of Sigsig, a 90-minute bus journey from the colonial city Cuenca.
Inside the old building, there was a central courtyard, almost filled by a wooden structure with a wide central column, which was decorated with a colourful ribbon to make it look like a hat. It stood about three metres high and 10 metres wide and was really a circular table that could also be used as a stage.
I made my way into the main working area, where a thrum of activity was already underway. The workroom was open and well lit by the large windows that stretched the length of the room. This was not some factory-style operation. The women worked busily at their own stations, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Most of the noise came from a mix of machines and children. Eight to 10 women typically work here, eight hours per day, Monday to Friday. During busier times, they’ll work Saturdays too.
On the edges of the clean, tiled floor, the walls were lined with shelves and cupboards full of hats in various states of completion. Tables were piled high with materials. The panamas are made from palm-like grass from the Pacific coast. The style was originally named after the coastal city of Montecristi, but they became known as “panama hats” when they were given international visibility during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20
The women use many different dyes to colour the grass straw and then hang them in bunches to dry. The traditional hat weaving, an important traditional local skill, is meticulously completed by hand.
The women continued to work while I visited. Their sewing machines rattled as they stitched labels onto the finished hats. Every minute or so there was a loud hiss of decompressed air, as a woman named Maria moulded hats into different styles. Another woman helped to shape the hats with an iron. Meanwhile, a group of children ran in and out of the room, playing games.
The women sell their products directly to Pachacuti, a relationship that has been established for many years. Pachacuti is a Fair Trade Certified fashion retailer that in 2009 became the first company in the world to complete a pilot study for the new World Fair Trade Organization certification process. It was the first international Fair Trade organization allowed to put “Fair Trade Certified” on its full range of products, certifying the organization as a whole rather than specific items.
ATMA provides many benefits for its employees. It offers them fair wages and provides health benefits and educational assistance for their children. Because of ATMA, important cultural knowledge will be maintained and transferred to younger generations. What’s most important is the sense of empowerment. The women here have created their own business, invested in training and equipment, and are earning their own incomes.
The cooperative also has its own shop that sells hats, bags, and crafts. It felt good buying a hat straight from its source. I was satisfied, knowing my money went directly to the women here. It might be a small contribution, but it’s important.
Kieran Smith is a member of the Fair Trade Vancouver Board of Directors. In June, 2011, he travelled from Vancouver, B.C., to South America by bicycle to learn about Fair Trade producers.