Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spinning gold, or at least a few lempiras, from garbage

Workshop leader Sandra Sosa and avid students
Making art with garbage isn't a new thing, but I hadn't really grasped the potential of it for poor countries until I watched a roomful of young Hondurans last week transform aluminum cans into pretty little sepia-coloured etchings.
One of the things that really stands out here in Copan, and I suspect in Honduras overall, is the absence of local crafts. The goods available for tourists are the garden-variety woven bracelets and leather-thong necklaces found in tourist markets around the world, and few are made here.
At the workshop in La Cumbre last week, the 40 or so people who had crowded into the one-room school for the two-day event were carefully pressing designs into empty beer cans to make picture frames and folding little pieces of old chip bags into lovely earrings. I could really see that with a little marketing advice, these guys could get something going on. 
Chip bag earrings
There's a rather anemic tourist market in one of the streets downtown that desperately needs some local artisan work. I went looking for souvenirs to take back to Canada earlier this month and La Pintada's ubiquitous cornhusk dolls turned out to be the only option (I bought eight, which made two Maya-Chorti families quite ecstatic that day).
The workshop - put on by the organization I work for, Comision Accion de Social Menonita - was intended both as a way of teaching people how to create saleable products out of garbage, and getting them to rethink the way they throw their garbage everywhere. Having been personally shaped by the 1960s-era Litter Bug campaign in Canada, I'd say Hondurans are about 60 years behind developed countries in how they manage their garbage. 

But what's really great about making art from garbage in a country like Honduras is that the supplies are free. People are so poor in towns like La Cumbre that there's no way they could scratch together even $20 (about 400 lempiras) to get themselves started on a craft venture. But out there on the roadsides, in the rivers, piled up in some empty lot that everyone has designated the dump of the moment - art supplies are waiting.  
The teacher at the workshop, Sandra Sosa, had people working on four different crafts that day: aluminum cans toasted to a golden colour on a wood stove and then etched into pieces for picture frames or decorations; an  elaborate folding/weaving process that turns chip bags and old paper into earrings and other jewelry; key chains and jewelry made from the puckered bottoms of plastic pop bottles; and sparkly window hangings using the thick plastic that surrounds much of the world's goods these days. 
There's a shortage of fun activities for poor people in Honduras, who have neither leisure time nor money to pursue such things. They totally enjoyed the luxury of two days of doing nothing but concentrating on crafts, and were completely engrossed in the work on the day I was there. You could practically see the wheels turning in some of their heads at the possibility of having something to sell, money being a rare commodity in the subsistence communities where CASM works.
Beer-can art
Tourism has been a bit slack in Copan Ruinas lately, what with the coup in 2009 and the relentlessly negative media stories about Honduras that stream around the world. But it's still a major part of the local economy, and I'm quite sure that almost all of the 50,000 tourists who visit the city in any given year are prepared to drop a few bucks on a souvenir. I think there'd be a market for cleverly repurposed garbage art, especially if the local artists were on site demonstrating their work. Think of it: Buyers, sellers, money exchanging hands - it'd all be good.
But. (Hey, there's always a but.) The people we're talking about here are so poor that they're still going to need a little money from somewhere to get going, because they can't even afford the glitter, the earring backs and the tools to etch aluminum cans they need to get started.
Then they're going to need a way to get their goods to market in Copan, because La Cumbre is a hard hour away up a road that falls apart in the rainy season and almost nobody has a vehicle anyway. People living in the isolated little pueblos around Copan gets around by standing at the side of the road waiting for someone going by in a truck to let them jump in the back, making it pretty tough to keep predictable hours at your little craft table in town.
Honduras also has a lot to learn about marketing, and that's especially true at the subsistence end of things. Whether it's a thousand small banana-growers all coming to market at once and pushing down the price they'll get, or the beautiful table linens that no tourist would ever find in a million years unless they happened to ride a horse to La Pintada and were led there by the guide - the country just doesn't have it going on around marketing.
So that's another challenge. People making art from garbage not only need seed money, secure transportation and better roads, they need a basic understanding of how to develop a niche - as a group but also as individuals. As the workshop leader Sandra Sosa noted in La Cumbre, sales of cornhusk dolls would probably pick up if each doll didn't look quite so much like all the other ones.
Still, this is how things start. First, you open people to possibilities - especially the kids - and then you start picking off the hurdles one by one. And if all you've got at the start is one table staffed by a rotating group of budding artisans from La Cumbre who make it down to Copan whenever they can, that's an improvement. Inch by inch.
My time here has really got me reflecting on how I've spent my souvenir dollars during my many travels, and how I'll spend them from now on. That whole debate in wealthier countries about whether buying from children in the street "encourages" their families to exploit them - I'm throwing that one right out the window. The kids work because everybody in the family works, and if they didn't they'd starve to death.
If you're ever in Copan, please buy at least one cornhusk doll from some little girl in the square, because that's a buck that's going to go directly to a family that really, really needs it. And if you ever see a pair of chip-bag earrings or a clearly handmade sparkly seahorse light-catcher, buy them too.  

No comments: