Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Inca and the Alpaca

In a small side room off the hot factory floor, women in blue smocks are intently picking apart bundles of brown fleece. Despite the cramped conditions it is, according to Incalpaca administator Adrian Corso, one of the preferred tasks for factory workers. The women are selecting the finest fibres from the coat of the vicuña, rare and beautiful animal that lives above 3,800 metres on the dramatic Peruvian altiplano.

Highly prized by the Incan nobility, the vicuña's wool is now worth about $500 USD per kilogram -- more valuable by weight than silver. Most of the best-quality fleece is concentrated in a small triangle on the animal's chest, which is shorn once every two years.

In the shop out front of Incalpaca's factory in Arequipa, a shawl made of the silkily fine vicuña fleece is housed in a glass case, like a precious jewel.

But if the vicuña brings the glamour, it's the chubbier, domesticated alpaca that provides most of the substance. Adrian takes us through the production process, as piles of alpaca wool are fed through Italian-made industrial machinery to be washed, heated, cooled and dried before being spun into fabric. From there it's turned into the coats, sweaters, scarfs, shawls and rugs that form the factory's output.

In the Peruvian sierra, zone of awe-inspiring scenery but also persistent poverty, Incalpaca is an economic success story. The South American camelids -- which include the llama and wild guanaco as well as the vicuña and alpaca -- have been interwoven with the Andes' human history for at least two thousand years, and still provide the main economic sustenance for many peasant communities living in the high mountains. Traditional Peruvian weaving in alpaca wool is renowned for its skill, colour and flair.

The outside world has also long recognised the value of the remarkably strong, warm and soft alpaca fibre. Cloth from alpaca was first successfully manufactured in the English town of Bradford in the 1830s, the wool having made its way from Spain via Germany and France. In the 1950s, Incalpaca's parent company Grupo Inca and its main rival in Arequipa, Michell, began the local processing of the raw wool. But it's only in the last 25 years that export-quality garments and rugs have been produced on an industrial scale in Peru.

Now, Incalpaca's Arequipa factory employs 1200, and sends 90 percent of its products to the United States, Europe and Japan. It's one of the industries likely to benefit most from the free trade agreement with the United States set to be ratified by the US congress by the end of October. Between 2001 and 2005, the value of Peru's textile exports doubled, to more than $1 billion USD. Incalpaca and Michell together contribute about $50 million to this total. Incalpaca's general manager Germán Freyre has estimated that a trade agreement with the US could boost sales by 15 percent.

Critics of the trade agreement have raised concerns about its potential to cause environmental damage and exploitation of labour. But compared to mining, which still dominates Peru's exports, the alpaca industry gets a pass on both counts. While the factory floor is hot, it's clean, and numerous colourful warning signs place a premium on safety. The workers, who are paid production bonuses in addition to the basic wage, are certainly better off than their unemployed compatriots who have to eke out a living driving taxis or selling in the street.

And as animals adapted to the harsh conditions of the altiplano, alpacas have an inherently low environmental impact. Incalpaca still sources some of its wool from the small communities that raise alpacas in the remote highlands. It also has its own animals in open ranches near Arequipa's airport and on the Pampas Cañahuas plateau at 4,000 metres, where tourists come to watch the vicuñas. Alpacas are sensitive animals that need plenty of care and attention, and 40 more staff are employed to look after them.

Pass through the international airports in Lima or Santiago in Chile, and Incalpaca's 'Alpaca 111' shops stand out, with their shelves full of fine fleeces in earthy colours. While the garments make a fine advertisment for the Peruvian heartland, most are in very classic, conservative styles. You can't help wondering what opportunities there are for integrating the alpaca's qualities and image with more youth-oriented fashion or sportswear. Young designers in Arequipa agree, and talk eagerly about developing their own more cutting-edge lines, something that will become easier as the country's trade links are strengthened.

In the 16th century, indigenous Peruvians led the world in textile design and production. Today, Peru is gradually carving out a high value economic niche based on rediscovery of its unique crafts, traditions, and environment. Its one industry that could help the country thrive in the global economy on its own terms.

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1 comment:

(0LIN said...

as i am being paid in soles (and not a lot of them), the american expat has yet to buy any alpaca sweaters. and i sure won't ever be buying any with the llamas on them - no offense if you used to rock those.

thanks for the comments on my blog: expatchronicles.wordpress.com

by the way, the comment went to spam. i just happened to catch it right away as i have been analyzing the stats boom since i wrote the cholo piece.

i just switched to wordpress from blogger and almost immediately regretted it as i realized they don't allow adsense. i am just starting to get the kind of traffic that would justify getting paid for it. by the way, i clicked on a few of your ads :)