Tuesday 5 April
This afternoon I arrived in Ecuador at our Panama hat association after a gruelling 30 hour journey via Amsterdam, Bonaire, Guayaquil and Quito. The road from Cuenca down to the village where our hat weaving association is based is always a dangerous one due to treacherous mountainous Z-bends and the propensity of drivers to overtake with insufficient visibility. Last time I took this 1 1/2 hour journey we were held up for half an hour by an accident and this was no exception: one truck crash blocking the road and a police car which had lost a wheel!
Since last year, my trips have been made imeasurably more pleasant by the construction of a beautiful Eco Lodge, a 10 minute walk along the river from our weavers. Hosteria El Barranco nestles in the hillside overlooking the rio Santa Barbara and the Andes mountains beyond and is a tranquil retreat where I can work, as well as having the occasional opportunity to enjoy the pool and steam room.
Learning to weave a Panama hat
Wednesday 6 April
This trip to Ecuador was only finalised a week before I left. Our Panama hat weaving association is one of the pilots for the Geo Fairtrade Project, a 3 year EU project which will provide visible accountability of sustainable provenance, both for raw materials and production processes using technologies which rely on different remote sensing imagery. The social, economic an environmental indicators collected will increase transparency throughout the supply chain, from the community plantations where the straw is organically cultivated through to the rural communities where our hats are woven. As the only non-food pilot, our work in gathering data on handicraft production will be vital in ensuring that the indicators work both for food producers and for production within the fashion supply chain.
Although an intern had spent 4 months collecting data in Ecuador, there was still a considerable amount of missing data. Although it could be perceived that our commercial interest could compromise the validity of the data, we believed that the long-standing trust and transparency we have with our association, coupled with understanding of production processes, would allow us to collect accurate data.
My day was spent researching the geographical, environmental, social and economic data which has already been collected and trying to work out where the gaps are in data collection.
The Cuenca region has particularly high levels of migration and, as a result of talking to our weavers this afternoon, I learnt that there are now 7 women to every man in this area. Statistics show that this has had a devestating effect on the chidren of this region, 60% of whom have one or both parents living overseas, with a suicide rate twice the national average and increased alcohol, drugs and truancy problems.
Thursday 7 April
As a result of the pressure put on families in this area by absent fathers, children are leaving school early in order to help support their families. In theory the minimum working age is 15 and educational is compulsory until 17, but in interviews we have found that many of our weavers' children have left school around the age of 13. Part of the problem is the lack of schools in this region and many children enroll in distance learning programmes.
However, working children in the area are being assisted by our Panama hat association who administer a series of grants within the region, one aimed directly at working children and providing $110 a year to keep 172 children age 7-18 in education. The management of our weaving association give both their time and their premises to be used in administering these grants and twice a week children come to receive education in values, maths and language skills.
Today we also conducted a long overdue experiment into the time it takes to weave a grade 2 panama hat, stopping the clock whenever the weaver took a break. In questionnaires with an intern for the Geo Fairtrade project, the weavers had claimed an average time of 18 hours which we doubted as there are so many distractions within their homes: agriculture, animals, children, elderly relatives. We carried out a time trial with two weavers making different hats, one plain and one patterned. The average time taken over two days to prepare the straw and weave a hat was 9 hours 23 minutes, around half the time previously indicated! This data is extremely important in order to ascertain how many hours a week the weavers work and calculate their average wage per hour.