Yesterday UNESCO declared that the art of weaving a Panama hat in Ecuador would be added to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Intangible Cultural Heritage is a term used for knowledge, traditions and rituals which permeate the everyday life of a community, are passed down through generations and form an intrinsic part of their identity and culture. Other forms of cultural expression which have already received this designation include Chinese acupuncture and Spanish Flamenco. Whist Material Cultural Heritage is clearly visible, the concept of Intangible Cultural Heritage is harder to understand. In fact, since the declaration was made, twitter was full of Ecuadorians celebrating the fact that the Panama hat had been recognised by UNESCO and not understanding that a Panama hat is a tangible object containing an intangible heritage of great value to the country. A heritage which, sadly, is in danger of extinction if steps are not taken to preserve it.
In the small, rural community where Pachacuti works, the art of creating Panama Hats is woven into the fabric of daily life: women weave on the bus, walking to market, on their way to the fields. Even at the General Assembly of the Association which I attended this year where large signs proclaimed Leave Your Hats Outside, the weavers carried on weaving whilst voting.
In fact, when interviewed, our weavers were convinced that it takes around 20 hours to weave a hat as they pick up and put down their weaving all day long, taking around two days to complete an economical grade of Panama. It was only last year when we finally decided to conduct a proper time trial with no distractions that we discovered that it only actually takes 8 hours to weave a grade 2 Panama hat.
I never see our weavers without straw in their hands, whether preparing the ‘tallos’ of paja toquilla before weaving or carrying a part-finished hat. For the 165 women who weave Pachacuti Panama hats, weaving is more than an art, more than a skill, it is a way of life and represents the cultural heritage of the entire community. Sadly, the children of our weavers do not always share the desire to participate in these traditional skills as historically the Panama hat weaver has been exploited by middlemen and young people, quite understandably, have been searching for alternatives. This has led to our community in Ecuador having some of the highest levels of migration in the country, with 60% of children having at least one parent living overseas. The destruction of family and community life has led to high rates of alcoholism, youth suicide and teen pregnancies.
Pachacuti is trying to change this by paying a Fair Price (60% to 120% more than the middlemen when I visited earlier this year and compared prices) and providing training, not just in design development and skills, but in self-esteem, human relations, costing of products and overheads, health and safety. On my last visit I heard that there was a waiting list to join the Association which is fantastic news. Now Pachacuti just needs to keep growing so that we can support all of the women who want to join us! I am delighted that our work is encouraging more weavers to want to join and proving that Panama hat weaving really can provide a viable form of income to enable women to remain within their rural communities, keep families together, and pass on their culture and traditions.
As well as preserving traditional skills, through our design input we are teaching the weavers new skills and developing new markets around the world for these beautiful hand-woven hats. The women love to weave Pachacuti designs and we have even discovered that they can weave a brightly coloured hat one hour faster than a natural hat!
Weaving is a both a way of life, a means of income and a cultural expression for the members of our producer association and, as such, is undoubtedly worthy of preservation by UNESCO. Pachacuti has worked for the last 20 years to help preserve and encourage traditional hat weaving skills in Ecuador and ensure that this way of life is viable for future generations, no longer at the mercy of intermediaries paying the lowest price possible. I hope that yesterday’s designation of the art of Panama Hat weaving as Intangible Cultural Heritage will bring wider recognition to Ecuador’s incredibly skilled weavers and ensure that their work is properly valued and justly remunerated in the future.