Recently we encountered two Paraguayan women who were selling tourist souvenirs near the Parana River in Rosario, Argentina. Most of the bags, belts and other fabric items were handmade, using commercially produced polycottons. In fact while they waited for customers they were wrapping colour threads to make bracelets. As we bought a couple of these, we noticed that one of the women was wearing an old bag around her waist. It was a traditional bag made of hand-spun plant fibres in natural colours. Our question about whether any were available for purchase brought a reserved negative.
As mentioned in an earlier post about the Mapuche people of Patagonia, tourism is often a two-edged sword in the developing world. It can help to maintain aspects of culture that might otherwise be threatened, such as traditional art and crafts, language and lifestyle. It can provide a source of income for many who are economically marginalised.
However, the quest for exotic memorabilia and multi-media memories is fraught with dangers. The here-today/forgotten-tomorrow tourism merry-go-round can be demeaning of the local people and degrading of their culture. Souvenir hunting is a blood sport at times. Haggling becomes a game to get the lowest price. In places like Bali's Kuta Beach or Kathmandu's temples, mothers make a below cost sale to feed their children.
Cut-throat competition spurs distrust on both sides. Aggressive touting and deceptive practices can become commonplace. It was refreshing to meet Mapuche stallholders who maintain their quiet manner without resorting to high pressure sales techniques.
Fair Trade certification and retail outlets can help to ensure that items for sale are "authentic" and ethically produced. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a long way to go. In Chile organizations such as Fundación Artesanías de Chile are trying to redress this. Local cooperatives such as Relmu Witral (Rainbow Loom), a Mapuche women's association, strive to expand their culture as well as providing income. Companies such as retailer ONA promote indigenous artisans. Designers such as Titi Guiulfo work with similar non-profit organisations and stores. The preservation or revival of traditional skills is a key focus of these efforts. Such skills are often adapted to new materials, technology or content/themes. The emphasis is on art and craft not cheap mass production.