Guatemala, Maya women fight to defend indigenous textiles from the fashion industry

Maya women in Guatemala have taken legal action to defend huipiles, their traditional textiles, against mass-produced versions. This could set a precedent for the protection of collective intellectual property rights.

An organisation that unites over 1,000 mainly Maya women in Guatemala has expressed alarm that indigenous handicrafts, textiles called “huipiles” in particular, are under threat because underpriced industrial fabrics appropriating indigenous patterns have flooded the Guatemalan market, depriving many native women of their main source of income.

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Collective intellectual property

In May 2016 the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), a grassroots movement against gender inequality in Guatemala, brought a motion to the Constitutional Court that indigenous textiles should receive protection under the Constitution, which guarantees to “recognise, respect, and promote [indigenous] forms of life, customs, traditions”.

To counter mass-produced textiles, in November 2016 AFEDES proposed a legislative reform that would recognise the notion of collective intellectual property and acknowledge indigenous peoples as collective authors of their cultural heritage. The bill would thus protect Maya weavers from plagiarism of their patterns – a phenomenon frequently occurring in the fashion industry – and result in their right to receive royalties for their commercial use. The bill, number 5247, has been officially accepted to debate and awaits Congress’ consideration.

Angelina Aspuac from AFEDES in a traditional attire © Erick Aspuac
Angelina Aspuac from AFEDES in traditional attire © Erick Aspuac

Guatemala is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN agency that protects intellectual property internationally, and has enacted a number of provisions on the matter but hasn’t regulated the collective intellectual property, even though 51 per cent of the country’s population belongs to the Maya group, whose cosmovision is grounded in the idea of collectivity.  

Guatemalan Maya woman in a traditional attire © Erick Aspuac
Guatemalan Maya woman in a traditional attire © Erick Aspuac

Maya women’s fight

In fact, this isn’t the first time indigenous groups demand recognition of their collective intellectual property rights. For instance, in 1999 the Union of Yagé Healers of the Colombian Amazon insisted on recognizing yagé, a traditional spiritual brew used in rituals and medicine, as belonging to the collective traditional wisdom of indigenous peoples. They were primarily motivated by the urgency to stop the devastating commercialisation of traditional plants that profaned their culture. 

Likewise, Maya weavers emphasise that their textiles are a key expression of their cultural and spiritual identity with patterns incorporating spiritual elements, for example from the Mayan calendar, and their fight embodies their struggle for indigenous empowerment. “Although from a Western perspective the act of producing our own clothes … is synonymous to backwardness or poverty, for us it constitutes the road to free self-determination of our communities,” AFEDES organiser Angelina Aspuac said during a Constitutional Court hearing.

“We are the daughters of the grandmothers who won’t die … they keep living in the universe of our textiles,” Aspuac added, to emphasise the cultural continuity that huipiles safeguard.  

Guatemalan Maya woman
Guatemalan Maya woman in traditional attire © Erick Aspuac

The Mayan population was the principal victim of the civil war that ravaged Guatemala between 1960 and 1996. Out of the estimated 200,000 people killed or who disappeared during the conflict between the government and leftist guerrillas, 83 per cent were of Maya origin. And by intensifying efforts to regain control over their cultural heritage, not only do indigenous people symbolically reclaim their cultural agency and settle the past, but also embark on a battle over the empowerment they deserve in the new social order.

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