SUSTAINING CULTURES
Fair Trade and Spirituality Working Together to Benefit Our Environment
By Steve Gloss and Marie-Elena Reyes

 

 

We want to tell you about a very new non-profit organization called Sustaining Cultures, located in Taos, New Mexico. Sustaining Cultures is dedicated to providing support and assistance to artisans and communities of indigenous and traditional peoples in the hopes that their unique cultures may continue to flourish and enrich our world. The model for our endeavor involves a blending of many things ranging from cultural art and food to metaphysical books and global crafts, all knitted together by principles of fair trade and appreciation for spiritual traditions and beliefs.

A 1999 National Geographic article offered the following quote “Buckling beneath the growing global culture, indigenous people (groups rooted to a particular place by history, legend, and language) are fast becoming endangered people. With each group that is uprooted or assimilated, a culture vanishes. Our best yardstick of cultural diversity is language, and the measurements are coming up short. Linguists estimate that every two weeks a language dies, taking with it unique ways of thinking, communicating, and living — and generations of irreplaceable knowledge.”

* Over 50% of the world’s 6,000 languages are endangered.

* 96% of the world’s 6,000 languages are spoken by 4% of the world’s population.

* 90% of the world’s languages are not represented on the Internet.

Alarming statistics to some of us, but unnoticed by many. Each of these unique cultures represented a different example of how humans in different places had lived in some degree of balance with their environment and each other for hundreds or thousands of years. Much of that has changed dramatically in the few centuries since the industrial revolution. These losses in cultural diversity are equally important as losses in biological diversity and in fact result from our penchant to homogenize and dominate the world through technology and a capitalistic system of markets and “trade.”

The Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is an international distinction created by the United Nations Education, Environment, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1997. It concluded in 2006 with the entry into force of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Many examples of tragic human exploitation and environmental degradation can be found in our newspapers, scientific journals, television programs, and on the Internet. Certainly there are also growing lists of organizations, both public and private (see Cultural Survival (www.cs.org/) and the Vanishing Cultures Foundation ( www.vanishingcultures.com  ) for example that are doing wonderful work to maintain and restore human dignity and the environment. Yet the prevalence of poverty, disease, human exploitation, cultural assimilation, and disregard for our environment around the world indicates continued movement away from restoring balance.

At Sustaining Cultures Our Vision Is

“A world where diverse indigenous cultures and races of people live peacefully with respect and understanding for each other…”

And Our Mission Is

“to raise awareness of traditional and indigenous peoples, while supporting culturally appropriate means of increasing living standards that honor peaceful lives with dignity.”

Sustaining Cultures accomplishes its mission through three primary mechanisms:

1. A fair-trade-based effort to market products produced by indigenous peoples or traditional cultures in ways that provide the most economic benefit to producers or artisans.

2. Educational programs and information aimed at increasing the awareness and appreciation of indigenous peoples and their cultures by non-indigenous populations.

3. Grants to indigenous or traditional cultural groups or local governments for the purposes of community development and capacity building.

Sustaining Cultures (SC) offers a range of cultural products and educational services to the public while seeking support and donations from individuals and philanthropic organizations. SC adheres to ‘fair trade’ principles (www.fairtradefederation.org) in all of its operations working directly with local artisans wherever possible and paying a livable wage for indigenous peoples who are often exploited by the capitalist system and live in poverty. Additionally SC offers metaphysical books, materials, and supplies related to spirituality, traditional healing methods, holistic medicine and other traditional forms of knowledge and culture.

We also offer daily tarot, astrology, psychic, and clairvoyant readings to our customers through local experienced readers. SC supports in collaboration with the Frida Kahlo Institute for Women at the Borderlands (FKI), a healing center for traditional healers (Curanderas/os, Shamans, Reiki practitioners, etc.) to practice and teach. Operation of the Traditional Healing Center is through FKI.

The guiding belief of FKI is that within Latino and Native American communities, women are the most influential forces in the family and the community. Thus that is where our important work is focused. Cultivating the inherent spiritual and intellectual potential of women from land-based cultures through healing circles and personal development programs promotes self-empowerment and leadership.

Honoring the healing traditions of land-based cultures is the focus of the Frida Kahlo Institute Traditional Healing Center. Like the healing traditions captured within the Huichol yarn paintings exhibited at the Sustaining Cultures Gallery and Store (more about this later), the FKI Traditional Healing Center holds a space within the Sustaining Cultures “canvas” for the practice and teaching of traditional healing.

When you visit Sustaining Cultures’ store and café you will find hundreds of products from a global fair-trade market. We obtain these products by partnering with larger fair-trade organizations like Ten Thousand Villages, Global Crafts, and Peacecraft (the only other and first fair-trade store in New Mexico, located at 3215 Central Avenue in Albuquerque, NM). Eventually we will establish direct fair-trade relationships with artisan and producer cooperatives ourselves.

For example we recently started to carry beautiful shell jewelry made by a women’s cooperative in Namibia with a mission to provide support to AIDS orphans in that country. We also trade directly with Mujeres por la Dignidad in the state of Chiapas, Mexico for products produced on backstrap looms. Other products in our store come from co-ops in India, Vietnam, several African and South American Countries. We also sell Amazon herbs in our store.

Our Café serves organic and vegan foods, smoothies, fresh juices, and fair-trade organic coffees. We offer a salad bar, soups, and sandwiches. We also support the local organic food cooperative called the San Ysidro Market where individuals and organizations can purchase healthy alternative foods. These elements coalesce in the synergy of the ‘mercado’. Food and drink are part of every culture and serve as a medium to encourage conversation and socializing. SC offers the only completely fair-trade and organic coffee and tea service in Taos, complemented by an organic juice bar and locally-produced organic and vegan bakery items.

Our menu offers the widest selection of organic foods in Taos. Over time we will add locally produced ethnic foods from northern New Mexico and occasionally offer special celebrations of food from the cultures represented at SC.

Sustaining Cultures Gallery hosts a local artisans’ cooperative which is comprised of artisans from the pueblo and hispanic communities of New Mexico. Approximately 20 artisans work in a variety of media such as paintings, traditional spanish colonial art, drum making, micaceous sculpture, and more. These artisans receive from 70 to 100% of the proceeds from the sale of their art at Sustaining Cultures. They also conduct classes and workshops to acquaint the public with their art forms.

In our gallery we have chosen to focus on a relatively small number of indigenous cultures in the western hemisphere so our grant-making program can have a more meaningful impact. These indigenous groups include the Seri people from Sonora, Mexico on the Sea of Cortez who are among some of the world’s finest basketmakers, yet only 80-90 people still engage in this art form.

We also offer yarn paintings and beadwork from the Huichol people in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, Mexico. The Huichol represent one of the most intact indigenous cultures in our hemisphere, and like the Hopi in the southwestern United States, practice a way of land-based living and spirituality fostering not only their own appreciation for Mother Earth, but carries a responsibility for all of our interactions with the natural and spiritual world.

Pottery from the Pueblo of San Juan de Oriente in Nicaragua, and several locations and groups in Peru, comprise our other indigenous art forms. The Nicaraguan potters have perfected their art partly through interaction with organizations like Potters for Peace and now create stunningly beautiful pottery which is fairly traded and very reasonably priced. Several Peruvian groups ranging from the Shipibo people of the Peruvian Amazon to potters from the Sacred Valley of the Incas near Cusco, and others. This pottery is as diverse and beautiful as the Peruvian cultures they represent.

Using the mechanism of the market and fair-trade principles, SC helps to make it feasible for people to live and work in their traditional cultural homeland. The provision of artwork and cultural materials to interested buyers, along with educational materials about the people and cultures of their origin, can and will increase awareness of these unique cultures. Sustaining Cultures places net proceeds from its operations into a capital fund for making grants to communities of the indigenous peoples whose products are marketed by SC.

Fair Trade

Fair Trade represents one socially-conscious mechanism to reverse some of the cultural and environmental losses stemming from what has become known as ‘free trade’ in the lexicon of the capitalist economies. Free trade rarely, if ever, exists but instead is a euphemistic expression of policies and regulations around the globe designed to foster corporate exploitation of people and our environment. Fair Trade is a conscious alternative to “free” trade. Fair trade ensures that producers and artisans in developing and third-world countries receive fair compensation for their work. Conversely, “free” trade results in exploitation of people and their cultures.

As a consumer you can endorse and encourage socially-conscious practices by purchasing ‘fairly’- traded products. Fair trade takes us a step beyond other forms of improved product quality like organic foods, which is intended to benefit ‘us’ but does little for ‘them’. As a fair-trade organization Sustaining Cultures supports the following principles adopted by the Fair Trade Federation: Fair wages, cooperative workplaces, social equity, consumer education, financial and technical support, environmental sustainability, public accountability and respect for cultural identity.

Fair trade represents an opportunity for each of us to exercise discretion in the marketplace in a way that not only supports our needs and desires, but also creates opportunity for other people and cultures to experience peaceful lives with dignity.

We hope you have a chance to visit us in Taos or online at: www.sustainingcultures.org /and www.fridakahloinstitute.org / to experience our mission more fully.


Return to the July/August Index page