There are 12 million craftsmen and women in Mexico. In addition to being the main source of income for many families across Mexico, arts and crafts are closely entwined with the national identity (see our previous blog for more about this, here), and therefore plays an important role in Mexican culture. It appears, however, that the number of artisans in Mexico is falling, with a 50% decline between 2000 and 2015. Moreover, 80% of artisans are between 40-80 years old, suggesting that there are few young people who will continue the craft traditions. A decline of the crafts industry, however, may have significant sociocultural implications, highlighting the need to identify and resolve the challenges that Mexican artisans face, to encourage future generations to continue learning these crafts.
One problem that many artisans in Mexico are confronted with is the plagiarism of their designs. A prominent case was that of Nestlé in 2015, who used the ‘tenants’ designs by the Otomi, one of the more than 65 indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico, on one of Nestlé’s product branding campaigns. Without permission, and despite an existing copyright registration of the designs! Initial demands were made by the artisans in 2016, and a complaint was handed in to the Human Rights National Commission in Mexico in October 2017, to accelerate the lawsuit. Unfortunately, there are countless cases of plagiarism, and only rarely are the culprits brought to justice.
Cases of plagiarism are potentially exacerbated by recent steps taken by the Mexican government to strengthen trade relationships with China. More specifically, in response to recent changes in the USA’s foreign policy, the Mexican Government signed an agreement with the Chinese online retailing giant Alibaba in 2017. The intention, so the Government claims, is to diversify the country’s exporting markets and to reduce their dependence on the USA. It is possible, that this step has facilitated opportunities for plagiarism: of 3034 search results on Alibaba for “wholesale Mexican crafts”, only 39 products originate from Mexico (for examples of Mexican crafts made in China, see here, here, and here). Without regulations to avoid plagiarism of Mexican craft designs then, any efforts to increase Mexican export of handicrafts may be counterproductive.
One of the effects that artisans around Tonalá (Jalisco) have pointed out to us, is that local craftspeople buy these Chinese replicas (at a lower price than if they were to make them by hand), and then sell them on as Mexican handicrafts.The result is that prices of handicrafts are being squeezed further and further. A mass-produced bowl is cheaper than if it his handmade, even if it comes all the way from China. And so, artisans are forced to further reduce their already low prices of the pieces they make by hand to be able to compete with the lower priced Chinese replicas for sale on local markets. This puts their families under further financial pressure and is a further incentive for the younger generations to look for alternative sources of income.
Fortunately, there are groups and organisations in Mexico that support artisans. Two of the organisations that we have met are the Jardin de los Nahuales in Guadalajara, and the Feria de los Maestros Artesanos in Chapala. The Jardin de los Nahuales promotes artisans from the Tonalá area through fairs and educational events. The Feria de Maestros Artesanos is a yearly event that takes place in Chapala near Guadalajara and seeks to promote craftsmen and craftswomen from across Mexico. They support artisans financially to enable them to travel across Mexico to attend the fair, organise free of charge accommodation for them, and have created benchmark pricing to ensure that no one is out-priced. Organisations like these are crucial to ensuring that artisans in Mexico are able to live off the production of crafts, and that Mexican traditions are kept alive.
We believe that if we all had access to information about the person behind each piece, how they are made, and the techniques and materials used, more of us would take responsibility for our purchasing decisions, be more critical about what we buy and from whom, thereby reducing the opportunities for plagiarism. Because Makers are heroes!