For many indigenous groups, traditions embody the social and ecological relationships, understandings and skills that connect people to places. In the lowland Amazon basin, groups including the Urarina and the Ticuna have preserved a rich variety of their own unique traditions, in which textile weaving plays a pivotal role. For both groups, the importance of these plant-based textiles, woven by women, to indigenous identity and culture has been recognised by declarations of National Cultural Heritage status from the Peruvian state. While these declarations are useful safeguards for indigenous practices, and represent national recognition of their vital traditions, by themselves they are insufficient: National Cultural Heritage status can emphasise the economic value of the finished article to the detriment of their symbolic importance, offering few opportunities for producers to articulate the significance of these products as expressions of their knowledge and heritage.
The project, led by Dr Althea Davies from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development, aimed to establish how indigenous peoples in lowland Amazonian Peru can use cultural heritage to support resilience, adaptation and autonomy at a time of increased stress. Researchers from the University of St Andrews, including Davies and Dr Katy Roucoux, worked closely with collaborators from the Research Institute for the Peruvian Amazon and the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Their main research focus was to investigate how marginalised indigenous communities in the lowland Amazon want to represent themselves via their cultural heritage. Specifically, they considered how textile production can help strengthen indigenous identity, and aid conservation of the ecosystems where the communities live. These ecosystems are vital not only in providing the materials for textile-making, but also for the overall livelihoods of indigenous groups and supporting distinctive biological diversity and carbon cycles that influence global climate.
As a result of this work, the voices of the weavers can now be combined and brought to an international platform for the first time. Their views highlight how often economic and cultural value are poorly aligned. While the higher sale prices that National Cultural Heritage status often entails are valuable to the weavers, even more valuable is the sense of pride in their weaving tradition that it has generated. The weavers stressed the symbolic nature of the textiles, and the pivotal role that they themselves play in preserving their own indigenous culture. While a great deal of work remains to be done to embed the full value of these National Cultural Heritage objects and explore further how indigenous communities retain autonomy over their heritage, particularly in times of increased stress, this project lays a strong foundation that ensures the full value of the traditions they represent is recognised.