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November 24, 2017
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Product design by Cubreme. "Image courtesy of Dominique Besanson."

What if designers worked with rural communities towards larger development goals? With geographical constraints and technological gaps, such relationships are difficult to form. However, with some outside support from the Argentine government and international organisations, the Payún Matrú Cooperative is attempting to market luxury guanaco wool as a means of supporting its unique conservation model. The model not only helps to preserve ecological diversity within the Patagonian Steppe, it also supports the local culture and offers an ethical source of raw materials for fashion and industrial designers.

The conservation issue at hand resulted partly from the unregulated hunting and poaching of wild guanacos, resulting in a decline in their numbers. Guanacos were often assumed to be competitors of domesticated sheep and goat and were therefore seen in a negative light. By focusing specifically on wild guanaco, the cooperative aims to transform the way the species is viewed and help the remaining population prosper.

the guanaco project design wool
Photograph courtesy of Lindsey Mundt.

Housed within a government reserve in Argentina, every year, members of the cooperative roundup and release wild guanacos for their highly valued wool. Through direct sales of the raw wool, processed yarn and designs that result from collaborations with ethical clothing brands such as Cubreme, the cooperative hopes to provide long-term, gainful employment to the local population.

Local goat herders, who depend on the arid land for survival, were the main force behind the establishment of the Payún Matrú Cooperative in Mendoza in 2005. The 20-member cooperative represents families from the larger population of about 150 people who live on the rural Reserva de la Payunia. The public nature reserve was founded in 1982 and is more than enough land for the community given how few people occupy the 6,540 square km space. With no electricity, paved roads, schools, telephones or hospitals, the windswept landscape can feel isolating and desolate.

A largely solitary endeavour, animal husbandry - namely goat herding - has served as the primary economic activity in the region for the past 100 years. However, the rearing of such domesticated animals has, in turn, had a devastating effect on the reserve's soil and vegetation. The detrimental and unsustainable repercussions it was having upon the Patagonian ecosystem led members of the community to begin thinking of ways to diversify their income while still preserving the land. It was then that they saw potential in the wild guanaco population and the cooperative was formed. 

Guanacos are closely related to the llama, alpaca and vicuña and an estimated 600,000 live in the arid, mountainous regions of South America. Today, the species occupies only 40 per cent of its original habitat, having faced a gradual decline in numbers that started over 100 years ago. Ninety per cent are believed to be living in Argentina, more than 10,000 of which live in or migrate through the Reserva de la Payunia, making the cooperative's newest project highly relevant to their immediate environment.

With a little push to market guanaco wool to an outside audience and continued collaborations with designers, consumers could soon find that their next sweater comes straight from a little known conservation project taking place in the Patagonian Steppe.

While guanacos are not considered an endangered species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has recognised the important role conservation efforts play in avoiding such a fate. The organisation, which currently categorises the species under "Least Concern" on its Red List of Threatened Species, states on its website: 

"It is important to stress that the future of this species depends on the implementation of conservation-oriented management at local, national and international levels... At the national level, guanacos are likely to become extinct in three out of the five countries comprising their historic distributional range."

The cooperative's Guanaco Project is one such management solution. It was officially approved by the Argentine government, making it the only program of its kind in the country.

Humanely harvesting wool from a living animal is no small feat but, over time, the cooperative has mastered the process. Although sales from the Guanaco Project are not yet generating enough revenue to allow herders to completely turn away from animal husbandry, they are helping to ease the community's financial burdens and its reliance on traditional goat herding while also promoting conservation efforts focused on the guanaco, the land and the local culture. 

Once a year in early spring, community members install a temporary camp at an abandoned oil location and prepare for the roundup of guanacos. Building on ancient indigenous rituals, an extensive fence made from recycled fishing net is set up and wild guanacos are then rounded up by horseback. The cooperative has worked with biologists and veterinarians to establish a humane system where they can immobilise, blindfold, shear and release each animal within four minutes while also complying with the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (of Wild Fauna and Flora). 

Beyond obtaining wool, the annual shearing ritual is a time for community members to work together for the common goodThe social event brings people out of isolation and is both educational and productive for all ages. Men round up the animals while women focus on meticulously de-hairing the wool after it has been sheared, preparing it for to be spun or to be sold directly as raw fibre. The reserve's children and teens attend to learn about the local environment. After each hard day's work, the group gathers over a campfire to enjoy music and dancing. 

The ritual results in high-quality fibre that has attracted the likes of Buenos Aires-based design label Cubreme. As a socially and environmentally responsible clothing and home goods brand, Cubreme works with small producers to source natural fibres and employs family-run tailors to hand weave and finish them. Alejandra Gotelli, one of the designers behind the label, explains, "Cubreme was born as a private initiative but the principle objective and impulse was the sustainable development of regions where small producers live from renewable, natural resources such as animal and plant fibres" - a natural fit with the Payún Matrú Cooperative.

the guanaco project design wool
Product design by Cubreme. 
Image courtesy of Dominique Besanson.

Not only do such collaborations show how designers can play a role in natural resource management, but also how natural resources can be converted into value-added products that reflect a nation's economic and social landscape. Such designs have the potential to create both pride in place and offer a unique form of cultural and national branding that can have positive economic impact. 

As for the future direction of the cooperative, it hopes to eventually reach an expanded network of external markets while also offering more finished, well-designed products and garments that generate greater revenue than raw fibre. Several partners have provided key support that may eventually allow the cooperative to move in this direction. U.S.-based Sustainable Communities International (SCI) is focused on facilitating access to international markets to increase income that can, in turn, help improve education, communications and health standards within the community. The cooperative established the brand "Payún Matrú Fibers" and SCI navigates tough U.S. and Argentine trade laws. The cooperative also works with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Council of Scientific Investigation and the South American Camelid Specialist Group; all of which provide valuable scientific, conservation and economic guidance and training.

Through its hard work and sustainable mindset, the cooperative has the potential to become a key source for designers looking to align their work with environmental initiatives. The high-quality, guanaco fiber offers a luxurious raw material that reflects Argentina's natural landscape and could eventually become as highly regarded as cashmere. With a little push to market guanaco wool to an outside audience and continued collaborations with designers, consumers could soon find that their next sweater comes straight from a little known conservation project taking place in the Patagonian Steppe. 

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