Duke University Alumni Magazine

Ecology and the Tourist Marketplace
Conserving Parks And People
by Monte Basgall

A fanciful carved wooden coyote from Oaxaca
Photo: Jim Wallace

A researcher hopes to protect the environment through an unusual professional pursuit-- devoting his attention to Mexican arts and crafts

uring Mexico's dry winters, visitors to the bustling city of Cuernavaca will likely meet the Nahuas. Nahua children will be combing the streets for people to buy their brightly colored bracelets. And their older brothers, sisters, and parents will be busy hawking rainbow-hued assortments of fabrics, jewelry, pottery, baskets, carvings, and paintings. In the age-old ritual of the market, these Native Americans will extoll the quality and uniqueness of their indigenous wares, while bargain hunters from Dallas, Chicago, or Bangor will try to haggle down the price another dime.

     Such highly impersonal exchanges may leave Nahua vendors bewildered, and the experience may also leave tourists feeling somehow unfulfilled. Robert Healy, a professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, thinks both parties would profit from a little knowledge of each other's lives and tastes. He feels this need strongly enough to make regular trips to Cuernavaca and other sites in the Americas, where he is subjecting both buyers and sellers to the latest tools of economic research. In the process, Healy is learning many things about souvenir makers like the Nahuas. Some of the stories sadden him, some surprise him, and some leave him feeling hopeful.

The keeper and the keepsakes: Healy, above, with a laquered piece that combines the "amate" painting style with a wooden cross inspired by an El Salavador craft
Photo: Jim Wallace

     Healy will tell you that the Nahuas who sell in Cuernavaca live along the Balsas River, tucked in the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero. Their faces still bear the imprint of their Aztec forebears, as do the tongue-twisting names of home villages like Oapan, Talamacazampa, and Ameyatepec. In fact, many of them still speak the ancient Aztec tongue--also called Nahua --along with modern Spanish.

     During the rainy seasons, Nahua families support themselves by cultivating fruit trees and growing corn, beans, chiles, and squash. But when the rain stops, as it does from October until May, they become artisans and marketeers. Autumn sees Nahua men, women, and children filling cardboard traveling boxes with the colorful wares they have made in their homes. Then they begin the long, hard trek to tourist centers like Cuernavaca. Their journeys may begin on foot, though those who are lucky catch welcome lifts in the backs of passing trucks. After several hours, all converge at the town of Iguala, jamming low-fare buses to the cities.

The art of crafts: A painted bowl from the VAMOS! workshop in Cuernavaca depicts a village scene ordinarily painted on paper
Photo: Jim Wallace

     Cuernavaca does not exactly welcome this annual invasion with open arms. According to Healy and to VAMOS!, a local nonprofit that seeks to improve the lives of Mexico's poor, Nahua craftspeople face open discrimination and police harassment as they seek to sell their wares. Even the children work twelve-hour days that end well after dusk in the dangerous streets. "Traditionally, they have been robbed by the police," Healy says. "They have no place to sleep. They have no place to go to the bathroom. They are regarded as an uneducated, poor, and backward people that many in the city look down on. In fact, they are people who just have very few options. And many of them are enormously talented."

     The power and appeal of the craft makers' folk art are evident in samples Healy has bought in Cuernavaca. A wooden serving tray, for example, is painted in vibrant greens, reds, yellows, pinks, and blues that depict the simple pleasures of everyday village life. On one part of the tray, people tend their crops and gardens as geese swim in a sparkling river. Elsewhere, a wedding is under way in a courtyard. Nearby trees, tile-roofed houses, and a church dome all shimmer in the semitropical sunlight, underneath a soaring flock of birds. A second, less-utilitarian keepsake was made in the shape of a Maltese cross. It, too, displays a similar primitive landscape topped by a bright red sun emerging from a cloud.

     According to Healy, these kinds of iridescent paintings of local living are done in what is now known as the "amate" style. The Nahua initially painted them onto pottery, but about thirty years ago they switched to paper made from the tawny bark of the amate tree--an import from the state of Puebla. Recently, Nahua craftsmen have begun painting on more durable wooden dishes and trays, which they then coat with polyurethane for added protection and a pleasing sheen. In another adaptation imported from El Salvador by an Ursuline nun who works with VAMOS!, they have started using wooden crosses as their canvases.

     Whatever the presentation, Healy says the amate style remains firmly rooted in centuries-old tradition. To emphasize that point, he pulls out a cross painting he bought last December. "This shows the Spanish conquering the Indians in the sixteenth century. And those who painted it are the direct descendants of these people." The folk-art version includes armor-clad, mounted conquistadores pressing the attack, and a black-robed friar attempting to intercede for the Aztecs. A deadly Spanish cannon is allegorically represented by a fire-breathing dragon.

     But why is a professor of environmental science devoting his professional attention to Mexican arts and crafts? It's an effort to protect the environment, Healy says. "The fundamental problem is what is generally called the 'parks and people issue.' "

     That issue begins with a paradox, he says. Yes, Earth's inventory of unsullied natural environments is declining rapidly in the face of global development. But, according to Healy, the number of areas officially designated as "protected" by various governments has actually almost tripled in the past two decades.

     In most cases, though, these nominal sanctuaries are not true refuges that allow wildlife some breathing room from humans. In developing countries, poor people frequently live near or even inside the boundaries of national parks and reserves, creating what he calls "one of the world's great and rather intractable long-term problems."

     "Park managers from around the world complain about the difficulty, or even the impossibility, of protecting nature in situations where you have large numbers of people settled in the same place and using the same resource," he says. "When government tries to prevent people from using their land, one of two things happens. One is that they are successful in protecting nature, but at the expense of an often-significant reduction in the welfare of the people. And, in the Third World, those are some of the planet's poorest people.

     "But, in developing countries, what typically happens is that you pass a law that isn't enforced. So people now clandestinely extract resources. And any informal social controls that may have existed before are now broken down," says Healy. In their effort to truly "protect nature in this sea of people," experts are now increasingly turning to the "biosphere reserve" concept. That model not only sanctions human residents around nature preserves; it also seeks ways for people to make a living there that also sustains the environment.

     One possibility is tourism. "International tourism accounts for about $550 billion a year worldwide. And the proportion that goes to developing countries is now 23 percent and growing," he says. Moreover, an increasing proportion of tourists "are sensitive to both environmental and cultural issues. They tend to be educated, affluent, and in many cases are really seeking a different kind of experience than the traditional sun-and-sand tourist."

Mexican media mix: a "yarn painting," above, of cultural and religious themes from the Huichol Indians.
Photo: Jim Wallace

     A number of researchers have explored tourism as a source of local revenue. But virtually all of those studies, says Healy, have limited their focuses to the hotel, restaurant, and tour-guide markets. His work indicates "that the bulk of those revenues goes outside the community," he says. "Local people don't do much more than provide basic labor services, such as cleaning rooms and running boats."

     Probing further, Healy found that basically no research has focused on souvenir sales' potential to improve the economic well being of local people. "Tourists do not buy only services," he says. "They also like to buy tangible things to bring back with them. There is essentially no scientific literature at all on what tourists buy and why, and how one can increase the amount of money that goes into local economies through this kind of purchase."

     That's why Healy--who studies land-use policies and sustainable development in both the U.S. and developing nations--has been investigating the tourist handicraft and food trades in places like Cuernavaca. He and Jorge Rivera, a Guatemalan with a business administration background who's pursing a Ph.D. at the Nicholas School of the Environment, are subjecting them to the latest in scientific marketing research tools, including the use of focus groups, conjoint analysis, buying simulations, and factor analyses of buyer preferences.

     "Can we use the techniques of modern market research to find out what the tourists want?" he asks. "Imagine yourself in a market in a developing country. People say, 'Buy my weavings' and 'Buy my pottery.' And you say something to the effect of, 'I'm just looking around.' In fact, you are making decisions all that time. You think 'I like this' and 'I don't like that.' But you never tell the person why you don't like something. One of my hypotheses is that a reason many things don't sell is that they're inappropriate in ways that are relatively minor."

     Healy explains that a sale may be lost simply because a souvenir appears too bulky to fit into a passenger jet's overhead compartment. Or it may seem too delicate to survive jostling by baggage handlers. Those requirements may not register among people who have never been near an airport.

     Another shortcoming of a handicraft may be sufficient authenticity, he says. On that score, though, Healy has been pleasantly surprised by what he has not seen. "I had assumed there would be a significant danger of cultural contamination. I thought that as soon as tourists arrived, local people would start trying to make Mickey Mouses or other things like that because they thought tourists would want those. I have found this has tended not to be true." Instead, Healy discovered that local craftsmen are trying to adapt to tourism within the frameworks of their native traditions. "It has led to a remarkable surge in creativity among craft producers as they have assimilated new ideas and worked with new material."

     Take the Huicholes, whom he calls "perhaps the most unassimilated Indian group in Mexico." Known for their striking, embroidered, white clothing, the Huicholes live along mountainous, roadless stretches northwest of Guadalajara. Each year, they make an annual 135-mile pilgrimage on foot to collect mescal plants. Mescal is a small cactus containing the hallucinogenic drug peyote. And it is "a major part of their religion," Healy says. "They believe the plants are the tracks of an invisible deer; when they see the first little buds coming out of the ground, they shoot them with arrows."

     The Huicholes also have long made special ceremonial bowls of clay, using resin and beeswax to affix various seeds, tiny beads, and tufts of cotton. "It is a prayer for rain for their crops," Healy explains. While the beads are for decoration, "the cotton represents the rain clouds. And the seeds are corn, squash, and beans, which are staples of their diet." The bowls may also display "eyes of God," arrangements of diamond shapes that the Huicholes use to symbolize their own children. In this case, "they are a prayer that the children and the corn will prosper."

     Intricate yarn paintings are another Huichol tradition. In the last two decades, though, the Huicholes have begun updating their crafts to produce hybrids designed for the tourist market. As substitutes for breakable clay, they are fashioning colorfully decorated bowls out of gourds, which they decorate with synthetic yarns and beads bought in bulk from the Czech Republic or Japan. Although altered, these tourist versions still remain traditional. "They take the same resin and wax and press the beads in to make the designs," he says, picking up an example. "Now look at this design more carefully. See that green there? Those are peyote buds. Here's the corn plant. Here's an eye of God."

     The same kind of "creative" adaptions are at work elsewhere. About thirty years ago, an established Mexico City artist invented a style called "alebrije" to depict what Healy calls wooden "demons." Rural craft makers in Oaxaca have since started making their own adaptations on that theme, moving the alebrije style from the art museum to the tourist marketplace, and expanding the representational theme beyond demons to include a range of animal figures as well. "This is an interesting switch," he says. "We always talk about an elite culture ripping off indigenous peoples. In this case, thousands of indigenous people have ripped off his idea. But they changed it. They are not copying him. They just took an idea and made it into something new that is a source of income, now, for thousands."

Above, a Huichol turtle, which uses beads to draw ancient, religious symbols, is a tourist version of a rattle used in healing ceremonies.
Photo: Jim Wallace

     In northern Mexico, a tribe called the Seri live on a Gulf of California island that is abundant in the very dense wood called ironwood. About thirty years ago, one Seri carved a sea animal out of ironwood. When a tourist complimented the piece and bought it, the craftsman started carving more, "and more tourists started buying," Healey says. "And other people started imitating him. Now it is a major enterprise. And non-Seris are clearly imitating that style."

     In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, local women have traditionally made and sold small dolls. But the dolls Healy displays are anything but traditional. They come donned in ski masks and bandoliers. "This is Subcomandante Marcos, and this is Subcomandante Ramona, " he says, referring to the guerrilla leaders who staged a well-covered local insurrection in support of indigenous Mayas. "Within a month after journalists arrived, they started making these dolls. The journalists were potential customers."

     Indeed, Healy finds that the craft makers do try to pay attention to what tourists want, within the framework of their own native traditions. That is, if tourists aren't too obsessed with bartering to care. "Bargaining is a tradition that Mexicans do themselves," Healy says. "I don't think there is anything wrong with bargaining. Sellers are not going to sell for less than they believe they can get. But many tourists spend most of their time trying to get that last ten cents from the poor seller, instead of looking at which of the objects is best for them." He calls this obsession with nickles and dimes "a shame," especially since he hypothesizes that tourists don't actually walk into a souvenir market with a fixed budget. "Or if they do, they are very easily swayed into buying additional things."

     He suspects that, although they might not realize it, tourists are actually looking for more. "I think tourists are not just bringing back some item. They are really bringing back knowledge." Craft makers could make more money, he says, if they also provided tourists with interesting background information on themselves and their products. "It makes it much more meaningful if I can tell you that this is a doll of Subcomandante Marcos, and this is the history of how these came about."

     That's why a store in Puerto Vallarta, a city on Mexico's Pacific coast, is now selling Huichol crafts complete with three pages of background information on Huichol legends. And in Santiago Ixcuintla, a town where the Indians descend annually from the mountains to pick tobacco, a Huichol Center has been started where "Huicholes can sell their wares to tourists and tourists get to understand the producers' stories," Healy says.

     Back in Cuernavaca, the Nahuas are benefitting from a similar effort run by VAMOS! Under the guidance of Patty and Bill Coleman, a North American couple who advocate Latin-American-style liberation theology, VAMOS! has set up a center and a studio to improve the lives and the art of the indigenous craftspeople. The thirteen-room center, called Casa Tatic, provides day-care and a kindergarten for toddlers, as well as literacy and English classes for all ages. A new kitchen serves 1,300 meals a week. There is even a computer room. Across the street is the craft studio Casa Romero, named in honor of the assassinated El Salvadoran archbishop. It includes a "paint cooperative" where artisans can buy colorful pigments for a fraction of the normal cost, table space for them to work, and an attractive shop to display their wares.

     Casa Romero also provides classes in art techniques and product development. And the crafts produced there come with literature describing the studio and the amate art style. The atmosphere is not the typical tourist marketplace: Instead of just haggling over price, artisans and sellers share a little of their lives and culture with visitors. "My hypothesis is that, properly presented, you can actually charge more for a product because you give more to the visitor," Healy says. "It's not just a product that you see in a store in the U.S. It's part of your experience."

     Healy has calculated that Nahua craftspeople who work through VAMOS! are earning $1.50 an hour, about five times more than they were averaging before. In that same vein, Healy's teenage son used a computer to compose the "hang tag" labels that are affixed to vanilla and honey products sold at the Duke Primate Center, a not-for-profit facility that maintains groups of lemurs and other animal species endangered in the wilds. "They're rather attractive, with lemurs on them," Healy says of the labels. "And on the back there is either a story or a recipe. One of the ideas is not only to make a product attractive but also to give people information that will explain it and add value."

     Vanilla and honey are both examples of environmentally-sustainable food products made in developing countries like Mexico. "I'm interested in crafts, but I'm especially interested in food and forest products, because this gets right back to the use of the land," Healy says. "The area that I'm studying in Cuernavaca is one of the honey centers in Mexico. Local peasants extract the honey and sell it in bulk to a modern factory that sells it to supermarkets."

     "It's a fine product," he says. Examining that business in further detail, though, Healy discovered that the unique flavor of each individual honey gets lost in the processing. Bees from individual hives may gather nectar from particular flowers. But all these different honeys get blended at the factory, depriving consumers of a special gustatory experience.

     Local peasants might fare better if they learned how to sell each type of honey directly to tourists, Healy suggests. "It could be packaged in attractive containers, with labels that tell the story of the flower and the people who extract it. Is it possible to sell the same honey at several times the price by creating an image and selling the tourists something they want?" His "value added" sales approach could benefit local people as well as gourmets around the world without harming the environment. Focus groups and survey instruments help pinpoint what tourists are most likely to buy.

     "The more you think about it, the more you realize that there is a tremendous amount of this kind of product," he says. As evidence, he cites the 103-million Canadian dollars' worth of maple-sugar goods that Quebec sells each year, or the $100-million-plus worth of macadamia nut products that Hawaii producers market annually.

     "My hypothesis is that, by selling directly, you can leave a much larger proportion of the money in the country with the rural producer. If properly presented, you can also actually charge much more for the product, because you give more to visitors. You give them the interaction with the person who sold it, with the person that made it, maybe even their participation in the process of making it, and their understanding of how this benefits nature."                 

Basgall is a science writer in Duke's Office of Research Communications.

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