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<nettime> NYT: Weavers Go Dot-Com, and Elders Move In


<http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/yr/mo/biztech/articles/28weavers.html>

March 28, 2000

Weavers Go Dot-Com, and Elders Move In

By SIMON ROMERO

LETHEM, Guyana -- This village in the remote southern savannas, little more
than an airstrip and scattered mud huts, could easily be taken for one of
those far-flung places untouched by the digital revolution.

It had no phones until two years ago, and the concept of paying with money
is still quite foreign to many residents.

But it was in this community of 2,000 people that an organization formed by
indigenous women of two tribes revived the ancient art of hand-weaving
large hammocks from locally grown cotton -- and then took their exquisite
wares online. They hired a young member to create a Web site. And last
year, they sold 17 hammocks to people around the world for as much as
$1,000 apiece, gigantic sums in these parts.

Perhaps too gigantic. The foray into electronic commerce created tension
between the weavers and the traditional regional leadership in the same
way, perhaps, that many a geeky start-up has sent shivers down the spines
of corporate titans. Threatened by the women's success, regional leaders
moved in and took control of the weavers' organization. The woman who
created the Web site quit in a fury, and the group has been struggling
since then to get by.

"It is the classic tale of old power reacting to new power," said Terry
Roopnaraine, an expert on the indigenous population here who teaches at
Cambridge University. "When you bring in the Internet and start to empower
people, that doesn't maintain the status quo. So the status quo quite
rationally reacts to defend its interests."

Guyana, the lone English-speaking country in South America, illustrates the
effects of decades of economic isolation. Rickety Land Rovers dating from
before 1966, when the country gained independence from Britain, vie for
space on unpaved roads with old British-built army trucks.

The indigenous peoples here are known as Amerindians, to distinguish them
from the majority population, descendants of indentured servants from
India. The Amerindians rely heavily on help from international aid
organizations. A worker with one group, Matthew Squire of Britain's
Voluntary Service Overseas, was instrumental a decade ago in reviving
hammock making by Amerindian women of the Rupununi, as this region is
called.

Using 19th-century accounts and illustrations of the hammocks made by
European travelers, Mr. Squire and several women reintroduced the process,
from cultivating the cotton on small family plots to weaving the
brown-and-white hammocks. "This was something that was untainted by the
rest of the world that was still alive in memory," said Mr. Squire, who now
lives in Sussex, England.

By the mid-90's, the weavers, 300 women from the Wapishana and Macushi
tribes known as the Rupununi Weavers Society, had sold a hammock to the
British Museum in London. The museum called it "one of the most perfect
forms of indigenous art we have purchased this century."

Still, there were obstacles in transforming the production into a modern
venture. The Rupununi is linked to the capital, Georgetown, by an unpaved
road that can take days to traverse. The small airstrip here makes flights
possible, but costly. And because the concept of money was foreign, the
weavers' society had to devise how to compensate members with alternatives.
One preferred currency is salt, used to preserve meat.

Two years ago, as the weavers tried to sell their hammocks to museums and
collectors by mailings through an unreliable postal service, Guyana
Telephone and Telegraph installed telephone lines here using an innovative
satellite system.

A few months later, the chief executive of the company, Bill Humphries, an
American, offered the weavers society two telephone lines, free Internet
access and $12,000 worth of equipment, including a desktop computer and a
scanner.

Someone was needed to coordinate maintaining a Web site capable of
marketing the hammocks. The phone company paid for Sharla HernĚndez, a
promising young member of the group and a prot╚g╚e of Mr. Squire, to go to
Georgetown to learn about the Internet.

After Ms. HernĚndez returned here with knowledge of the Web, the enterprise
took off. Since mid-1998, the society has sold 20 hammocks over the
Internet. Although their prices seem high here, they are not much
considering that an estimated 600 hours of work goes into each hammock.

For the powers of Lethem, though, Ms. HernĚndez and the weavers were
perhaps too successful, bringing attention and potentially substantial
income to people who under the existing leaders have known only poverty and
powerlessness.

"We became a huge threat," Ms. HernĚndez, 21, with a fashionable haircut
and the colorful clothing of an American college student, said in an
interview. Accelerating a push to gain power over the organization, a push
that began even before telephones and the Internet arrived, establishment
figures like Muacir Baretto made a successful effort to take control of the
weavers' society.

Mr. Baretto is the Rupununi district chairman, an elected post similar to a
state governor in the United States, and a former "touchau," or chief, of
his village near Lethem.

A soft-spoken Amerindian of 47, he rides a Chinese-built motorcycle around
town. Like other members of the country's political class, he received part
of his education in Moscow when Guyana had Communist leanings after gaining
independence.

Mr. Baretto said in an interview that one lesson he brought back from
Moscow was "that the socialist economic model was not viable."

"But I also learned that strong leadership was necessary for any
organization to function properly," he said.

Using his influence, Mr. Baretto persuaded the weavers' society to elect
him chairman, although the group began as a nongovernmental entity with
support from international aid organizations intent on keeping such
operations separate from government.

He has since stepped down as chairman. But from behind the scenes, Mr.
Baretto remains the most influential management figure.

The struggle for power has not just been between the women who provide the
labor for the enterprise and the region's men. Shirley Melville, owner of a
general store that doubles as the main watering hole and money-lending
operation here, is a crucial member of the governing body.

"I'm here to make sure our culture is not damaged," said Ms. Melville, 40,
an Arawak Amerindian from another part of Guyana who has married into one
of the dynastic cattle-ranching families of the Rupununi.

Ms. HernĚndez said she felt that she was being marginalized and resigned
from the organization in February.

"I was made to cry by these people, especially once when Shirley told me,
'You are a twinky little thing and I am a tiger, so you watch out, girl,' "
Ms. HernĚndez said.

Since her resignation, the weavers' society has had just one inquiry about
buying a hammock over its Web site, www.gol.net.gy/ rweavers.

For people used to a bitter economic existence, the turn of events is
perhaps no surprise. "We women do most of the work and the men get
rewarded, so what is the difference here?" a weaver, Violet Eusebio, asked.

Joyce Clement, another member of the organization who grows cotton and
works as a weaver, said of Mr. Baretto: "He's a one-quarter leader
providing one-quarter results. The Internet, the phones, they've brought
attention to the society that is being used for self-interest."

But Mr. Baretto sees it differently. "Regardless of what has happened and
been said," he said, "we have the best interests of the society's members
at heart."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company



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