Ancient Fibers, Organic Future for Peru

ArticlePatricia CodinaComment

Western consumers over the years have become increasingly aware of the relationship between food production practices and health, both human and environmental. They have come to understand that cheaper and faster foods are not better, and that, in order to achieve a healthier body and world, they must invest in “slower” and “greener” foods. Though the organic food movement has really taken off in the new millennium, the organic clothing movement has not enjoyed the same boom. It even seems as if the appetite for cheaper and “faster” clothing continues to grow at rapacious speed, especially when it comes to cotton. 

Cotton is the world’s most important non-food agricultural product, accounting for half of the global demand for fiber. Perhaps part of the problem is that cotton has the reputation of being a natural and pure fiber, despite the fact that more insecticides are used in conventional farming of cotton than any other single crop in the world, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation. According to the Indian Textile Journal, just 2.4% of the world's arable land is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24% of the world's insecticide market, and 11% of the sale of global pesticides, making it the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet. Pesticides applied on fields can seep through the soil and contaminate groundwater and other sources of drinking water, the Environmental Justice Foundation claims. And such pesticides have been found in rainwater and traveling through the ecosystem with widespread negative effects on wildlife.

Indian women planting native cotton in Arequipa

Indian women planting native cotton in Arequipa

Rust Red cotton

Rust Red cotton

The effects on human health are equally pervasive. Studies around the world have shown that cotton workers routinely exposed to pesticides suffer symptoms that range from neurological and vision disorders, to the development of different forms of cancer and leukemia. These effects can be transmitted to children during gestation and lactation. The World Health Organization estimates that at least three million people are poisoned by pesticides every year and twenty to forty thousand more are killed.

Still, though we are willing to pay the extra dollar for a pint of organic strawberries, we are not as willing to do the same for an organic cotton t-shirt. “It is very different when we talk about organic food,” says Dr. James Vreeland, pioneer of the organic and Native cotton industry in Peru. “The increase in demand for organic food in the global market has been continuous for 30 years,” he explains, “while the decline in demand for organic cotton is a worldwide trend. Since the economic crisis, people have not been willing to pay more for organic clothing.” Peru, despite its long tradition in organic cotton, has not managed to buck this trend.

The cultivation of organic cotton in Peru began over 5,000 years ago and has never died out. Today it has the oldest surviving tradition of organic cotton cultivation on an industrial level in the world and is the leading producer of organic cotton in Latin America. As organic cotton production has been declining in recent years, Peru has seen a resurgence in a specific type of cotton which grows naturally in a variety of colors—the organic Native Cotton of Peru. Dr. James Vreeland, an American anthropologist with well-established roots in Peru, is the man behind this movement, and his passion has helped change the course of the Peruvian cotton tradition.

Dr. Vreeland’s fascination with Native cotton started in the early 1970’s, when he first stumbled across organic cotton in natural colors. He was an archeologist studying pre-Columbian textiles on the northern coast of Peru, when he noticed that the ancient fibers he was observing under the microscope appeared to be naturally pigmented, not dyed. The existence of colored cotton had been all but forgotten and was really only known to local peasant farmers of that region. Thus, Dr. Vreeland “rediscovered” the Native cotton and this breakthrough started him down an entirely new career and life path. He established himself in Peru and started the Native Cotton of Peru Project to rescue and disseminate the original Native colored cotton cultivar.

“I gave up my archaeological studies, turned to ethnoarchaeology and, for the next 20 years, sought all the information I could find on naturally colored cotton in museums and libraries and at ancient sites and by talking with everyone I met,” he writes. “Ultimately, the people who taught me the most were the Mochica Indians, who, some 2,000 years ago, cultivated cottons of myriad hues and who had quietly maintained some of these cultivars.”

He found that colored cotton was still being cultivated on the north coast of Peru, albeit in isolated and menaced conditions. In the 1930’s the Peruvian government, attempting to boost the large-scale production of Pima and Tanguis cotton varieties, declared war on Native cotton and ordered that all plants be destroyed. The Native cotton that survived was grown clandestinely by peasant communities and remained undetected by the authorities. Vreeland’s team was able to collect these seeds, reproduce them in government research stations and return them to the farmers for continued cultivation. They were also able to re-supply communities which had lost their original crops. “Our goal was to go in and help people do something with the proper technology and in the right way,” Vreeland explains.

In 1997 Vreeland founded Peru Naturtex Partner to be the commercial representative for the Native Cotton Project of Peru, and also to galvanize a campaign to raise awareness on the existence and importance of native cotton. As a result of these efforts, Peruvian laws have changed, and the crop is no longer forbidden. Farmers today are still farming the native cotton and the crop is, relative to recent decades, thriving. 

Today Naturtex is not the only organization involved with Peruvian Native cotton; several public and private sector projects are investing relatively large sums of money to boost Native cotton production. According to Dr. Vreeland, these projects, though well-intentioned, are destined to fail, because there is no growing demand for the fiber. “In the 80’s and 90’s there was a shortage of native cotton, now there is an over-supply. The NGO’s have acquired funding for these projects thinking there is an unlimited demand. But, aside from the artisans themselves, there really isn’t,” he explains. The resulting stock, bought by these NGO’s, is too large to be absorbed by local demand, but is still too small to be sold internationally; the national textile industry is not interested in it either. 

North coast Indian manta native cotton

North coast Indian manta native cotton

Brown Jungle cotton

Brown Jungle cotton

Most Native cotton is used in handmade crafts that, though very beautiful, are difficult to market. They are tediously hard to make—spun by hand and woven in back-pack looms—and very expensive. “Most tourists can’t understand why something they can find on the coast can be 10 times more expensive than the crafts brought down from the altiplano which are made of polyester and have all the bright colors that have become the stereotype of the Andean world. Native cotton crafts are just not competitive in the outside market. They are more of an heirloom product that hopefully will not disappear,” says Vreeland. 

Some Native cotton is used in manufacturing, and Naturtex is the only company in Peru that does this. 20% of Naturtex’s production is Native cotton, 60% is organic industrial cotton and 20% is alpaca laced with copper, an organic fiber known as Qoperfina, which was invented and developed by Dr. Vreeland, and which is starting to create a market of its own. Naturtex is not an NGO and does not work with intermediaries. They work directly with three rural communities—one in the coast and two in the jungle—who supply them with natural cotton. They pay the communities a fair price for their crop and use the raw cotton to make a variety of products, from hand-knitted yarns to fine percale bedding, very soft, high-quality sheets. There are many applications for native cotton, also t-shirts and apparel in general, but the market for these has not been very consistent over the years. 

How is it that such a unique fiber, completely organic and environmentally friendly, untouched by harmful chemicals, and from a country with a millenary tradition of top-quality cotton production, has not taken over the market by storm? According to Dr. Vreeland, the problem lies in that the natural colors of the cotton, though surprisingly varied, are still quite limited compared to the array of colors possible through chemical processes. “The colors are not what people wear today. They are not fashionable,” he explains. “In clothing, though there is not a concern for the environment. People still want to wear brands, they want their labels, their colors, their seasons. People want fashion. And the organic cotton industry is very slow and limited in converting organic cotton into fashion without having the proper players and brands.”

Though large global brands such as Nike and Patagonia have taken steps to bring organic cotton to the mainstream, this has not been enough to bring about the kind of shift in mentality to really change buying behavior. “They don’t want to change their suppliers or challenge their supply teams to do anything at all,” explains Vreeland. “That has nothing to do with what small companies like us do. We work with companies or brands that are 100% organic and often struggle to survive. Now that we’ve been in the business for over 20 years—and it has been hard to survive this long—I would say that, if we’ve worked with 1,000 brands over the years, probably only 20 of those are still around. Most of them last between 2 and 5 years. It’s just too tough a market.”

So tough, in fact, that, after a peak in 2005-2006, worldwide production of organic cotton has been in decline. This has coincided with the worldwide economic crisis, but Vreeland also attributes it to the fact that people don’t place such a high value on the product. “There really is not enough demand to go around, so organic cotton tends to be used intensively only for a limited range of products: baby apparel, because women understand that it is important to have the best for their babies and are willing to pay a little extra, and underwear, where the fabric is closest to the skin. In these two areas, the demand seems to have maintained,” he adds. 

Aside from waning demand, organic cotton (including Native cotton) farming in Peru faces many additional challenges. The first is cost. Peruvian cotton, both industrial and organic, is all harvested by hand. There is no mechanized picking or ginning. Handpicking is very labor-intensive and extremely expensive: about a third of the cost of production comes from the harvest alone. This makes cotton cultivation viable only where labor is extremely cheap, which is usually among peasant and indigenous farming communities, where people don’t understand the cost of labor in a Western way. They harvest small amounts at a time, spaced out over a number of weeks so a large family can handle the harvest with the help of neighbors. 

Though the market price of organic cotton tends to be 20-30% higher than conventional cotton, this is often not incentive enough, as switching requires additional investments that most farmers are unwilling to make on their own. Non-fertilized cotton is marginally productive, and it takes 3 years to transition from traditional to organic; all the cotton harvested during this transitional period, despite having the higher costs and lower yields of organic cotton, can only be sold as conventional. Without support, in the form of government subsidies or private sector sponsorships, switching to organic is frankly not very appealing for farmers. 

Dr. James M. Vreeland with Mauve cotton

Dr. James M. Vreeland with Mauve cotton

External market factors also present further challenges for Peruvian farmers. “Other countries, in particular the U.S., subsidize the cost of cotton by 50% or even more,” says Vreeland. “When you have subsidies that are this aggressive, it is difficult for another country to compete. For all these reasons, general cotton production in Peru has diminished from probably 250,000 hectares 50 years ago to less than 50,000 today.” 

These conditions paint a very bleak picture for the future of organic and native cotton production in Peru: how can companies like Naturtex adapt and survive in this environment? Dr. Vreeland explains: “After seeing that going organic doesn’t seem to sell very consistently anywhere, our focus has not been on selling organic clothes. It’s been on creating the best quality clothes, both socially and environmentally sustainable and in the mix, the brands get the organic and fair trade cotton. Organic and fair trade can’t be the principal reason for selling a collection. It has to be a neat collection, at the right time and place, attractive and also organic. For general apparel, it’s all about what it looks like, not so much how it’s made.”

Though this may be a fact that producers have to accept in order to survive, it doesn’t have to be a truth we all live by. Perhaps it is time that, as buyers, we change our behavior and demand that attention and care also be invested in “how it’s made”. It may be time for our fashion sense to evolve and favor “slower” (more durable, less disposable) garments and “greener” (organic, fair trade, socially responsible) practices.

Illustration by Clair Rossiter. Photos by Dr. James M. Vreeland, Native Cotton Project of Peru