Awakkuna: Knitting for conservation in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Title:

Awakkuna: Knitting for conservation in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Abstract:

Crafting certain essentials of everyday and celebratory life (baskets, clay pots, carrying and fishing nets, tools, jewellery and ornamentation) has been—and in certain cases still is—a fundamental aspect of Napo Runa (Amazonian Kichwa of the Upper Napo River, Ecuador) subsistence and conviviality. Making ‘artesanias’ for sale has, for many families, become a key aspect in a bundle of livelihood strategies which confirms cultural identity and conveys a sense of pride. Recently, promoted through a new university’s community engagement programme, the region has seen a flurry of workshops teaching a Japanese crochet technique (amigurumi) for the creation of toy versions of endangered Amazonian animals, to be sold as handicrafts. Named ‘Awakkuna’ (knitters), this initiative has received an intercultural innovation prize by the UN, not least for its environmental education potential.

The initiative is rich in contradictions, providing both new opportunities for additional income and intercultural dialogue as well as old power imbalances of long-standing, post-Conquest relations. Relying on imported, synthetic yarn—a prime vector for microplastic pollution—as well as craft techniques originally introduced in highly gendered ways by missionaries, the project’s conservation and empowerment ambitions are so far weakly implemented. However, a cross-community association of knitters is currently forming, aiming to take ownership of the process.

The paper explores the contradictions of this initiative, in particular in terms of the shift in material entanglements it is part of and co-produces (from traditional material engagements with the surrounding forest to a more entrepreneurial subjectivity) and questions the assumptions which guide its vision of conservation.


This is a talk I gave at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019) in a session on ‘Crafting Alterity: Creativity, Making, and Hope-Full Geographies‘.

It is primarily based on field work done during two fellowships between 2016 and 2019 and draws on my research and collaborations with Amazonian peoples since 2005:

  • Independent Social Research Foundation Fellow, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford (2016-2017)
    • Title: Between planetary urbanization and thinking forests: a study of socio-ecological change in the Ecuadorian Amazon
  • Marie Curie Research Fellow in the School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester (2017-2019)
    • Title: Transition Friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon: A Green Economy Ethnography

In the talk I share some thoughts on what is in many ways a rather unusual initiative in the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Awakkuna: Knitting for conservation in the Ecuadorian Amazon:

It’s about knitting, or more precisely about crochet which those of you who work with yarn know is actually quite a different technique and haptic experience (but the Spanish tejer that is used to describe the initiative in question in Ecuador is a term that refers to both knitting and crochet as well as weaving, and I thought knitting would make more sense to most people, hence the title).

So in any case, the subject of my talk today is a crochet initiative in the Upper Napo region that has developed out of the personal passion of a member of staff at a new flagship university in the Amazon and her neighbourly engagements in the adjacent indigenous community.

But before I tell the crochet story which is full of interesting, sometimes painful, sometimes hopeful contradictions and tensions, I want to give you just a small amount of political economy background for Ecuador, as a kind of setting the scene.

You may have heard of the revolutionary Constitution of 2008, which is framed by the concept of sumak kawsay (Buen Vivir, Good Living) and is the first constitution in the world to codify the rights of nature.

“Changing the productive matrix” is a key objective of the so-called “Citizens’ Revolution” in Ecuador, which is the post-neoliberal platform of the political party in power since 2007. But the constitution is silent on how to construct a different kind of economy.

…and to cut a long story short, while there is a lot of rhetoric on constructing an alternative economy, the reality remains business as usual with the state taking a strong regulatory role.

And of course, to fund the economic transition, oil extraction, large-scale open pit mining, mega-dams and other usual suspects have expanded. The Amazon in particular has become the stage for such mega-projects, and remains, as ever, the stage for a more insidious capital expansion through urbanisation and infrastructure development.

I have worked in the Ecuadorian Amazon (on and off) since 2005, with Kichwa-speaking Napo Runa communities, their federations and associations, mostly on epistemic colonialism, ancestral knowledges and the erosion of autonomous subsistence.

Since 2016, I have tried to understand the socio-ecological effects of a new university in the forest: IKIAM University has been explicitly conceived as a catalyst for the lasting transition to a ‘green and knowledge-based economy’ in Ecuador, focused in particular on the development of ‘Amazonian green wealth’ and ‘bioproducts’. It is one of four ‘emblematic’ universities founded in 2010 as part of a radical education system reform and focuses on the study of ‘natural resources and biodiversity’.

More specifically, I have paid attention to a variety of smaller endeavours in which this institution plays a larger role – and one of these is the crochet initiative.

The Kichwa speaking Napo Runa (Napo Runa means people from the Napo River), with whom I work, are a tropical-forest-dwelling people. The forest was still not so very long ago the wellspring of everything and anything in Napo Runa lives – food, medicine, shelter, artefacts, livelihood. They have had (and in some cases still have) affective relationships to the non-human inhabitants of the forest (that is to animals, plants, rocks, caves, watercourses) that resemble relationships people usually have with other people.

For the Napo Runa, animals and plants and certain inanimate objects are not qualitatively different beings from humans: they have the same subjectivities, they experience the world from an I-point of view. For their survival and well-being human beings are dependent on making alliances with non-human people.

Crafting certain essentials of everyday and celebratory life (baskets, clay pots, carrying and fishing nets, tools, jewellery and ornamentation) has been—and in certain cases still is—a fundamental aspect of Napo Runa subsistence and conviviality.

Waking at around 3am, a family would imbibe the stimulating wayusa brew and share their dreams in preparation of the day to come, then begin to make material objects by the light of a fire until they move into other activities for the rest of the day (hunting, gathering, gardening, transforming inedibles into edibles, cleaning and so forth).

Yet, increasingly evicted from the forest, or forced to live on ever smaller parcels of it, Napo Runa are condemned to develop what they refer to as “the needs of the city”, a term used to highlight the desires and necessities that mysteriously exude from the consumer culture of urban spaces.

Struggling to integrate into consumer society in a dignified manner, as well as struggling to retain a healthy and joyful existence at its margins or on the outside, many Napo Runa are caught in a double bind and urban poverty looms large.

After 500 years of violence and exploitation, making handicrafts – artesanías – for sale has, for many families, become a crucial part of a bundle of livelihood strategies which confirms cultural identity and conveys a sense of pride amidst continuing adversity and oppression.

Using mostly pita (an agave fibre), plant dyes and seeds, Kichwa women and men make a variety of ornamental items and jewellery for sale.

Every now and again, an NGO or development agency will introduce a new craft idea (for example balsa wood whittled into animal or other shapes and painted) or people will get inspired by objects from elsewhere which they come across and imitate or adapt these (for example bead weaving of bracelets, or key rings).

Recently, the region has seen a flurry of workshops teaching the Japanese craft of amigurumi (basically crocheted stuffed yarn creatures) for the creation of toy versions of endangered Amazonian animals to be sold as handicrafts.

This initiative has been promoted through IKIAM University’s community engagement programme, as a form of environmental education and improvement of, above all, indigenous women’s income.

Originating in friendly engagements between an academic at IKIAM who is also an avid crocheter, and her curious Kichwa neighbours, the initiative went through a variety of incarnations, from one-on-one teach-ins and a knitting club, to a full-blown development project adopted by the University.

Named ‘Awakkuna: Knitting for Conservation’, this initiative has received the 2017 Intercultural Innovation Award by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the BMW Group. (This award, by the way, has spurned a whole series of conflicts within the university, between the university and the indigenous communities involved, and between and within the indigenous communities themselves, but that is a story for another time and place).

I should maybe say that awakkuna is Kichwa for ‘knitters’, but interestingly the root verb awana refers to the making of a whole variety of things, not just with yarn. For example awana would also refer to the making of pottery.

Awakkuna has involved a series of workshops in a number of different indigenous communities.

Teaching both the actual crocheting stitches as well as the patterns of how to create a selection of endangered Amazonian animals, the project opened a space for university staff and people in local communities to meet in more informal, convivial ways in a collective, practical engagement with yarn. (Note: not all participating university staff knew how to crochet, so there was a certain levelling out of knowledge hierarchies).

However, biologists were soon enlisted to present ‘scientifically correct’ descriptions of the respective animals’ physiology, ethology and extinction status. This was both understood as a way to advertise and make people understand the work of the university, as well as seen an important tool of environmental education, particularly about the ecological importance or threatened status of some Amazonian species that are seen to be indiscriminately killed by indigenous community members.

An unexamined assumption underlying this project is the necessity to teach indigenous communities about the scientific significance of Amazonian species, thereby unwittingly denigrating the relevance of these animals in Kichwa lives and cosmology, as well as asserting the superiority of Western science over indigenous know-how and worldview.

This premise of the project casts responsibility and blame onto indigenous communities (for example for killing animals) thereby rehearsing the position that traditional practices lie at the root of species extinction without considering the origins of habitat loss in terms of deforestation, urbanisation, industrialisation – or considering these processes inevitable and unchangeable.

Moreover, the material practice of crocheting harks back to the local mission schools where such acutely gendered European household and handicraft skills were taught to indigenous girls in an attempt to civilize them. (Actually there is some unclarity as to whether knitting and crochet really originated in Europe, but it definitely did come to the Amazon that way).

Also, while yarn is readily available in several shops in the capital of the Napo province, it is without exception imported synthetics (polyester or acrylic). The production of synthetic fibers is heavily polluting and their use is a prime vector for microplastic pollution.

Awakkuna, then, is rich in contradictions, both providing new opportunities for additional income and intercultural dialogue as well as perpetuating old power imbalances of long-standing, post-Conquest relations.

Relying on synthetic yarn and craft techniques originally introduced by missionaries, we need to question the implementation of the project’s conservation and empowerment ambitions.

However, earlier this year, a cross-community association of knitters was finally established and legally registered, conferring ownership and autonomy to the practitioners of this newly adopted mode of making.

Yet, even so, and in parallel to its contribution to well being (through the therapeutic benefits of knitting which so many of the knitters have pointed out to me), the association mostly supports the formation of an entrepreneurial subjectivity aimed at the making of items for sale to tourists and visitors at what are very high prices for local realities – thereby fitting smoothly into the overall gentrification endeavour and push for enterprise generation which the region is experiencing.

Viewed alongside the accelerating erosion of subsistence opportunities and wider usurpation of indigenous lives and identities into dynamics of capital accumulation, Awakkuna both mollifies the harshness of this trajectory and signifies its insidiousness.

The shift in material entanglements that Awakkuna is part of and co-produces (from traditional material engagements with the surrounding forest to an involvement with complex supply chains in the technosphere) is not ‘innocent’.

However, addressing these issues may open up new and unexpected opportunities – for example, could there be an exchange connecting wool makers of the Andean highlands and the indigenous women knitters in the Amazon? What else than crocheted creatures from natural yarn may such an exchange precipitate?

Could there be a project exploring the transformation of the rather rough and stiff agave fibre into a softer, more pliable material? Could this provide a participatory research opportunity with the university? Could the traditional preparation and use of plant dyes be revived through Awakkuna?

Could new spaces of dialogue be opened which interrogate otherwise silent assumptions about extinction and conservation, and confront the presupposition that there is no alternative to urbanisation on the one hand and protected areas emptied of people on the other?

I believe that there can, and I hope that there will be.

And that is not only because the Amazon is on fire right now, but because our world is, and has been for a very long time.

THANK YOU!