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Mayan weavers propose collective intellectual property law

Mayan weavers propose collective intellectual property law

By Manuela Picq

Las Tejedoras have been strategically articulating this demand for almost a year. In May 2016, the Tejedoras filed an unconstitutionality action against the State of Guatemala before the Constitutional Court: they sued the State for omission of regulations that protect their textile creations.

In the months that followed, the weavers received broad national support, sparking a national debate on the copyright of the Mayan weavers created by the Güipiles - the Mayan clothing that contains ancient Mayan knowledge. The Mayan Weavers Movement brings together about 30 organizations from 18 linguistic communities in Guatemala. It is led by the Women's Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, known as AFEDES.

Beyond legal reforms, the concept of collective intellectual property defends indigenous autonomy. Las Tejedoras denounce the theft of Mayan textile art as another form of dispossession. “We must protect our textile knowledge just as we protect our territories,” says Angelina Aspuac, a weaver at AFEDES and a law student at the university. For her "intellectual protection is a fundamental challenge of autonomy."


A law reform for indigenous collective intellectual property

The Weavers Movement presented its project for the recognition of collective intellectual property to deputies in November 2016, who proposed technical revisions. The project was reviewed by both Tejedoras and deputies, before being formally presented to Congress in February 2017.

Bill No. 5247 was formally accepted, and has the support of more than 16 deputies. Now the bill has to go to the full Congress.

Las Tejedoras know they have limited support, but they do have a key ally: the Indigenous Peoples Commission. Among the various deputies that make up this Commission is Leocadio Juracán (Convergence Party), president of the Commission. Juracán is a grassroots leader who comes from a rural Mayan family and was coordinator of the Peasant Committee of the Altiplano.

There are 5 articles that are proposed to be reformed in the Law of Copyright and Related Rights, the Law of Industrial Property, Law of Protection and Artisan Development and the Penal Code.

The bill has two objectives. On the one hand, it calls for a definition of what collective intellectual property is, which is linked to the right of indigenous peoples to administer and manage their heritage.

On the other hand, the reform calls for indigenous peoples to be recognized as intellectual authors, in which case they would automatically benefit from the intellectual property law. Recognizing indigenous peoples as authors as well as individuals or companies means that corporations that benefit from the export of Mayan textiles will have to return a percentage of their profits to the communities who are the authors.

“We are artists,” explains Angelina Aspuac, “the people are the authors. What we ask is that indigenous peoples be recognized as a collective subject, and not just the individual person or an association ”.

This law reform is the fastest and most feasible way in the current political context to achieve national regulation. In the long term, the Tejedoras aspire not only to reform, but to create a new specific law for the collective intellectual property of Mayan textiles.

In addition to national laws, the Weavers seek to protect their textile art at the communication level. They are already in dialogue with 6 communities to declare the textiles of their community an ancestral heritage. In Santiago de Sacatepéquez, Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Santa Lucia Utatlán, and San Juan Comalapa the weavers are already listing their designs and discussing with local authorities how to protect their collective property.

In the community, they are the communities that declare their heritage from their own institutions, norms, and justice. The Weavers have the authority and autonomy to register their collective creations in accordance with the forms of organization of each town.

The AFEDES weavers

The history of the Mayan Weavers Movement began with a concern with the high cost of yarn among AFEDES weavers. In trying to resist block marketing, AFEDES realized that all yarns were imported, with a monopoly that kept prices high.

In addition to yarns, the Weavers began to discuss the difficulties they had in exporting their fabrics. The export requirements established by the State of Guatemala benefit large businessmen while they harm small weavers, who, for example, did not obtain yarn certificates. The irony is that the State of Guatemala uses the Mayan cultural wealth and their fabrics to promote tourism, but does not support weavers who are discriminated against with commercial traps.

Thus, in 2014, the women of AFEDES were encouraged to initiate a litigation process to demand from the state regulations to protect creations of indigenous peoples.

But it's not just about threads and fabrics. Sandra Xinico, a weaver from Patzún, Chimaltenango, explained to Prensa Libre that "it is not just a piece of cloth that is made by hand, because our fabrics are made based on the worldview, ideology and history of the peoples."

The Mayan Weavers denounce a strong cultural appropriation on the part of the Guatemalan state and companies and when talking about textiles they ask that consent be spoken of. "They call for inspiration, but it really is a robbery and you have to start seeing them as robbery," says Aspuac. The Guatemalan newspaper Plaza Pública was explicit with an article entitled "Stolen Art: the legal battle of the Mayan weavers."

According to Juan Castro, one of the lawyers who supports the Mayan Weavers Movement, the struggle of the Mayan Weavers is more than a legal battle. It is an act of resistance for the autonomy of the peoples.

Dispossession of knowledge: collective intellectual property as resistance to territorial dispossession

The colonial state is built not only through the dispossession of the land, but also the dispossession of knowledge. Aspuac is very clear when he associates textiles with the Mayan heritage. “The textiles are part of the territories. Protecting the water and the land is protecting the textiles… this is our knowledge. The dispossession of the peoples does not only occur in the territories, it is also in the dispossession of our textile knowledge ”.

The extractivism of the territories has been accompanied by an extractivism of indigenous work and their ancestral knowledge and community strength. In Guatemala, as in other parts of the continent, indigenous women are exploited, receive minimal wages, and continue to face high levels of violence and discrimination.

On the one hand, exporting companies are extracting the productions of Mayan weavers, exploiting their knowledge and labor. On the other hand, it is beginning to make industrial güipiles made by machine and not by the hands of weavers. This industrialization heralds the death of ancient knowledge, the loss of knowledge that peoples have transmitted from one generation to the other.

In this context, Mayan weavers seek community solutions such as the declaration of ancestral heritage because they know that if on the one hand they can imagine reforming state laws, they also have to protect themselves from the state, a historically racist entity that has orchestrated many Mayan spoils.

One of the pride of the Tejedoras is to have been empowered by this political process. There are no intermediaries or NGO's. They organize themselves, analyze the options, find out about how the government works, plan their strategic litigation. They give interviews to the press and meet with ministers.

“We are subjects of law in this process of defense of our territories and textile clothing - no one speaks for us. We are imposing respect on our peoples. "

Photo: Weavers Movement presenting the proposal for the recognition of collective intellectual property, February 2017. Photo: AFEDES

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