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A fair share for Peru's alpaca producers

Alpaca-keeping regions of Peru are the least developed in the  country (© ETC Andes)
Alpaca-keeping regions of Peru are the least developed in the country
© ETC Andes

In Peru, the processing of alpaca fibre is almost a duopoly. Just two processing firms, both based in the city of Arequipa, buy and process virtually all the fibre gathered from Peru's 5 million alpacas, kept by approximately 100,000 pastoralist families. Over the years these firms have built a supply system in which a network of middlemen use cash advances, kinship relationships and other informal mechanisms to buy ungraded fleeces and fibre at very low prices. For the processors, the system provides low cost raw material, but alpaca keepers have remained among the poorest communities in the country, both in terms of income and supply of basic needs. In recent years, however, a handful of initiatives, including a producer cooperative, have arisen to challenge the status quo and increase the power of alpaca keepers in the marketplace.

Grading fleece and fibre

A first initiative has involved classification of alpaca fleece and fibre in order to earn a higher price. In 2004, a Peruvian technical standard for classification of alpaca fleece was established, distinguishing four categories of fleece: extra fine, fine, semi-fine and thick. Fleeces are further graded according to colour and fibre length. In 2005, the development and research organisation ETC Andes (Ecology Technology and Culture Association in the Andes), in alliance with other Peruvian NGOs, began working with producer families in two provinces - Canchis and Cailloma, in Cusco and Arequipa regions - to help them classify their fleeces and fibre.

There are over 5 million alpacas in Peru, kept by approximately 100,000 pastoralist families (© ETC Andes)
There are over 5 million alpacas in Peru, kept by approximately 100,000 pastoralist families
© ETC Andes

Categorisation or grading of fleeces is by visual inspection and touch, carried out by trained and qualified personnel, normally women. Classification of the fibre itself is a more demanding task that requires further training and expertise. ETC has organised training for the alpaca producers by a team of 'maestras', who had themselves been trained and employed by the processing firms to sort out the unclassified fibre gathered by middlemen. In parallel with this, individual supply of fibre is being replaced by organising producers into groups, to offer larger quantities of graded fleece directly to buyers, by-passing the middlemen where possible, and earning a higher price. The producers and their supporting organisations are also looking to identify other purchasers, in order to weaken the market dominance of the processing companies.

New buyers

One such buyer is the Cooperative of Production and Special Services of Andean Camelid Producers (COOPECAN), a cooperative dedicated to the commercialisation of alpaca and vicuña fibre. Over the last four years, the cooperative has built partnerships with producer associations and camelid communities, buying fibre from them which it processes through private plants in Arequipa and Lima. Combed or carded fibre, known as 'tops', is exported by COOPECAN to markets in the US, Europe and China, with some fibre also being used to make 'alpacril'. This blend of alpaca and synthetic fibres is used by a state programme to make sweaters for students in public schools. As the cooperative expands its operations, it has medium-term plans to have its own spinning mill.

COOPECAN is now active in four Peruvian regions - Ayacucho, Apurimac, Arequipa and Cusco - and in 2011 had over 1,200 active members, representing approximately 23,500 producers. Five per cent of the value of fibre sales is taken by the cooperative to cover its operating costs and support for COOPECAN has also come from AGRITERRA, a Dutch organisation that funds and promotes cooperation between rural social organisations in the Netherlands and the developing world.

Alpaca farmers have been trained to classify their fleeces and fibre (© ETC Andes)
Alpaca farmers have been trained to classify their fleeces and fibre
© ETC Andes

In addition to buying fibre from producer groups, COOPECAN has formed an agreement with the Peruvian Development Bank for Agriculture, AGROBANCO, to lend to these producer organisations at affordable rates of interest. These debts are then settled once COOPECAN has been paid by its own customers. There are also plans for producers to receive a post-sale bonus, depending on the quality of fibre supplied and the proceeds earned by COOPECAN from the sale. There have, however, been cases where classification of fibre by producers has not been considered accurate, either by COOPECAN or the final customer. Thus there is still some way to go for the alpaca producers to achieve the high grading standards demanded by international markets.

Taken together, these experiences and others being developed in different zones of the Peruvian Andes are contributing to change and innovation in the commercialisation of alpaca fibre produced by pastoralist families. The objective is to empower them in order to improve the terms of their involvement in the lucrative business of alpaca fibre, and so to achieve a fairer distribution of the benefits.

Written by: Teobaldo Pinzas with collaboration of Mirella Gallardo, ETC Andes

Date published: November 2012

 

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