FOR nine months a year, no men are to be seen in Aguacatenango. They leave the village in the southern state of Chiapas to work elsewhere in Mexico and return in summer to harvest maize. It falls to the women to raise the children, chop firewood and make some extra money. On a recent Saturday 18 women huddled on a porch, chatting in a mix of Spanish and Tzeltal, an indigenous language, as they fashioned swatches of fabric into dresses whose flower-and-wheat design is unique to the village. The work does not pay much. An artisan can earn 120 pesos ($6) in the 36 hours it takes to make one dress.
Out-of-the-way Aguacatenango was in the news last year when Zara, a Spanish seller of “fast fashion”, put on sale for 1,000 pesos a blouse strikingly like those made by the women of the village. In July this year Zara sold another outfit with a similar pattern. “It’s not fair. We were first,” says Cristina Juárez, one of the artisans. Zara did not comment at the time.
Impacto, an NGO, has identified ten cases since 2012 of foreign merchants selling clothing based on indigenous Mexican designs without giving payment or credit. Almost all were based on local crafts of settlements in Chiapas and Oaxaca. These incidents sparked a debate over “cultural appropriation”, the use by a dominant culture of ideas and practices of a downtrodden one. Susana Harp, a singer from Oaxaca who was elected a senator in July, says she entered politics to stop brands from pilfering indigenous creations.
But the artisans have mixed feelings, and are more interested in income than in authenticity. The off-white blouse that Zara allegedly copied was designed to be sold to outsiders. The traditional version is frillier, harder to make and itself a cultural hybrid: it uses an embroidery technique practised in Europe in the 17th century.
A bigger problem than plagiarism is counterfeiting. In the markets of San Cristóbal, 47km (29 miles) away from Aguacatenango, real dresses from the village share shelf space with identical fakes made in Asia. “Piracy is worse [than plagiarism by brands], because it kills the industry,” says Ms Harp. Some of the seamstresses wear knock-offs of their own traditional dresses while they fashion the real thing for sale to others.
A first step towards fighting fakery and imitation would be to recognise indigenous designs as a form of intellectual property (IP). In July Tenango de Doria, a village in Hidalgo, a state in central Mexico, acquired a collective trademark for a logo that marks the village’s distinctive crafts. Winning international recognition of rights to protect the traditional designs themselves is hard. The principles underlying protection of IP, conceived in the 19th century, do not allow for the transfer of ownership of ideas from one generation to the next. Countries have been trying unsuccessfully for 17 years to devise a new definition of IP tailored to indigenous groups.
Globalisation may help solve the problems it causes. Mexican designers are working with artisans on new indigenous dresses that can be sold online or in high-end shops. A woman can earn 1,000 pesos for making a blouse that will sell for 2,000. As the designs are new, they are entitled to protection under copyright law. Some traditionalists might call that cultural appropriation, but at least it pays.