In wind-swept Andes, this (sustainable) wool is worth more than gold

<br /><div><p>The vast plains of the Altiplano in southern Bolivia are a seemingly lifeless expanse.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>With sparse vegetation, desert sands and dry salt flats, it&rsquo;s difficult to imagine how any creature could survive in an ecosystem like this.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>Yet in the midst of this landscape, the vicu&ntilde;a &mdash; the undomesticated, fluffy cousin of the alpaca, and the source of the finest and most expensive animal fiber on the planet &mdash; is not only surviving, it is thriving.</p></div><div><p>This wasn&rsquo;t always the case. In the time of the Incas, who worshipped the pony-sized creature and permitted only royalty to wear its wool, about 3 million vicu&ntilde;as roamed the plains. By the 1960s, vicu&ntilde;as were hunted to near extinction &mdash; killed for their wool instead of simply sheared &mdash; with only <a href="" target="_blank">6,000 remaining</a> throughout the world.</p></div><div><p>Today, their population has soared to more than 350,000.</p></div><div><p>So what caused this meteoric rebound? And why on Earth are luxury fashion houses paying so much money for vicu&ntilde;a wool, once known as the &ldquo;silk of the new world&rdquo;?</p></div><div><p>In 2017, Conservation International videographer John Martin visited the area near the famous Uyuni salt flats &mdash; which he described as &ldquo;surreal, as if painted by Salvador Dal&iacute;&rdquo; &mdash; to answer those questions and more.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>In a new short film that Martin shot and produced, he tells the centuries-old history of the vicu&ntilde;as and a small community in the southern Andes who depend on them, shear them &mdash; and, ultimately, protect them.</p></div><div><p>It all starts, he said, with the <i>esquila</i>, the annual shearing of the vicu&ntilde;as. The wool is combed and processed by women in the community, and then sold to textile manufacturers or fashion companies for a price more than 10 times that of cashmere and more than 100 times that of wool.</p></div><div><p>For the past two years, Conservation International has helped communities in the southern Bolivian Andes to hold their own <i>esquilas</i> in a safe and sustainable way. The profits from vicu&ntilde;a wool helps support many families&rsquo; incomes, while the vicu&ntilde;as&rsquo; protected status helps prevent them from poaching.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>The result? &ldquo;The vicu&ntilde;as&nbsp; give the community something, and they give the vicu&ntilde;as respect and protection in return.&rdquo;</p></div><div><p>In the municipality of Colcha K, where some of the largest vicu&ntilde;a herds are found, the local community recently performed their first <i>esquila</i>.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>&ldquo;Everyone took part in it, from elders to women to small children. Even the nearby army base came to offer support because they wanted to make sure it was a success,&rdquo; Martin noted. &ldquo;You could feel the team spirit and respect within the community.&rdquo;</p></div><div><p>As the <i>esquila</i> began, community members walked in a line waving colorful ribbons, distracting the skittish vicu&ntilde;as enough to safely corral them into a large enclosure. Before shearing the animals, the community&rsquo;s shaman &mdash; the medicine man and spiritual adviser &mdash; performed a ritual out of respect for nature.</p></div><div><p>The goal of this ceremony, explained Martin, was to show reverence for sacred indigenous ways and to honor the connection with Mother Earth and with nature. &ldquo;Before you take something from the Earth, you have to ask permission first,&rdquo; he said.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>A single vicu&ntilde;a produces only about 0.5 kilograms (1.1 pounds) of wool, and by the end of the <i>esquila</i>, 55 vicu&ntilde;as were sheared and safely released back into the wild. An item of clothing made of 100-percent vicu&ntilde;a fiber can fetch thousands &mdash; <a href="" target="_blank">even tens of thousands</a> &mdash; of dollars at a luxury retailer.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>Near Colcha K, 57 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line, relying on harvesting quinoa and mining salt to support their livelihoods. Now, the vicu&ntilde;as are helping to change that.&nbsp;</p></div><div><p>&ldquo;The earnings from sales like this are transformative for Bolivian communities,&rdquo; said Eduardo Forno, Conservation International Bolivia&rsquo;s executive director. &ldquo;The communities normally distribute earnings equally by family or even use them to improve schools and support health centers.&rdquo;</p></div><div><p>By protecting the animals, conserving their habitat and learning how to shear them safely and process their wool, local men and women have a valuable &mdash; and sustainable &mdash; new source of income. And the vicu&ntilde;a population can continue to survive, and to grow.</p></div><div><p>&ldquo;This story needed to be told,&rdquo; said Martin, &ldquo;to help people understand how these communities and these animals are not only living together, but thriving through conservation. This is a win-win for people and nature.&rdquo;</p><p><iframe frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="1" width="640" height="360" src=";widgetid=2">&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;nbsp;</iframe></p><p><i>John Martin is the director of production at Conservation International. Eduardo Forno is Conservation International Bolivia’s executive director. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International.&nbsp;</i><i style="font-size:inherit;">Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates&nbsp;<a sfref="[f669d9a7-009d-4d83-ddaa-000000000002%7Clng%3Aen]3A99C8BB-F2A2-472E-AD8C-34EA13647354" href="">here.</a>&nbsp;Donate to Conservation International&nbsp;<a sfref="[f669d9a7-009d-4d83-ddaa-000000000002%7Clng%3Aen]3A99C8BB-F2A2-472E-AD8C-34EA13647354" href="">here</a>.</i><i style="font-size:inherit;"></i></p></div><div><p><i>Cover image: A group of </i><i>vicu&ntilde;as</i>&nbsp;<i>, Bolivia.&nbsp;</i><i>(&copy; John Martin/Conservation International)</i></p><hr /><p><i></i><b>Further reading:</b></p></div><div><ul><li><a sfref="[Telerik.Sitefinity.Blogs.Model.BlogPost|OpenAccessDataProvider|lng:en]ce795f33-cebe-4373-84ba-439a4616a510" href="">Bolivian ecolodges lead the way for sustainable tourism</a></li><li><a sfref="[Telerik.Sitefinity.Blogs.Model.BlogPost|OpenAccessDataProvider|lng:en]de11dcd2-ccb1-4d7a-aff9-92f2069e6221" href="">New protected area in Amazon announced</a></li><li><a sfref="[Telerik.Sitefinity.Blogs.Model.BlogPost|OpenAccessDataProvider|lng:en]32474a30-906b-4ced-95b3-85d1a78b71c8" href="">Ashes to action: 3 things we know about the Amazon fires</a></li></ul><p>&nbsp;</p><hr /><p>&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p></div><div><br /></div>Find out how one woolly species is supporting conservation work and livelihoods for communities in Bolivia.Read More