An Andean weaving can fetch US$14,000 in the United States and Canada. Art dealers in these two countries have been particularly interested in Latin American indigenous artefacts. The weavings are valued not only for their antiquity — some are pre-Columbian in origin — but also for their delicate colour combinations and striking designs which often resemble modern, abstract art.
The weavings are central to the spiritual life of Bolivia’s mountain societies, but poverty has led some villagers to steal textiles and sell them to dealers for as little as US$100. The sacred weavings are communal property and their loss represents a blow to the whole community. "Our history is written in the fabrics," explains Cristina Bubba Zamora, "to lose them is to lose our past." She adds that the weavings cannot be regarded simply as commodities to be bought and sold, as they are key elements of "the identity and cultural history of the people".
Battle for Bolivian Weavings
In 1988, as she was carrying out research on the social and political role of artefacts in the Andean village of Coroma, Bubba Zamora, who is a social psychologist, received a postcard promoting an ethnic art show in San Francisco. The photo on the postcard showed a weaving which had in fact been stolen from Coroma. With support from indigenous groups, Bubba Zamora flew to California to work with volunteer lawyers for the return of the textile — and many other fabrics from Coroma — to Bolivia.
The battle has been long and complex. Fifty-six textiles have been returned from the United States, but they are only a fraction of the many weavings that have been taken from Coroma. More than 400 weavings have been the subject of legal proceedings in Canadian courts in the past 12 years. During this period, Bubba Zamora has helped prepare Bolivian legislation recognising the cultural value of weavings to Andean communities. She has also negotiated, on the basis of a 1970 UNESCO convention on cultural property, a bilateral agreement between Bolivia and Washington banning the import of Bolivian cultural artefacts into the U.S.
Raising International Awareness
In June last year, Bubba Zamora visited Switzerland after Traditions for Tomorrow, an international association dedicated to protecting the cultural identity of indigenous peoples, invited her to support its campaign against the international trade in stolen cultural property. The Swiss federal parliament in Bern is expected to vote on a proposed law on the sale of cultural property, based on the same UNESCO convention, late this year.
Switzerland is the world’s fifth-biggest art market, so the association was eager for Bubba Zamora’s story to provide "an inspiration" for firm action by legislators. Bubba Zamora made a series of presentations to journalists, politicians and art dealers on the devastating effects that the theft of their sacred weavings has had on the people of Coroma.
Crucial Cultural Artefacts
The Andean community believes that the weavings embody ancestral spirits. Kept in bundles or "q’ipis", they are regularly consulted by the people. "Villagers drink to the ancestors and inform them about their problems," says Bubba Zamora. "They receive advice and encouragement from the q’ipis — losing them is like losing one’s parents." Q’ipis also confer authority on the community leaders. If they go missing, people believe that every misfortune that occurs — from crop failure to illness — is a sign that the q’ipis have withdrawn their guidance and goodwill. "When lightning strikes a house or animal, they believe that the ancestors are punishing the thieves," she says. "They say that the ancestors have made some people blind."
The loss of the textiles has also caused tension in Coroma, particularly as the weavings belong to the community and not to individuals. "People are suspicious of each other and are constantly accusing each other of stealing the textiles," says Bubba Zamora. People have been forced to leave the village, and there have been two suicides.
Empowering the Underdog
The people of Coroma have often lost heart as they have fought for the return of the precious fabrics, believing that they could not possibly win. When challenged, the dealers in the United States and Canada have offered to placate the village by returning a few textiles. "They offered three, then eight, then 15," Bubba Zamora explains, "and each time, the people would ask the ancestors if this was enough. But every time the ancestors would say, "No, we want them all!"
With the return of 56 stolen textiles, the citizens of Coroma have a new sense of self-assurance. "The villagers feel that they have won a battle against a world power," says the Rolex Laureate. "It has given them the confidence to take control of their problems."
According to Bubba Zamora, the battle to ensure the return of all cultural property to its rightful owners can happen only through "an intensive campaign of education and awareness-raising right around the world".
Published in 2003