Mayan weavers in Guatemala want legal protection for their right to benefit financially from their work that has earned millions for big fashion houses and other businesses but has left the creators of the work with little compensation.
In February of this year, the National Mayan Weavers Movement, with the help of Mayan Congressman Leocadio Juracan, introduced Law 5247, a bill that seeks official recognition of the collective intellectual property rights of Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala.
If passed, Law 5247 would recognize a definition of collective intellectual property that, in accordance with Guatemalan and international law, is linked to the rights of Indigenous Peoples to administer and maintain their heritage. The law would also officially recognize the Indigenous Nations as authors of the work that would then provide them protection under existing intellectual property law. With both of those policies in place, any business or corporation that benefit from the export of Mayan hand woven goods would be compelled to pay royalties to the creators of the works.
The first public effort from the Weavers came in May of 2016 when they filed a legal action against the Guatemalan Government asserting that it was unconstitutional to omit rules that would protect Mayan and textile creations.
The Weavers then received support from across the country and eventually met with 30 Indigenous organizations lead by the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepequez, known as AFEDES; and AFEDES now advocates on behalf of the Weavers and other Indigenous artisans.
“We must protect our textile knowledge just as we protect our territories,” said Angelina Aspuac, an AFEDES weaver and university law student who testified last year at the Constitutional Court, “…intellectual property protection is a fundamental aspect of autonomy.”
According to the Weavers suit before the Constitutional Court, the problem became very apparent five years ago when a pair of fashion designers, who had bought some designs from Mayan weavers, prohibited the Weavers to further develop or sell the same designs to other customers.
“So if someone registers a design, not only does that prohibit us from developing or elaborating on it, that act would make us criminals,” Aspuac noted.
For Juan Castro, a member of the Mayan Attorneys Association and one of the attorneys representing AFEDES, their legal action is about fighting back.
“We are challenging the government because it is a racist government,” he asserted last year.
“If someone creates an ensemble that uses one of your creations, the businessperson has to pay for the right to use it as with any other product that involves the rights of the author/creator,” Castro said.
“They have to pay the owner of the design,” he continued. “In that way, they [the weavers] will have the opportunity to earn a living from their creations.”
The issue of fair compensation is also noted in the background section of the proposed law, where legislators cited information from Guatemalan Economist Sonia Escobado.
Escobado pointed out how the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism AGEXPORT promotes Mayan textiles as an attraction for tourism and foreign investment.
“The policies for promoting the country as a tourist destination are strongly contradicted by the lack of protection of the ancestral knowledge of Mayan women over their textiles…the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism, in many of their campaigns to promote Guatemala as being the heart of the Mayan world, repeatedly used the Mayan textiles for promotion,” Escobado said.
She added that the country earned $746 million from tourism in 2014 “without the weavers receiving incentives or support for the protection of their textiles or improvements in their living conditions.”
As of press time there was no announcement as to when the proposed law would be considered by the Congress. Law 5247 does have 16 co-signers and many supporters throughout the country.