In Wichí, lhaka translates to ‘ours’. The Lhaka project is the result of the combination between the private sector and a forgotten community. It’s the poster child of how to tackle barriers, prejudices and preconceptions. By doing that, a new kind of richness emerges - one that bonds us all, even if we are from different realities.
The Wichí are an Indigenous community living around the Bermejo and Pilcomayo rivers of north Argentina. Traditionally, they are hunter-gatherers and, just like every other ethnic minority in South America, they have suffered discrimination and invisibility. They took refuge in the few state initiatives available to them, becoming dependent on public finance to support themselves and their families.
Dino Salas, Chief of the Wichí community in San Ignacio de Loyola, Salta Province, decided to act. Back in 2014, he got in touch with businessman Aldo Navilli, president of Molino Cañuelas and Molino Cañuelas Foundation, a global industrial group with 21 production plants across Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Seeing as, among Indigenous communities, the chief acts as the highest authority, much like the CEO or president of a private company, Salas asked Navilli - his equal - to help his people find ‘work, dignity and development’.
Moved by Salas’s request, Navilli got to work, designing integration alternatives through the Molino Cañuelas Foundation. He knew the process wouldn’t be easy and would require a deep understanding of the Wichí community and their history, and making an accurate diagnosis in order to create a sustainable program of social and economic inclusion that strengthens the economic development of a forgotten community.
The road to integration
The key to success was a management system that has been tried and tested in different areas of Molino Cañuelas. The first stage was social, focused on training the community in subjects like health, nutrition, hygiene, school attendance, and promotion of community bonds. This would allow the Wichí community to build trust with the Molino Cañuelas team.
The following stage focused on exploring sustainable economic projects. Catalina Rojas, Program Coordinator, tells us:
‘These processes are not simple. They require a great deal of resilience and learning. In the first approach, we tried the most obvious route: the community exploits its artisan work, producing chaguar knits and wooden pieces’.
However, this route only included a few members and the project wasn’t profitable or scalable. Plan B included the production of concrete blocks for construction but, again, it would only employ a small percentage of the male population that could handle the work, and the product wasn’t very competitive.
‘We noticed that people didn’t want to be like they were 100 years ago. They wanted to work in order to have belongings, to buy their own food. We were in pursuit of a project that was economically possible in terms of sustainability,’ Rojas continues.
It was through understanding the community’s potential and abilities (particularly the crafting traditions and fine motor skills that inspired world-renowned artists like Anni Albers) that the idea of creating a textile workshop was born. It would incorporate tools and modern processes in order to produce a quality project as well as be competitive on a market level.
The Lhaka project makes the most of the community’s strengths, but it also takes into consideration its weaknesses, like the difficulty of working under the summer sun or during the rainy season, or individuals’ physical limitations. There was a need for guidance, and Rojas and her team didn’t give up. With the support of the Vitamina company, which provided the counseling, the training, design and access to suppliers, the first industrial brand developed by the Wichí community came to life.
The project has transformed the way the Wichi people are perceived. Gone is that perception that if you are Wichí, you need charity. Lhaka has an online store, provides stable jobs, and supplies to retailers like Carrefour, bringing back a sense of belonging to the community. Better yet, its sustainable structure suggests it could work as a viable alternative to other communities facing similar problems.
Standard of living improved, too. When they started earning money, the first thing on many workers’ wishlists were mattresses and beds. Until then, some members of the community had beds made of sticks and mattresses were replaced by blankets, clothes, bags. The very few people who had mattresses had received them through donations. It was beautiful to see that, when they went to purchase their mattresses, they chose the king-sized ones.
But the first milestones took some time. ‘There were endless situations that we took for granted at the beginning. During the first few weeks on the job, it was pretty normal that goats, chickens or dogs entered the workshop. Tackling illiteracy was crucial for a big number of members who learned to recognise the sizes, numbers and their own names on the attendance sheet. Jessy, the health educator, taught them to read the time so that they can track their shifts,’ says Dora Fernandez, a bilingual Wichí teacher.
‘One morning, we couldn’t see an inch of the workshop floor because we had left the windows open and there had been a locust plague. They were everywhere. Setting hygiene standards became extremely important,’ she adds. The process of building professionalism was based on surprises. Fernandez recalls that the sense of teamwork took time as, at the beginning, if someone didn’t like the piece of clothing they were working on, they wouldn’t return to the workshop until there was a ‘better’ one.
The wider community
‘Something that moves me, and many people, is the fashion show on the Wichí Work and Dignity Day. Every year we celebrate this day on a date chosen by the community to celebrate our journey. Women that for years wouldn’t look you in the eyes go on the catwalk and show the items they made themselves together with their teammates, in their own cooperative,’ Fernandez explains.
People from surrounding towns travel to see the show. Non-Wichí people who could’ve easily discriminated against the community not too long ago can be spotted cheerfully clapping and, when the show is over, they head over to the Lhaka store to purchase the pieces they’ve seen on the runway. Though this was the primary goal, the community quite literally went from being discriminated against to becoming an inspiration.
The Lhaka project shows a new route. In Salta, more than 200 Wichí communities live in poverty and unemployment, with some of the highest malnutrition and child mortality indexes in Argentina. The community that works with Lhaka was in a similar situation; today, they have trucks with meat and vegetables coming there to sell. This is a new possibility, a way that trades misery for training, jobs and hope in a country whose economy has the potential to thrive.
‘Thanks to our cooperative we show that our community is capable. We make good quality clothes. We grow a little bit more every year. Many believe that the Wichís can’t work, that they can’t grow. And we are showing that we don’t need to be given things for free, we only need opportunities,’ said Chief Dino Salas on Wichí Work and Dignity Day 2018.
According to Salas, the biggest weakness of the community was living beside society, not within it. Thanks to Lhaka, this has changed.