The Guanaco Project

The secret to improvement in the quality of life for the community is the project based on sustainable use of the guanacos of the Reserva.

the project

Each guanaco would be sheared and then released unharmed

Jorge SotoShortly after the formation of the Cooperativa in 2005, the members elected a Board of Directors and chose Jorge Soto to serve as President, a position he holds to this day and from which he leads with wisdom and patience.   The Cooperativa and the people of La Payunia were (and still are) faced with enormous challenges.  The population of La Payunia lives at an impoverished level.  Other than the husbandry of goats there was no other source of income or work.  The youth of La Payunia were leaving home to go to the cities where unfortunately they were unable to find employment and often ran into problems with drugs and alcohol. The situation was dire. 

Dr CarmanchahiDr. Pablo Carmanchahi is a biologist who has devoted his life to the study of the guanaco in his capacity as an Investigator for the National Council of Scientific Investigation (CONICET).  For many years, Dr. Carmanchahi had been coming to La Payunia to conduct his research.   After so many years working in La Payunia and living with the people, Dr. Carmanchahi had become a trusted advisor for the community.  He, the Board and Jorge Soto came to the realization that the secret to improvement in the quality of life for the community lay in the guanaco resource.  Together, they developed a project based on sustainable use of the guanacos.  The Cooperativa proposed this project to the Province of Mendoza and to the city of Malargue.   The project was simple in concept and difficult in execution.   The proposal had two main thrusts.  First, was to improve the quality of life for the people of La Payunia and second, was to help conserve and protect the population of wild guanacos.

What the Cooperativa proposed was that the men of the community would “round-up” guanacos once per year by herding them from horseback into a trap.  Once trapped, each guanaco would be sheared and then released unharmed.  Women from the community would process the fleeces by removing the guard hairs and cleaning the wool.  The women would also spin the wool into yarn.  The Cooperativa would then sell the cleaned wool and the yarn and the income would be used to pay the costs of the round-up and the cleaning and spinning.   Any surplus would be spent to improve life at the Reserva.

roundup

In the historical context, the trapping of wild camelids is an ancient technique used by the indigenous peoples of South America.  The Incas had a system they called “Chaku” that involved using people on foot to herd wild vicuñas into a trap.  The vicuñas were sheared and then released.  The fiber was used to make the finest of garments for the Inca royalty.

The Cooperativa’s proposal was also based on the belief that the value conferred on the guanaco resource by the project would serve to change the relationship of the people to the animals.  Whereas before, the guanacos might have been seen to be more of an inconvenience, now they would be seen as a valuable resource.  Once the people realized that the guanacos were their ticket out of poverty they would begin paying close attention to the existence of illegal hunting.  Now, rather than just one or two park guards for the entire Reserva, there are hundreds of eyes peeled throughout the entire area to detect and prevent illegal hunting.             

The governmental authorities approved the Cooperativa’s proposal and the project is now the only one of its kind in Argentina - sustainable harvest of wool from wild guanacos on a governmental reserve.

moving the guanaco into the shedThe first round-up took place in 2005 and round-ups have continued every year but one through 2009.  The people of La Payunia learned how to construct an enormous trap composed of two long arms each many kilometers long and with a mouth more than a kilometer wide.    They learned that the best material to use for the trap was used fishing net and they obtained a donation of used net from one of Argentina’s largest commercial fishing companies, Pesquera Santa Elena.  They scheduled their round-up to coincide with the beginning of spring in the Southern Hemisphere – the guanacos’ fleeces were thick after the long winter but the weather had warmed up enough so that the animals would  not suffer from the shearing.  They learned how to efficiently shear the animals until now each animal is immobilized, blindfolded and sheared in less than 4 minutes.  With the assistance of veterinarians and biologists they developed humane methods of shearing and releasing the guanacos.

The annual round-ups provide an opportunity for the entire community to come together.  There can be up to 75 people who camp out at the remote round-up site.  The Cooperativa members themselves and their families are present, plus park guards from all over the Province, scientists and employees of the various Shearing Shedgovernmental units.   On occasion even senior officials of the city and the Province have participated.  The work during the day is hard and demanding but at night around the campfire the people celebrate with music and dancing.

The people also learned how to dehair and clean the fleeces so that the wool would be of the finest, softest quality.  They learned how to spin the wool into yarn and to achieve the quality required for the market in the United States.  The Cooperativa is in compliance with the rules of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and they have learned how to obtain the CITES certificate from the Secretariat of Fauna of Argentina.   They made contact with interested buyers in the United States and learned how to ship their products from Buenos Aires to the United States in compliance with all US laws including those administered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. 

The reception in the American market has been nothing short of explosive.  Wool and yarn made from guanaco is of the highest quality in existence and heretofore the product was unknown in the US.  The chance to use an exotic and luxurious fiber while at the same time helping an impoverished community to improve its standard of living and helping to protect a threatened species has been irresistible.  And the project is entirely sustainable.

Any summary of the project’s history would be incomplete without a special mention of the role that the Direccion de Recursos Naturales y Renovables of the Province of Mendoza and the City of Malargue has played.  These two levels of government have provided much more than legal authority – they have provided funding, people, supplies and equipment, advice and support in amounts that cannot be measured.  They are truly the guardian angels of the people who live in La Payunia. read about the reserva