The vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) is a wild South American camelid, the smallest of the family Camelidae (Franklin 2011). The species live in high altitude of more than 3500 masl, in arid and semi-arid steppes in the Puna or Altiplano of Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia. The species was also introduced in Ecuador. Vicuñas have one of the finest and most expensive fibres in the world with a mean diameter of 12 µm and an approximate price of 400 US dollars/kilo.
The relationship between wild vicuñas and Andean people can be traced back to the peopling of America, where the first settlers were vicuña hunters (Yacobaccio 2009). This “Coupled Human and Natural System” or CHAN (Liu et al. 2007) lasted approximately 10,000 years, leaving profound legacy effects—impacts that human-nature couplings have on later conditions (Liu et al. 2007). The good and bad moments for vicuña population dynamics are closely linked to human activities.
Phases of “Coupled Human and Natural System: The vicuña and the altiplano”
The phases of this CHAN can be summarized: (a) vicuñas as prey for hunters in the prehistoric period (10,500BC–AD 1470); (b) the prehispanic sustainable use during Inca times (1470–1535) in the Tahuantinsuyu by chakus consisting of a capture with a proportion of animals killed and most of them sheared and released, where vicuñas populations were able to maintain their numbers; (c) the colonial period with the slaughter of vicuñas by their thousands that continued during the Independence period (1810–1950) that sent the species to the point of extinction by the middle of the twentieth century (Yacobaccio 2009); (d) the strict conservation phase (1960–2000) and the recovery of the populations, explained in detail below; (e) the 2000 neo-chakus: several populations in all the countries with vicuñas managed for a non-lethal use consisting in the harvesting of the fibre by capture and shearing live animals; (f) current times in which research is needed to address the sustainability of the large-scale use of the species, in particular the challenges for animal welfare and poaching.
Vicuñas conservation and management
The recovery of vicuñas was a successful story with many actors: from a global population estimated at 14,500 animals in 1960 (Laker et al. 2006), a strict conservation period started which had a time lag—time between the human-nature interactions and the appearance of ecological and socioeconomic consequences (Liu et al. 2007) of two to three decades for the recovery of several populations of the species. The main legal instruments which secured the resurgence of vicuñas were the Convention for the Conservation of the Vicuna, signed in La Paz in 1969, then replaced 10 years later by “Convention for the Conservation and Management of the Vicuna” ratified by Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. This Convention in its Article 1 stated: “The Signatory Governments agree that conservation of the vicuna provides an economic production alternative for the benefit of the Andean population and commit themselves to its gradual use under strict State control, applying such technical methods for the management of wildlife as the competent official authorities may determine” (ECOLEX 2022). Also, it was very important the Classification of the species in CITES appendix 1 “Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances” (CITES n.d.), and as Vulnerable in 1982 in the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species (IUCN 2022). Those measures were accompanied by regional, national and provincial policies regarding the species including the creation of reserves and protected areas, specific conservation legislation and prosecution and punishment of hunters. It should be especially noted that the conservation of this species relied on the commitment and work of the IPLCs (indigenous peoples and local communities) who were and still are key actors in the territory.
The recovery was sustained, several populations increased in numbers and the vicuña is now classified as “Least concern” in the Red List and “Moderately depleted” in the Green Status Assessment (Acebes et al. 2018) of IUCN. During the last decades, most populations changed to CITES ap II “Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival”. This new situation led to several projects in the four countries that included the use of vicuñas “by live shorn animals” the only way CITES allows, including a diversity of management regimes (Lichtenstein and Vilá 2003; Acebes et al. 2018). One of the main debates in the recovery of the species was the alternative of captive vs wild management of the species. Lichtenstein (2006) analysed the captive management of vicuñas in Argentina in detail and concluded that these systems failed in several aspects: they did not contribute to reducing poverty; the profitability was low; it indebted the beneficiaries; there was little reproduction of the vicuñas in confinement. She concluded that captive management was not a good tool for the conservation of the species. Currently, there is still captive management in INTA Abrapampa, Argentina, and in modules of 700–1000 ha in Peru. In the other countries, the main management of the species is in the wild.
Wild vicuñas management in Argentina
The wild management of vicuñas in Argentina started in 2003 in Cieneguillas, Jujuy, with the first capture by the MACS (2022) (Sustainable economic utilisation of wild South American Camelids: Strategies for improving rural productivity in pastoral communities in Latin America) team project. This initial work in the country was generated from the demand of a group of associated producers in Cieneguillas and developed during three consecutive years with vicuña captures, from which the producers obtained 67 kg of fibre. The researchers of the MACS project studied the effects of capture and shearing on animal welfare and other biological parameters, reported in two books, one in Spanish (Vilá 2006) and the other in English (Gordon 2009), and several papers (Vilá 2002; Yacobaccio and Vilá 2002; Lichteinstein and Vilá 2003; Vilá et al. 2004; Arzamendia et al. 2006; Arzamendia et al 2010 and 2012; Vilá et al. 2010; Marcoppido et al. 2010; Arzamendia and Vilá 2012, 2015). After the end of the project, several MACS members founded VICAM (Vicuñas, camélidos y ambiente) and sustained most of the MACS’ lines of research.
In 2012, a new series of captures began in Santa Catalina in joint work with the local cooperative COOPASAC (Santa Catalina Agro-livestock Cooperative). Based on the demand of many other communities, a manual specially written for IPLC was published (Baldo et al. 2013) in order to share and extrapolate experiences and procedures for the expansion of vicuña management carried in other places with different institutional technical advice. What seemed like the most challenging objective, which was to capture vicuñas and obtain their fibre in chakus with high animal welfare standards, was a real possibility presented in that manual that was (and still is) accessible free of charge from the Internet. These scientific results of the sustainable use of vicuñas, added to those of the MACs, were the basis for legislating on the management of vicuñas in the province of Jujuy. The researchers responsible provided advice to the Jujuy authorities and are the authors of the guidelines (Arzamendia et al. 2012), which were a key input for the province’s vicuña law. In 2014, the government of Jujuy initiated a policy of vicuña management and promoted the creation of an association of communities, the “CAMVI” (Andean communities that handle vicuña) involving several technical advisory institutions.
Sustainability of vicuña use
A recovered species, with sustainable management with shearing, carried out by indigenous communities, could have an invaluable green market niche. But the enormous difficulties faced by the communities in relation to bureaucracy, the value chain and marketing with tremendous inequity in a global market (Sahley et al 2004; Lichtenstein 2010) hinder the possibilities of local development through the sustainable use of vicuñas. In an oligopsony/monopsony (few or one buyer), the commercialization of raw fibre is not solving poverty in the Andes (Stollen et al. 2009; Lichtenstein 2010). Fibre prices are variable (and currently decreasing below 400 dollars per kilogramme), and the relationship between the percentages earned by Andean communities in the retail price of a garment is only 2–6% (Kasterine and Lichtenstein 2018).
With this scenario, the alternative of producing high-quality handmade garments is a potential solution, if sufficiently regulated. In Argentina, Catamarca province has a tradition of weaving vicuña, especially ponchos (Rolandi 2006), including a government fund for the sale of subsidized fibre to artisans (Castilla et al. 2021). In Jujuy, the activity is incipient with the CAMVI group, offering vicuña garments in their web page (Camvi 2022).
We consider that it is absolutely fundamental for thinking and designing policies that include the sale of handicrafts, to carry out a detailed study of times and costs and people’s perceptions in relation to this activity. That is why our team, which until now had studied the ecology, captured vicuñas and worked towards sustainable scenarios, went one step further and decided to study in detail the process of weaving a vicuña shawl. The objective of this work is then to make a description of the steps, the costs and perceptions in making a beautiful and fine vicuña garment.
The town of Barrancas is located 23° 20′ 30.75″ South, 66° 05′ 25.37″ West, a high altitude (3600 masl) semi-desert with a mean summer precipitation of 180 mm/year, in the right margin of Barrancas River, a tributary of Las Burras River, which drains into Salinas Grandes basin. The area is renowned for its several archaeological sites which are protected in a declared natural and cultural reserve by the town authorities. The town of about 350 inhabitants has a primary and secondary school, first aid room, an archeological museum, library and sports centre.
The locality, including the rural areas, comprises about 1300 people, in two indigenous communities and a neighbourhood centre. The main activity of the areas is pastoralism of sheep and llamas and subsistence agriculture. State work and state subsidies are also an important source of income. In the town, there are numerous artisans who work with llama fibre.