One Year in Peru: Local Family Gets Up Close and Personal with Fair Trade Artisans

One year ago, Sam Carpenter sat at his laptop and composed the first of many entries in his blog, Thoughtful Transactions. “Simon, Alison and I left for our grand adventure,” he wrote, speaking of his wife and two-year-old son. “This will be a year of new experiences.”

The term “grand adventure” was no understatement. Shortly before his first post, Sam had been granted a yearlong sabbatical from his position as Executive Director of Global Gifts, a fair trade organization with three stores throughout Indiana. Rather than spending his year relaxing, though, Sam and his family packed up their belongings, rented out their Indianapolis home, and moved more than 3,500 miles away to Lima, Peru, where they would spend their year volunteering with Manos Amigas, a Peruvian fair trade organization.

It was a natural connection for Sam, who had been passionate about fair trade since he was a graduate student. “From the time I was first introduced to fair trade I thought it was a good idea.” Sam says, “The mix of social mission and business was appealing.” Later, through his work at Global Gifts, Sam learned about Manos Amigas. A member of the World Fair Trade Organization, Manos Amigas works with artisans in Lima and impoverished areas of the Andean highlands—often individuals and families—to help them make a living through their handicrafts. In accordance with fair trade principles, artisans are treated with respect and dignity, paid fair prices for their work, and offered training and business support. Throughout their year of volunteer work with the organization, Sam and Alison would travel throughout Peru to meet these artisans and help record their stories.

After a one-month crash course in Spanish with a host family, the Carpenters found their own apartment and began their mission, traveling to the homes and workshops of Manos Amigas artisans. In particular, Sam was interested to know if fair trade impacted the people he met. “I will often ask, ‘Is fair trade important to you? Does it make much of a difference?’” Sam wrote on his blog in mid-December. “Over and over again the person I’m speaking with eyes become big and the look on their face is emphatic, ‘Yes, it is very important!’”

The artisan’s stories often spoke for themselves. This spring, the Carpenters met Rosa Pariona, an artisan who produces beautiful stuffed animals from wool and fiber. Rosa once struggled to support herself and her family, but through Manos Amigas she found a market for her product and received a 50% down payment for an order—a standard practice in the fair trade industry. “With that money I was able to buy land in Huaycán and start building our own home,” she told Sam in the workshop her son built for her, where she and her family now work together.

In a world of mass-produced stuff, Sam and Alison were also delighted to observe how fair trade helps preserve traditional arts and handicrafts, such as the art of mates burilados—or gourd art—which has a rich history in Peru. In July they met Alejandro Hurtado, who comes from a family of gourd artisans and creates beautiful decorative pieces through a process Alison described as “painting with fire,” carving intricate patterns of brown and black using a precisely concentrated flame as a “paintbrush.” Skills like these are often passed down from generation to generation, as was the case with Mario Nolasco Chavez, a third generation ceramics artisan Sam and Alison also met this summer.

By the end of their time in Peru, the Carpenters visited more than 40 artisans and artisan groups, documenting their lives and work through photos and stories, many of which Sam shared on Thoughtful Transactions. This week, Sam resumes his position as Executive Director of Global Gifts with a deeper understanding of fair trade and a sense of connection with the artisans whose goods he sells. “It moves me to know that I am part of a community of people, a movement, which is impacting lives and setting a just standard of business through fair trade,” he says. “Artisans like the ones we met, exporters like Manos Amigas, importers like Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV, stores like Global Gifts, and the people who buy these beautifully made products are part of a system of business that respects people and the planet, reaches out to those who lack opportunity, and I believe brings people around the world a bit closer together.”

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