Cotacachi Leather: Quality Government, Quality Leather

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Text: Carolina Matheus
Photos: Iván Ceballos

Who would have thought that a little city, in a small province of a developing nation, would have international recognition? This is the case of Cotacachi, in the province of Imbabura, Ecuador. Cotacachi is the proud winner of the Participative Democracy, Dubai 2000 prize, which is given to a city that has: “One of the most sound environmental, social and economic practices in its local government.” This isn’t the only prize it has received. In 2002, the Unesco honored it with the City of Peace prize for its dedication to dialogue and democracy. So, why does it have so much attention? As you are on your way to Otavalo, you must visit Cotacachi because of its cultural diversity, alluring vistas, its unique democratic government and, most of all, its beautiful leather crafts.

A Focus on Diversity and Education

As you walk towards the Cultural Center, or through the main plaza, you will run into bustling Otavalo Indians; mestizos diligently working in their shops; and, occasionally, local black people selling products as well. The current mayor, Auki Tituaña, an Otavalo Indian, has realized the importance of Cotacachi’s ethnic diversity and has therefore created an assembly in which black, Indian and mestizo, as well as urban and rural people, all participate as part of the local government. Perhaps the fact that he is one of the first Indigenous mayors in Ecuadorian history has given him a unique perspective. As a result, the Cotacachi people are becoming active citizens who are learning to take responsibility for what occurs in their city and region. This work hasn’t gone unnoticed and, consequently, the prizes mentioned above.

In a country in which presidents remain in power for an average of two years, it is exceptional that Mayor Auki Tituaña has been in office for ten years (democratically reelected). His persistence and the system’s continuity have allowed him and his assembly system to obtain improvements for his people. For example, 37% of the budget goes towards environmental cleanup; 22%, towards education; and, 28%, towards social development. This is a one of kind financial plan, in a country in which the less than 6% of the budget goes towards education! These efforts have positive results, such as better public health and being the only illiteracy-free county in Ecuador, in 2005.

Protecting the environment is also a priority in Cotacachi. One leather shop worker explains that in the last decade, they have been forced to use more environmentally friendly products for leather dying and they aren’t allowed to dump toxic waste into the rivers. He comments: “This is all for the best. We need to take care of our rivers for the future generations.” Cotacachi has the impressive Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, which protects a wide range of endangered species. In a country in which environmental degradation is rampant, the fact that local governments are emphasizing environmental protection is uncommon and admirable.

Beautiful Leather Crafts

Not only are the Government and population quite exceptional, the fine leather crafts elaborated in Cotacachi are also outstanding. This is because the artisans take great care in the elaboration process, they renovate their designs, and they offer competitive prices.

Though other areas of Ecuador also specialize in leather goods, Cotacachi is unique because great skill is put in to the entire elaboration process. All Cotacachi artisans buy already tanned leather because this highly polluting process is not consistent with the mayor’s environmentally friendly philosophy. It requires a trained eye to buy good tanned leather. Once purchased, the leather must be carefully washed and softened. Drying the leather is the next step. This must be done in the open air but without direct sunlight and it takes between 24-48 hours. At this point, grease or linseed oil is evenly applied, (previously, guarango oil, which is extracted from a type of acacia, was used). This is a key aspect in order to ensure durability and flexibility in the leather. Next, the leather is dyed in an infinite myriad of colors. Today, most of these dyes are of better quality and biodegradable. A key step occurs at this point: the leather is cut in very thin slivers. It must be done with a steady hand and with special machinery in order to ensure uniformity and a thin cut. If it’s too thick, the leather will be too rough, and if it’s uneven, it will have a very sloppy look. If the leather passes quality control, it is then ready to become a jacket, suitcase, purse, saddle, belt, wallet or any other garment conjured up by the designer’s imagination. A lacquer is applied to protect and give shine, and the garment is finally ready! It will make its way to the various shops on the 10 de Agosto Street in Cotacachi.

There are some variants to the process. For example, some stretch the leather and then beat it in barrels in order to make sure it becomes very soft. However, the artisans and knowledgeable customers all agree: hand-selected and hand-cut pieces are incomparable to industrially assembled leather.

A Just Price

Because the process is mostly hand-made, as mentioned above, it is time consuming and, as a result, large volumes cannot be obtained. For example, the owner of one of the larger and fancier shops, explains that they produce an average of 100 to 150 garments a month. Therefore, their prices aren’t as cheap as industrial-made leather goods. However, some of his suede vests and jackets -which cost around $150- would easily go for $500 in Europe or the USA. Unfortunately, he explains, many tourists want to obtain high quality garments for $30. He tells us: “This is impossible because of the care and time we put into our products!” In some other areas of Ecuador, leather products can be obtained at lower prices, yet the quality may be questionable.

About fifteen years ago, most leather products in Cotacachi had little creative design. There was only one jacket style, purse style and wallet style …not so, today. The designers are constantly traveling to Quito to buy fashion magazines and surfing the Internet to see what’s in style. Another artisan explains: “The Internet has been a great help for us! Also, we test out different designs and see how consumers react. Ultimately, the costumer has the last word on our designs.” At some shops, you can have a jacket or saddle custom-made! This is a luxury that would be extravagantly priced in a developed country. “We have to evolve and renovate all the time, or we die!” says another storeowner, while proudly showing a cow-skin and leather purse, which could easily be found in pricey boutiques in New York or L.A.

How It Began

Most entrepreneurs aren’t exactly clear on how the business developed, yet all seem to agree that saddle making was the basis. One artisan who has been working with leather since he was 13 explains: “Our grandparents and parents made leather saddles and reigns because horses were used to bring in the cattle and as a means of transportation. We made our own saddles for our personal use.” Little by little, people began to see that their goods were appreciated in other parts of Ecuador and the sales began. During World War II, change purses and belts were made and, in the 1960’s, leather jackets came in style. At one point, many Colombian tourists poured into northern Ecuador and were great clients. However, after the dolarization in 1999, Ecuador became too expensive, so they stopped coming. Today, most of the products are for local tourists and for shops in Quito and, to some extent, for foreign tourists.

Legend has it that the Cotacachi Mountain was very flirtatious and, though she married the powerful Rucu (Old) Pichincha, she had an affair with the younger and more handsome Imbabura Mountain. In revenge, Rucu Pichincha stole their first-born son, Guagua Pichincha. Because of this, Cotacachi cries every day and thus produced the Cotacachi Lake from her bitter tears. It’s not surprising that Cotacachi has charmed so many lovers, for she is very attractive and so is the city beneath her. Many people become captivated by Cotacachi’s cultural richness, striking scenery, its dedication for a better government and its lovely leather crafts. Be sure to pass by on your visit through Imbabura!

Tips for buying a good leather product:

Though the quality largely depends on the raw material and the elaboration process of the leather itself, there are some telltale signs when buying. Also, remember there is a wide range of quality and prices in Cotacachi itself:

    • Leather should be soft and flexible.
    • Leather should be thin, (unless it’s vaqueta, used for saddles, some briefcases and belts, which is thick and sturdy).
    • The finish must be good. Check the buttons and zippers: are they very cheap? Are they stitched on securely?
    • For a leather jacket: check if it is assembled by several pieces, like a ‘quilt’, or is it made of only a few pieces. In this case: “Less is more.”
    • You can bargain and haggle, but not too much. Remember all the labor that goes into the product. Bargaining too much is insulting.

Bibliography:

- Journal “Cotacachi 146 años: Multicultural, diversa, universal.” July 2007.

Personal Interviews:

- Julio Morales, August 2007.
- Pedro Caiza, August 2007