Alpaca Stories Part 1: Alpaca – More Prized than Gold by the Incas, Still Scorned by the West?

Written by Veronica Kassatly

I am grateful for the help of Jaanus Vosu (perualpaca2010@gmail.com ), Walter Antezana, and Mauricio Nunez Oporto.

Alpaca – More Prized than Gold by the Incas, Still Scorned by the West?

Alpacas are camelids – long necked herbivores that thrive in dry and hostile environments. The wild South American camelids – the vicuna and the guanaco, and particularly the latter –  have long been bred and domesticated in the form of alpacas and llamas, neither of which exist in the wild. Alpacas are reared for fiber and for meat. The llama is larger and provides a sure footed beast of burden in a habitat in which roads are conspicuous by their absence. Llamas are also sheared for their fleece, but it is coarse and worth little. And like alpacas, llamas are eaten –  a low fat source of protein in an environment in which very little grows. Or as one commentator put it: “even Buddhist monks eat meat in Tibet – there isn’t much else”. 

As with all livestock, llamas and alpacas are one of nature’s many miracles – a creature that can turn habitats otherwise incapable of supporting human life, into homelands for the pastoralists who depend upon them. It is estimated that only one third of what is loosely labeled “agricultural” land is suitable for cultivation. To quote Ilse Köhler-Rollefson:

“The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) divides “agricultural land” into “arable” and “non-arable” land. Arable means cultivable with crops. Out of the world’s 4.924 billion hectares of agricultural land, only 1.407 billion ha, i.e., less than one-third, can be used for growing plant food. The remaining two-thirds are not fit for that purpose. The only option for producing food in the roughly 66% of agricultural land that are non-arable is by means of livestock. Animals can convert the native vegetation – which may be grass, but can also be sparse, thorny, and fibrous shrubs – into milk, meat, fiber and a range of other products. Livestock form the basis of the nutrition and livelihoods for an estimated one billion people in these rangelands.”

Not surprisingly, as with sheep for the Navajo, and silkworms in India and China, the wonder of a creature that can turn inedible vegetation, often in a hostile landscape, into food and clothing, has endowed alpacas with mystical status amongst the indigenous peoples of the Andes. The Alpaqueros – alpaca farmers – of the Andesdon’t divide man and animals, our animals also have feelings”. To them, alpacas are children, siblings, parents, and to them, we are the guilty party: “the western world taught us to separate the elements of nature, when it is a matter of seeing the ecosystem as a unified whole”.

Photo by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

Earlier this year, I took a closer look at sustainable fashion’s most reviled fiber – silk. In a series of 3 articles, I examined the double standards and blatant misinformation that are used by the industry – from Initiatives of good intent, like Good on You, to brands registering billions of dollars in annual sales, like Gucci – to characterize silk as cruel and environmentally harmful. 

In the name of sustainability, fashion promotes the substitution of cheaper, particularly plastic, fibers, which enhances the bottom lines of some of the world’s wealthiest and further impoverishes some of the planet’s most disadvantaged. 

The second most vilified fiber and fabric in the sustainable apparel lexicon is alpaca. So, in another series of 3 sequential pieces I am going to look at alpaca – is alpaca farming cruel? Are alpacas environmentally harmful? Who benefits from alpaca production? And since fashion is business, is alpaca fiber expensive?

Per kilo of fiber, Alpaca is expensive.

The quickest and easiest question to answer is the last. Compared to cotton, polyester, or acrylic, alpaca is expensive, and the finest grades of yarn, those 18  microns or less, are very expensive indeed.

As of January 27, 2022, the Cotlook A index (raw cotton price index) stood at US$1.36/lb. An equivalent grade of polyester staple, E. Coast China, cost US$0.54/lb, and of viscose, US$0.91/lb. The most common grade of alpaca on the other hand – white, 26 micron fiber – FOB Peru, currently costs US$11/lb. Whilst higher grade – white, 18 micron, 8.5 cm fiber length – sells for US$19.4 per pound. By the time the alpaca fiber reaches the mill gate in China, the price will of course, be higher.

As with silk then, there is considerable benefit to brands in telling consumers that alpaca is unsustainable, substituting polyester on “CSR” grounds, and selling the garments concerned at the same price as their alpaca predecessors. Equally clearly, as with silk, no brand is going to pay either initiatives or commercial data providers to demonstrate that alpaca is more sustainable. The opposite, however, obviously applies.

Hand spinning, Jaanus Vosu 02/02/22

But Per Livelihood Generated, Alpaca Fiber is Cheap

The world’s largest producer of alpaca fiber is Peru. According to the Peruvian Institute for Statistics (INEI), there are roughly 3.6 million alpacas in Peru, spread over 46 different provinces, concentrated primarily in the regions of Puno, Arequipa, and Cusco. The INEI also estimates that in 2018, the monetary poverty incidence in those provinces averaged 35%. And 2018 was a bumper year for alpaca sales. Peruvian alpaca exports totaled a ten-year high of US$219 million. They had fallen to only US$120 million by 2020. In other words, the poorest 40% of the population in the principal alpaca producing regions in Peru are currently unlikely to be able to afford even a basic monthly basket of food, or to satisfy their minimum needs. 

If you want to understand how Alpaqueros – alpaca farmers – live, Jaanus Vosu of Peru Alpaca Yarn & Textile told me: watch Wiñaypacha. The 2018 release,  Wiñaypacha or eternity,   is the first feature film in the Aymara language. The protagonists don’t raise alpacas, just sheep (and a single llama). The film is fiction, not a documentary. The house was abandoned when the movie crew found it. And yet this movie will give you a better idea of the lives and livelihood of perhaps 90% of Peruvian alpaca farmers than almost anything that you will read in the ‘sustainable’ fashion sector. 

It does this, not just in and of itself, but also because of the fate of the director, Óscar Catacora. He died not long after the movie’s release, at the age of 34 – of appendicitis. According to The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) , about 17·7 million cases of appendicitis occurred worldwide in 2019, resulting in 33,400 deaths – a global death rate of less than one quarter of one percent. In common with many who live and work in the Andes, from the heights of El Collao, Ilave, a city of 60,000 people, 3,900 meters above sea level, Óscar was unable to access even rudimentary health care, and so died of a cause that has long since ceased to be fatal for most of the world.

Alpaqueros are predominantly indigenous peoples. They raise alpacas in the tradition of their ancestors, when according to Jane Wheeler of CONOPA (Instituto de Investigación y Desarrollo de Camélidos Sudamericanos): 

“The Inca were cloth makers, the likes of whom Europe had never known. Inca weavers made bridges from cords, wove roofs from fibers, and counted their wealth not in scribbles on a page but in patterns of knots on woolen strands. And they wove a woolen fabric from the fleece of the alpaca, a small, slender member of the camel family, that was so soft and alluring it was prized above almost all else in the highland empire centered in what is now Peru. Among the people of the Andes, cloth was currency. Inca emperors rewarded the loyalty of their nobles with gifts of soft fabric made by expert weavers. They gave away stacks of fine woolen textiles to assuage the pride of defeated lords. They paid their armies in silky smooth material. For an emperor intent on glory, as most Inca emperors were, cloth making was a major enterprise of state. The imperial textile warehouses were so precious that Inca armies deliberately set them afire when retreating from battle, depriving their enemies of that which made them strong”

In the 16th Century, however, the conquistadors arrived. Western soldiers and the nobles who financed them had little interest in fabric. What excited them was the wealth of Peru’s mines. In the years after the conquest, alpaca herds diminished drastically through disease, neglect, slaughter, and in remote Andean valleys, once prosperous villages fell into a poverty that has endured for five centuries.”

As Walter Antezana observed in conversation, the alpaqueros are one of the poorest, most neglected communities in Peru – their access not just to healthcare, but also to education, adequate nutrition, and sanitation are all woefully inadequate. As for all pastoralists, for the indigenous alpaqueros, alpacas form the basis of both their nutrition and their livelihoods. The fiber is the farmers’ cash crop – enabling them to purchase shoes, matches, medicines, whatever they cannot produce themselves. And Alpaca meat is rich in protein, 21-24%, low in cholesterol, 5.5-6.0%, and low in fat (Dr. Amaro Sanchez Cabello 2000).” Every part of the alpaca, from the head, to the stomach, to the bung is consumed. Nothing is wasted. 

To quote one observer in 2019, 

“Livestock are a way of life for the altiplano communities, they are their livelihood and tradition, their food and their clothing. These animals mean everything to the people of the altiplano and their significance in the culture and economy is going nowhere anytime soon.”

Or in the words of a more scientific analysis from 2001:

“Some 11,250,00 kgs of alpaca meat are produced in Peru annually. However eighty percent of this meat is not processed through slaughterhouses and therefore there are concerns in the marketplace as to the hygienic condition, taste and smell of this product.”

Whilst a 2020 study refers to 8 million kilos from an annual cull of roughly 10% of the stock. Due to the remoteness of many producers and the cost of transporting live animals, this study reports that most slaughtering continues to be on-farm, with the meat later transferred to market, without refrigeration, on public transport.

Clearly, from the promotion of SDG 1: No more poverty, to the protection of indigenous peoples and their cultures, if sustainable fashion was doing its job, the responsible sourcing of alpaca fiber would be top of every major brand’s list of CSR objectives.

Is it? 

Does ‘sustainable’ fashion care about livelihoods generated, or only about price per kilo? What does ‘sustainable’ fashion say about alpaca fiber? 

We’ll take a closer look at that in my next article, Fibs, Lies, and Falsehoods.

Check out the entire Alpaca Stories Series: Unraveling the Truth About Alpaca Fleece

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