The Last Panama Hats

Ecuador's most famous export is the Panama hat. Named after its use by the workers who built the Panama Canal in the early 1900's, it was a symbol of debonair, old-fashioned elegance. Churchill, Hemingway, Roosevelt and Al Capone all wore one. Now its time of glory is over. Demand has been falling for years with fewer people wearing hats and the rise of the ubiquitous baseball cap. In addition globalisation has reared its head. The biggest threat is China—even though the Chinese copies are made of paper, not straw, they are cheaper and look good enough. As one commentator said "They have every advantage except authenticity". Along with that problem is the loss of the skills of the artisans who wove them. Almost a quarter of Ecuador's 13 million people live abroad. Those who have stayed home do not want to learn these traditional skills. A finely woven, top quality hat takes three months to make. The best ones are sold for thousands of dollars but the weaver only receives $500. But there is some hope. Intermon Oxfam has set up the Chordeleg Artisan Centre where weavers are producing small number of Fairtrade Panama hats. The women are receiving training so that they can perfect techniques, weave higher quality hats with better finishes, and improve production and marketing. They have been able to increase the quantity and the price so that they can now make a living and maintain their traditions. :: Financial Times and :: Intermon Oxfam

Tags: Ecuador | London

Best of TreeHugger