erasing clouds

When Fair Trade Means Peace

by anna battista

In 1994 ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda resulted in a genocide that killed about one million people. Ten years on things are slowly changing in the country, thanks also to the collaboration between a fair trade shop in Italy and a cooperative of artisans in Butare.

The town of Butare is 135 km from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Up until 1965 Butare was the largest and most important city in Rwanda; then it lost its title to Kigali. Ten years ago Rwanda, and Butare in particular, became sadly well-known because of the genocide that took place there: hundreds of Tutsis were killed in and around Butare by Hutus. But after ten years, the town, site of the country's largest university and of the National Museum which preserves one of the most outstanding collections of African artifacts, is prospering thanks to a very special project between a fair trade shop in Genoa, called Bottega Solidale, and a cooperative of local artisans, the Copabu. The latter, founded in Butare in 1997, is an umbrella organisation that gathers around 100 artisan associations and individual craftsmen and women. In 1999 the Bottega Solidale made an agreement with the Copabu: the shop would order the products directly from the artisans and sell them or distribute them to other fair trade shops scattered all over Italy.

Maria Pellerano, 27 years old, has been directing for four years the Progetto Ruanda (Rwanda Project) of the Bottega Solidale. Maria has a degree in graphics and design, and started being involved on a more direct level with the fair trade movement towards the end of her studies. "I've always been working as a volunteer in the past, often in fair trade shops, so when the time to write my dissertation arrived, I decided to put together what I had studied and my passion for fair trade and to do my dissertation on this topic," Maria recounts, "I joined a group of volunteers who were going to Rwanda and brought with me drawings of objects I had done and showed them to the artisans in Butare. The aim of my dissertation was to see if they could produce such objects." The craftsmen and women, more used to produce wooden masks, musical instruments, ceramic pots and objects made with banana leaves, seemed to like Maria's ideas and after a while they started producing the objects she had designed, among them hair pins and pieces of furniture. After her first experience, Maria went back to Rwanda for a second time. "In that occasion we organised training courses for forty people, 20 vegetal fibre artisans and 20 wood artisans," she remembers, "Everyday we would work all together, trying to plan new products and to see if our ideas worked. It was a very good example of great collaboration."

Now Maria goes back to Rwanda on a regular basis. The last time she was there was in January. "My experience of Rwanda is a very positive experience," she claims, "When I first went there I saw a poor country, full of tension and fear. During the other trips I saw a different country, slightly more peaceful: you can now walk around a village without any fear and people are keen on talking about the genocide, which was a taboo topic before. Even TV channels and radio stations mention the genocide now." The genocide was also the reason why the Copabu cooperative suffered losses of members and artisans, but things are improving again: at present there are 1000 craftsmen and women working for it. "Since we started our collaboration, life has improved in Butare," Maria says, "Thanks to our project kids can go to school and men and women can afford buying the things they need, such as bicycles to go to work. The life of the producers and artisans working for the cooperative has radically changed for the better and seeing this is the best reward of my job."

The future plans of the Rwanda Project include taking care of young Rwandans: the country is home to one of the world's largest proportions of child-headed households. Most of these children are alone because their parents were killed in the genocide, because they died from AIDS or have been imprisoned for genocide-related crimes. "One of our most important projects for the future is working together with the Genoa branch of the Caritas association to organise training courses aimed at young people to teach them how to make objects from wood or vegetable fibre," Maria explains.

In her book World on Fire, Amy Chua analyses the Rwandan genocide and states that free market democracy and ethnic violence are inextricably bound with globalisation. The cause of the Rwandan genocide, Chua argues, must be linked to the pursuing of a free market democracy by an impoverished majority, the Hutus, against a market-dominant minority, the Tutsis. Would fair trade then be the key to bringing peace back to Rwanda? "It already is, in a way, because Hutus and Tutsis work together for the cooperative, and I think this is the right path towards peace," Maria says. "But I also think that we must awaken the public opinion to the importance of fair trade and to the fact that there are still people all around the world who live with less than $1 a day. Once this happens, things will get better not only in Rwanda, but also in other countries."

For further information on the Bottega Solidale and on the Rwanda Project you can visit the site You can also read about the activities of the Copabu on their site:

Issue 24, June 2004

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