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- Travel - The ancient leather tanners of Ecuador

A strong smell of salt, leather and wet fur permeated the tiny workshop where Luis Yamberla Cacuango was busy working on an intricate leather belt pattern.

Out in the spacious back yard, cowhides, llama pelts and goat skins were in various stages of processing. Stacked and covered in salt, steeping in lime or tanning in a large barrel, the skins and hides were being worked on with simple tools: a smooth stone to scrape the remaining meat from a raw hide; stone and wood barrels to hold and process the skins. As Yamberla and his father, Luis Sr, busied themselves in the workshop, Yamberla’s mother Maria Virginia offered me some of her homemade chicha, a drink made of fermented corn and wheat, then carried on brushing a sheepskin and chatting to her granddaughters and nieces in her native Quichua.

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Cotacachi, a small, quiet mountain town in Ecuador’s Imbabura Province, is famous for its leather artisans who offer various items around the plaza de armas (main square) and in the surrounding streets, kiosks, stalls and shops. Beautifully decorated saddles and bridles, jackets, bags and purses, souvenirs and shoes – in Cotacachi, leather is everywhere. This town has been making leather products for hundreds of years, largely because of the surrounding cattle and dairy farms that used to be a primary source of raw hides. “Now, most of the leather, already processed, arrives from the nearby town of Ambato or as far as Colombia to save costs,” Yamberla told me.

Unlike other leather artisans in the Imbabura Province, Yamberla buys his raw hides from local farmers instead of wholesale sellers, refuses to use chemicals and prefers an ancient highland recipe.

“My father taught me everything I know. We collect the huarango tree seeds and boil them to get a dark liquid, which is a perfect natural leather tanner,” Yamberla explained as he showed me around the family workshop. This ancient recipe has been passed down through generations, and, according to Yamberla, he and his family are the only ones in Cotacachi still working with it.

Using a chemical process, prepared hides can be tanned in 24 hours. Yamberla’s father’s recipe takes a month. “It’s much longer, and everything is done by hand, but we prefer it this way. We’re proud to be highlanders, and we want to preserve our Andean traditions of tanning leather,” Yamberla told me. Just like Maria Virginia, he and his father converse in their native Quichua language, and both wear their hair long, in the local style the of indigenous Otavaleño people.

Life wasn’t always so tranquil for Yamberla’s family, though: historically, the indigenous people of Ecuador were frequently victims of oppression. Yamberla’s father still remembers the huasipungo feudal system and working for white or mestizo (mixed heritage) landlords (he joked that nowadays nobody beats him any longer, except for his wife Maria Virginia), whereas Yamberla recalls more recent incidents of prejudice.

“Whenever I had to go out and find jobs to support my family, white or mestizo co-workers would mock my long hair saying I looked like a girl, or that I ‘wore my tie backwards’, pointing at my braid,” he said quietly. “Not too long ago, when an indigenous man ran for mayor in Cotacachi, most folk said an Indian should not be put in a position of power as it would be ‘unnatural’ for him to give orders to whites.”

We’re proud to be highlanders, and we want to preserve our Andean traditions

That indigenous candidate, Auki Tituaña Males, was elected nonetheless in 1996 and became Cotacachi’s first indigenous mayor. After significantly reducing illiteracy in Cotacachi, among other successes, Tituaña was re-elected in 2000 and 2004, and has since won two prestigious international awards: UN-Habitat Dubai International Award for Best Practices and Unesco’s ‘City of Peace’ prize for his work on indigenous integration and sustainable development.

“Before the ‘90s, if you looked at the data gathered in the Ecuadorian census, most people identified as ‘white’ or ‘mestizo’, and most indigenous people would try and position themselves as ‘mestizo’ if they had a tiniest drop of mixed blood. After 1994 or thereabouts, this started to change: people began reclaiming their origins, and when the next census came, they put themselves as ‘indigenous’. Now, they not only identify as indigenous but also emphasise the precise runa, or community, that they are from such as Shuar or Quichua,” said Jean Brown, a culture and permaculture coordinator who is originally from the UK.

Having spent more than 40 years living in Ecuador and working with various cultural projects involving indigenous communities, Brown says the change in indigenous pride is palpable all over the country – but especially Cotacachi, where a large proportion of the population is indigenous.

“The Ecuadorian indigenous people got educated, learned to organise themselves, began political work. It’s a very different atmosphere now, compared to 20 or 30 years ago,” Brown said.

Yamberla’s father’s tannery is living proof of the changing times. Instead of selling cheaply made souvenirs to tourists, Yamberla’s family makes costumes for the Inti Raymi festival, an annual indigenous festival of the sun that takes place at the end of June. He also loves making horse and cattle whips, belts, drums – things that local people need and use. "We are beginning to rediscover our roots and are proud of who we are,” Yamberla said as he finished the belt. “Here, see, this is Aya Uma, the spirit of the Inti Raymi… and here, these are the 13 lunar months,” he explained, showing me the decorations on an exquisite handmade festival costume.

Although Yamberla and his family have a unique trade, they barely make ends meet. Their shop is on a quiet, narrow street towards the outskirts of town, where tourists rarely come, and is mainly frequented by people from the local indigenous communities. Yamberla charges about $20 for a cattle whip, $60 for a pair of the traditional fur trousers used in the Inti Raymi, and around $120 for a large, fully processed cowhide. To make ends meet, he must sometimes get temporary construction jobs.

“It’s unfortunate that the Ecuadorian government isn’t supporting traditional arts and crafts more. When it comes to tourism, Ecuadorians think tourists want nice, air-conditioned hotels and modern restaurants. But in reality, travellers are a lot more interested in seeing authentic people and things – including the ancient leather tanning techniques, or guitar or saddle makers,” Brown explained.

Yamberla agrees. “Maybe one day, I can have a tourist for an apprentice,” he joked as he helped his father bring in the wooden boards holding stretched-out hides.

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