Monday, February 13, 2012

Fair Trade in the Pyrenees: wool from Xisqueta sheep

When we talk about fair trade we immediately think about trading between Northern and Southern countries, between rich consumers and poor producers. To put it bluntly, fair trade is the search of better trading conditions for poor countries, paying decent salaries, not accepting children’s work or slavery, financially targeting local producers and not intermediary companies, making sure that environmental standards are complied with… At present, global trade is far from being fair –just notice that some of the poorest areas in the world where famine is widespread turn out to be agrarian areas, so they should be able to live out of their produce. International markets and large corporations buying this produce for a pittance are those blame, it’s true, but also consumers: when we go shopping, we look for the cheapest price and we do not care about the producers’ work conditions. We prefer buying a shirt for 5 or 10 € rather than 40 €. But this shirt is so cheap because wool, cotton or linen producers are paid a pittance, or because workers of textile industries live in dreadful conditions. Or usually both. Therefore, stockbreeders who try to sell wool to a fair-trade company realise that their wool is not in demand because people from rich countries do not want to pay for it.
However, this problem is not exclusive to producers in developing countries. There are many sectors in developed countries which cannot compete with such ridiculously cheap prices found in international markets, so they are bound to disappear. A clear example is the European textile industry: it’s been in crisis for over a century and now, with the introduction of Chinese textile products, it’s almost disappeared. And it involves not only factories, but also producers of raw material: wool, cotton, linen or hemp.
In the Catalan Pyrenees, an obvious case is xisqueta sheep, an indigenous breed which can easily survive in cold, harsh conditions of the Pyrinees, producing top-quality meat and wool. For the past decades, xisqueta sheep colonies were reduced drastically because this wool cannot compete in international markets. Since 1980, shepherds only take profit of meat (lamb or mutton) because wool does not sell well.  Such a loss of value for xisqueta sheep affects the whole sector: despite being hard work, shepherds used to earn a living out of it, whereas now shepherds have no future prospects. Last generation of shepherds decided to take better-paid jobs, so in 1995 xisqueta breed was considered an endangered species.
However, this unstoppable process may be solved in the case of xisqueta sheep. The solution lies in applying the concept of fair trade to xisqueta wool and making consumers aware of the real cost of this product. In other words: making this product attractive for its social and environmental value, despite being more expensive than others. Buying products made of this wool sustains stockbreeding in the Pyrenees, saves xisqueta sheep from extinction, protects the landscape (sheep are the best forest rangers ever because they preserve undergrowth and Alpine meadows), promotes local trade instead of importing wool from the other side of the world, reduces the environmental impact of transport, avoids high-mountain depopulation… With this idea in mind, some associations working to improve the primary sector in the Pyrenees created Obrador Xisqueta, a network of 21 sheep breeders in the Pyrenees and some craftsmen and craftswomen working with wool. They are all located in the Pyrenees and they manage to cover all the links in the chain: from the shepherd who gets a fair price for wool, to the virtual store where products are sold (you can also buy xisqueta products in some shops), to the professional training of craftsmen and craftswomen and to the education workshops. In order to preserve shepherdy, they also promote other initiatives like the shepherd’s school, which in four series managed to train more than 40 people for this sector. 
Preserving stockbreeding in the Pyrenees is not just a question of nostalgia. Livestock is the linking backbone for people and landscape, and the best option to avoid high-mountain depopulation and the loss of traditions dating back to Neolithic times. Is there any other cultural expression several thousand years old?

Some sources are just in Catalan language because it is a local project located in the Catalan Pyrenees and websites are not translated to other languages yet.
  1. About fair trade:
  2. Xisqueta sheep (in Catalan):
  3. Obrador Xisqueta website (in English):
  4. Virtual store of xisqueta wool produce (in Catalan):
  5. Shepherd’s school by Grípia Project (in Catalan):

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