Can high fashion help the high Andes?

10 December 2010 | News story

The growing demand for luxury clothing is helping to secure one of South America’s threatened species—the vicuña—but can it also secure the livelihoods of the poor Andean communities who produce vicuña fibre?

The vicuña, a wild South American camelid adapted to the high Andean region of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru has long been hunted for its wool, resulting in its near extinction by the 1960s. Its fleece has one of the finest fibres in the world, fetching between US$ 250 and 922 per kilo.

Vicuña fibre is produced by extremely low income communities that share the animal’s harsh environment and affluent consumers from Europe and Japan pay high prices for clothing made from it.

From fewer than 10,000 animals left in the 1960s, the population has increased to more than 400,000 today through joint efforts from international to local levels. Strict conservation regulations through the Vicuña Convention and CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—have helped rebuild populations. The success has led to a shift in international policy from strict preservation to sustainable use allowing trade in fibre obtained from live-shorn target populations.

The aim of these efforts is to create an open international market for the fibre, protected areas, proper institutional arrangements for resource management, fair trade schemes and to build local capacity.

The rationale for vicuña conservation through sustainable use is that commercial use of vicuña fibre will generate sufficient economic benefits to outweigh the costs of conservation and help to alleviate poverty in the region.

However, while conservation efforts have been extremely successful, the socioeconomic achievements have so far proved modest. Most of the benefits are being captured by traders and international textile companies, rather than by local communities. The high market value of vicuña fibre has attracted a number of groups interested in its production which threatens both the conservation of the species and the exclusive rights of Andean communities.

“In order for vicuña use to provide an opportunity for conservation and poverty alleviation, programmes should address the uneven distribution of benefits among stakeholders and devote more efforts towards the conservation of the species,” says Dr Gabriela Lichtenstein, Chair of IUCN’s South American Camelid Specialist Group.

Dr Lichtenstein adds that it is important to deter new projects that seek to maximize production while threatening the conservation of this wild species, the exclusive rights of Andean communities and the spirit of the Vicuña Convention, and to extend international coordination to control illegal trade in vicuña fibre.