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Renaissance for the Artisans of Ocotal

Last month, we had a chance to visit the Fuente de Pino cooperative location in Los Altos de Colorado. During our visit, we were able to pick up a new order of baskets, look back on the history of the cooperative and share exciting developments for the future.

Looking back, cooperative president Feliciana Mendosa Dabila remembers the small beginnings of the cooperative. Five women from Ocotal learned how to make baskets from other women and were ready to expand the business, but they had trouble finding a market. With the help of Enlace Project, the cooperative developed fruitful relationships with distributors and retailers in the US and welcomed tourist groups visiting Ocotal.

The best years, from about 2010-2014, the women remember how much better they could provide for their families. They remember how they could feed their family healthy food, improve their homes, and reinvest the cooperative’s money into building the workshop they have today. Erlinda Martinez remembers investing in a subsidized solar panel through an Enlace Project initiative, so she could have enough hours of light to work and maintain her home.

A few years ago, the cooperative lost several of their distributors in the United States. While tours and sales to visitors still generated revenue, the women had very little work, especially in the slow season. The lowered demand meant members went from making 10-15 baskets a month to only 1-3.

The families of Ocotal stretch and often strain to make ends meet. They have to find other jobs. Families put more work into their farms. Some make products in their homes like cookies and sweets to sell. Another woman had to find a job in El Sauce making tortillas for her cousin. Others travel to Leon and Managua, and some, like many Nicaraguas, have gone to Costa Rica for migrant work. This pulls members of the families farther and farther apart. Feliciana used to work consistently with her two eldest children in the cooperative. Without steady work in the basket cooperative, her husband and these two children had to go to Costa Rica and Panama to find work to support the family. This has left Feliciana alone to take care of the house and her three younger children.

These new jobs come with many uncertainties. It is hard to calculate what exactly they make from a day’s work. They have to pay rent and bus fairs. Travelling takes time and energy. Those who sell goods cannot guarantee that they will sell their product, and those who farm cannot guarantee they will have a good crop.

Baskets bring them “security.” In one day, they know they can make a basket. After subtracting the cost of the thread, they know they will earn 165 cordobas, a bit more than five dollars. With this steady, secure income, they have the opportunity to live and stay where they call home in Ocotal. If their child is sick, they can buy medicine. If their house is damaged, they can make repairs.

Through this difficult time, these women have not abandoned hope for the cooperative. They have retained their identities as artisans and have remained dedicated to their craft even though business has been slow. As Enlace Project works to find new ways to distribute the baskets in the US, the members are excited for the opportunity to return to their artisanal basket making in their home of Ocotal.

Photo 1: Members of the Fuente de Pino Cooperative at the workshop in Los Altos de Colorado. Photo 2: Cooperative President Feliciana Mendosa Dabila. Photo 3: Members of the cooperative and the Enlace Project team in transit.

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