Art Resource Traditions: education and community development with indigenous arts

Environmental Policy

Encouraging artisanal production with appropriate local resources

International development agencies have come to increasingly recognize the value of indigenous traditions, traditions which remain relevant to contemporary needs in many ways. For example, many traditional farming practices have been found to be ecologically healthier and more appropriate. In this section, we will briefly discuss some of the overlap between artisan traditions and a healthy environment.

Without assuming a Luddite perspective, it is fair to say that the industrial age has brought tremendously destructive methods of exploitation and production. While great advances have also been made in low-impact methods for logging, mining, and other forms of natural resource extraction, it is difficult to impose these methods in developing countries where people do not feel they have the luxury of maintaining high environmental standards. Incentives also need to be created for ecologically friendly production methods. For example, people who live in forested areas need to have a stake in extraction methods that do not ravage their forests. With a combination of good management policy and incentives, for example, illegal trafficking in large volumes of wood can be discouraged while local artisans are encouraged to make small, high value furniture and other handcrafted items.

Similar examples can be found in the application of traditional artisanal methods to agriculture and the production of construction materials. In poor countries, much water is squandered through evaporation from inefficient irrigation systems. One promising remedy for fruit orchards is to bury cement or clay pots under each tree and connect them with PVC irrigation tubes. The water slowly filters through the porous sides of the container into the surrounding soil without evaporating as it would from an open ditch. Existing ditches can also be covered by tiles to shade them from the sun. This provides additional income for local brick and tile makers, who can also be encouraged to make high-value decorative tiles and pottery out of the same raw materials of cement and clay.

Traditionally, there never used to be a clear distinction between art and artisanry: artisans would produce utilitarian items for the local market and high-end products for the local elite and for export. Similarly, artists always used to be involved in the design and creation of quality handicrafts and what we now call the decorative arts. Artists and artisans have always figured out how to make high-value products (paintings, plaques, frames, furniture, toys, and so on) out of humble materials (wood, clay, plant fibers, and so on) and to decorate them with locally available mineral pigments. And traditionally, they have always diversified their production so they can adjust to constantly changing markets.

Many other examples can be cited where artists can work in tandem with artisans and other local producers to meet market needs in an eco-friendly manner. For example, when William Swetcharnik, director of the Latin American Art Resource Project, was engaged by the German and Honduran forestry agencies to study the best way to combine artisan and natural resources in the zones surrounding the Río Plátano Biosphere, one of the most obvious conclusions was the need for integrated marketing strategies oriented toward education as well as the environment, with particular attention to the area of cultural tourism, our next topic. Tourists are an important part of any environmental constituency, not only because their presence exerts pressure on local businesses and politicians to maintain the most pristine environment possible, but also because their relatively wealthy home countries can exert political pressure on the host country's environmental policy.