This week I was asked to provide an expert opinion on the feasibility of a project proposed to the Rolex Awards Young Laureate program by a young Oaxaca woman who has been working in social action and community development. Here is how I responded. Her goal is to create a sustainable agriculture program to help women gain economic independence. Here is my response. Cochineal is a small production crop that is very labor intensive. Over the past hundred years, small production cochineal farms have disappeared as the use of highly toxic chemical dyes have been employed by the local population to dye textiles and other products. This project is original because it would focus on women, provide employment, and contribute to sustainable agriculture and economic development through new product innovation. It would have a huge impact on villages and families, and their economic well-being. I know of no other venture or initiative of this type in the Oaxaca valley, and it is feasible because of the way Zapotec communities are organized ... around the principles of group support through mutual endeavors. It is also an important project because it re-emphasizes the value that cochineal has as part of the indigenous culture, and because it is an organic compound that contributes to better health. In many villages that use chemical dyes, people have lung diseases and cancer because they breathe toxic fumes in the dyeing process. By supporting cochineal as a preferred dye stuff, much can be done to reduce health hazards related to chemical dye use. I know of no other project like this in Oaxaca. Many women in rural Oaxaca villages have lost their primary means of support because the men in their families have migrated to other parts of Mexico or the U.S. to work. A project of this type would give women the self-esteem and economic independence they need and deserve, and provide a collaborate community for mutual support. I believe it to be an important endeavor to raise the standard of living in many Oaxaca villages. Many weavers in Oaxaca are adopting the use of cochineal in their dye process. Collectors of fine textiles prefer cochineal to chemical dyes. If production increases through a project like this, then perhaps the price of cochineal can come down making it more accessible to more weavers. Having the product readily available for sale in many weaving villages throughout the state would help in the marketing. I have not heard about the recent studies regarding any harmful side effects of cochineal, so I cannot comment on that. I do know that it is used quite successfully in dyeing beverages, lipstick, and other edible products. It is the preferred RED for dyeing wool rugs in Teotitlan del Valle, and huipiles that are made throughout Oaxaca. I recommend that you support the applicant of this proposal.
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