Lata ji sharing her experience working with Fair Trade artisans in rural Rajasthan, India.

When Lata Kachhawan first went to visit the communities in rural  Rajasthan over twenty years ago, she had to walk or go by camel. There were no roads, no electricity, just miles of sand dunes to walk over. And when she finally got to the village, the few women she saw walking to the well ran away from her, scared about what an outsider might be doing there.

Today, the organization SURE (Society to Uplift  Rural Economy) works with over 600 villages in rural Rajasthan in the far northeastern region of India at the border with Pakistan. There are roads, buses, water catchment tanks, and  some solar lanterns–not every village has electricity yet–and there are women who are not afraid to talk to newcomers. As Lata ji shared with us last Tuesday night at the Global Exchange Fair Trade Store in San Francisco, SURE has worked incredibly hard over the last two decades to support long-term sustainable development in Rajasthan, of which Fair Trade has played an important part.

SURE first started working with women refugees from Pakistan who fled to Rajasthan to escape the violence and persecution of the Indo-Pak war of 1971 . The area where SURE works is very arid and drought-prone, with scarce local water resources. Historically marked by a lack of communication and transportation infrastructure, making a living in rural Rajasthan is difficult to say the least.

But when SURE decided to work with local villages to address poverty there, they knew there already existed an incredible wealth amidst the people–their deep knowledge of handmade textiles and applique work. The challenge was to take what was traditionally done for the family–for decoration, gifts, and especially for daughters’ dowries–and transform that skill into an income-generating business. So SURE began its livelihood program, designed to help artisans (mostly women) learn how to improve the quality of their work, negotiate better prices for products, plan out their work schedule, and through a micro-finance program, manage profits, losses, and savings. SURE also brought artisans together with designers to learn how to make new products for the international market; as Lata ji explained, “Before, they didn’t know bedsheets, or pillow  covers, none of that.” SURE also has worked to teach artisans how to simplify their traditionally intricate designs so that they are able to use their labor time more effectively.

The Austin-based Fair Trade company Handmade Expressions was started by an immigrant from Rajasthan himself, and works closely with SURE artisans to produce designs customers will like. And as a Fair Trade business with a vision to change the world, Handmade Expressions wants to pay more for high quality products which support rural livelihoods. They have even helped provide villages with solar lanterns, making it easier for artisans to have more flexible work schedules, as well as give their children the ability to study in the evenings. Alison Hanson, the Production Coordinator and Sustainability Advisor from Handmade Expressions traveling with Lata ji, told us that part of the current challenge for small Fair Trade businesses like Handmade Expressions is that larger non-Fair Trade companies often come into villages, copy their company’s designs, and place huge orders at a lower overall cost, undercutting Fair Trade prices.

This Fair Trade 'Tree of Life' applique made from organic cotton takes about a week to make.

Lata ji explained that the role of SURE, beyond capacity building and skills training, is to be a facilitator, connecting artisans to Fair Trade businesses like Handmade Expressions and other organizations who see the value of the handmade production and want to support it at a fair price. One of the long-standing challenges for artisan producers in the region has been exactly that. The applique work done for wall hangings, pillow covers, and other textiles can take from 3 days to a whole week to finish; without the support of the Fair Trade market and the business and confidence training provided by SURE, women were making 3 to 5 rupees per piece–about 5 cents. Today, the price  is over ten times as much or higher, and families can earn a much better living. Still, the 2000 to 2500 rupees a month artisans are making now remains right under $2 a day.

Nevertheless, the self-sustaining livelihood program has meant more than increased income and solar lanterns. It has meant increased democratic participation at a local level. As the women artisans have learned to value their skills and their voices, they have begun to speak up and speak out. The small artisan groups present in local villages, about 15-20 women, have evolve into “pressure groups” for improved local governance. Lata ji shared with us that when the women have shown up to local government meetings to advocate for rights and services, the officials ask them, “Why are you here? This is not your SURE meeting.” But the women know better than to get discouraged–they know the government should work for them so they stay and, Lata ji told us with a sly smile, “they argue.”

The holistic approach to sustainable economic and social development is not an easy one, and definitely not about quick fixes. This is true of both the Fair Trade movement in general as well as within the scope of SURE’s work. Just as Lata ji emphasized at her talk yesterday, learning takes time and change is a slow process–the key is to sustain. Visit the Global Exchange Fair Trade Stores to check out a variety of the beautiful applique wall hangings and purses handmade by the artisans of SURE.

The meet and greet with Lata ji was part of a 10 day artisan tour sponsored by Handmade Expressions and Fair Trade Towns USA. Lata ji’s visit to Global Exchange was just one stop during her trip on the way to the Fair Trade Federation Conference in Seattle, WA on May 22, 2012.

The Global Exchange Fair Trade store in San Francisco loved hosting Lata ji from SURE, Alison from Handmade Expressions, and Courtney from Fair Trade Towns!