are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.
|Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge||MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)|
Collaborative application of empirical criteria for selecting high-quality fleeces: Tzotzil shepherdesses and sheep scientists work together to develop tools for genetic improvement
Animal genetics, clothing, domestic animals, income generation, quality standards, rural women, sheep, team work, weaving, wool
Introducing the practice
This practice was developed in the mountains of Chiapas, in Southern Mexico. A number of different ethnic groups live in this region, each one with its own culture, language, and traditions. The Tzotzils are one of these. Their livelihood strategies depend largely on agriculture: maize and beans are the main crops, and sheep production provides wool for weaving and manure to fertilize the cropland.
Sheep husbandry among the Tzotzils is the exclusive responsibility of women, and it accounts for up to 36% of family income. Most traditional clothing is made of wool and produced within the household, which means little expenditure on clothes. Fleeces, garments and woollen crafts are regularly taken to the local markets. Besides, sheep can be sold when cash is needed urgently.
The small family flocks (ten sheep) are very important for the Tzotzils, and many conventional interventions have tried to improve living standards through sheep production strategies. In the last 25 years, various exotic sheep breeds producing ‘high-quality’ wool have been introduced in the area, along with ‘modern’ husbandry techniques. They were not successful. Government authorities failed to acknowledge the strong link between the Tzotzil culture and the husbandry of their ‘sacred’ sheep, and also the differences in wool quality standards. Likewise, extension workers have not appreciated either the local sheep or the traditional management practices developed by endless generations of illiterate yet expert shepherdesses.
The best practice described here
involves the collaborative application of criteria for judging the quality of
fleece. This takes place every six months at the University of Chiapas’s sheep
farm. The practice began in 1995 as a wool-grading exercise with local
shepherdesses and weavers; its aim was to help the sheep scientists to identify
the local criteria for ‘high-quality’ fleeces. It has evolved into an
interactive and participatory methodology that is now integrated into the
programme to genetically improve local Chiapas sheep through selection.
Prior to the semi-annual shearing of the flock, groups of Tzotzil women apply their own local criteria and empirical methods to assess fleece quality. Their tacto-visual approach subjectively assesses fleece in terms of its volume, staple length, looseness of staples, textile aptitude, softness, colour and cleanness. Sheep scientists translate the women’s key words and the results of their tacto-visual appraisals into a fleece quality grade from 1 (poor) to 4 (excellent). The women have established ‘staple length’ as the most important factor, and have developed a complex measuring system that defines eight different sizes on the basis of finger lengths and widths. The ‘textile aptitude’ of the fleece determines whether, when spun into yarn for the traditional weaving process, a fleece is best suited for the weft or the warp.
The various elements of the tacto-visual appraisal are closely related to objective parameters of fleece production. The subjective assessment of staple length correlates significantly with its metric-system equivalent, and textile aptitude indicates the proportion of fleece fibres that are long and coarse. The compounded grade given for fleece quality correlates significantly with staple length, greasy fleece weight, body weight and wool growth. An index for high quality fleeces as judged by local standards is now used as a selection tool.
This collaborative fleece-grading system has been standardized over time. It has been in use since 1995 and has evolved into an efficient and reliable method of improving local sheep through selection. Women’s participation has ensured the establishment of culturally appropriate fleece-quality standards. It has also directed efforts to produce high-yielding, environmentally adapted sheep that Tzotzil women identify as members of the respected local breed which they call batsi chij (‘the true sheep’).
The collaborative system has also served to identify and discard certain objective parameters of wool production and fleece quality that were redundant. This has made the selection programme more efficient.
Content and approach
The methodology for assessing and
grading fleece quality represents a blend of the traditional knowledge possessed
by illiterate Tzotzil shepherdesses and weavers with the tools for genetic
improvement used by sheep scientists. Countless generations of Tzotzil women
developed empirical fleece-quality criteria to meet their textile needs, as well
as adequate assessment methods. Sheep scientists have adopted these elements and
translated them into genetic selection tools to produce animals with fleeces
that are of high quality by local standards.
The purpose of the practice is to:
· Ensure technical success by using local animals and traditional husbandry systems.
· Incorporate the expertise and traditional knowledge of local peoples (fleece-quality standards) into tangible assets (culturally acceptable selection methods).
· Learn from the experts.
· Promote bottom-up approaches.
· Preserve and improve the local species of wool-producing sheep.
Re-value empirical technologies.
Groups of Tzotzil women from different
villages are collaborating in the fleece-grading exercises with sheep scientists
from the University of Chiapas. As the programme progresses, more and more
Tzotzil shepherdesses will be able to obtain a superior animal of the local
breed which not only produces the type of wool required for the local textile
process, but also passes its genes on to following generations. Tzotzil
interpreters and facilitators also participated in the project. In the near
future, extension workers will have to be involved as well.
Groups of Tzotzil women are invited to
the fleece-grading exercises. They come from different villages. Animals in the
university’s flock are allocated to different sheds, in groups of about 25
sheep. The best sheep in each group is selected visually as the animals move
around (based on an estimate of its fleece volume). The animal is removed from
the group and tacto-visual appraisal begins. By gently handling the fleece, the
Tzotzil women estimate staple looseness, a desired trait. Staple length is
determined using the empirical system of finger lengths and widths. Textile
aptitude of the fleece is assessed according to the relative amount of long/coarse
fibres and short/fine fibres. Secondary parameters are also considered, such as
a relative lack of kemp fibres, the colour of the wool, and the cleanness of the
fleece. The scientists then translate all these elements into a compounded
At the farm, additional technical information is obtained: greasy fleece weight, body weight, wool growth, and proportion of fibres. A selection index based on the Tzotzil criteria for high-quality fleeces is used to identify the best animals on the university farm. The top 15% of rams are left on the farm as replacements, and the rest of the rams with scores of ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ are identified as superior rams suitable for introduction into village flocks.
The role of indigenous knowledge
The collaborative effort guarantees that
the improvement programme is producing exactly what the Tzotzil shepherdesses
and weavers need. Animals will have fleeces of the highest local standards. If
top-down approaches were used, industrial standards of short, white and fine
wool would be applied, exactly the opposite to the Tzotzil standards for high
quality fleeces, which call for long staples of coarse, black fibres.
Chiapas sheep, the local breed, is a
highly respected animal. In Tzotzil culture sheep are sacred; they are never
killed or eaten, and they are given names and considered to be the ritual
children of women. No other animal occupies the place in Tzotzil culture and
society that the sheep does.
Sheep are the exclusive responsibility
of Tzotzil women. Wool is processed using ancient techniques and then woven and
sewn into traditional clothing for the whole family. Black skirts, shawls and
coats predominate among the Tzotzils, and black sheep are highly regarded,
although wool requirements for the traditional white jackets and brown
ceremonial blouses give animals of these colours an important place too.
Empirical selection of animals over the last 500 years has resulted in an
adapted animal producing the type of raw material that can be processed using
the traditional weaving technologies of spinning with a wooden spindle and
weaving in a back-strap loom. Using the highly appreciated local breed and the
locally developed fleece-quality criteria gives the collaborative grading
exercises the cultural value they deserve.
transfer of knowledge
Most Tzotzil women (70% of more than
15,000 households) have their own small flock of Chiapas sheep. They all know a
lot about sheep husbandry and weaving. But what is being developed jointly with
the sheep scientists is a blended product that puts together the best of
traditional and scientific knowledge in the area of fleece improvement.
In the Tzotzil villages, most women are
illiterate and do not speak the official language (Spanish). What they do as
shepherdesses and weavers is something they have learned orally from their
mothers and grandmothers and through the everyday contacts associated with their
domestic responsibilities. Knowledge and practices are shared outside the
household through social networks and informal communication within and between
Written materials about sheep husbandry are generally rare. In the Tzotzil language they are non-existent. Various ethnographic studies do, however, describe the Tzotzil livelihoods. The traditional sheep husbandry system has been studied using an ethnoveterinary approach.
Achievements and results
Collaboration to achieve a selection
index for a genetic programme designed to produce sheep that meet local
standards is a best practice because it recognizes and values the traditional
knowledge of Tzotzil women. Local standards for fleece quality are given top
priority. The practice validates indigenous technical knowledge and gives it the
same weight as scientific technical knowledge. It is incorporated into a
development effort as an essential element.
The interaction between Tzotzil women
and sheep scientists has resulted in convenient methods for genetic improvement.
At least 36 women from 10 different Tzotzil villages have collaborated regularly
in the application of fleece-quality criteria. In the last two years, no fewer
than 130 superior rams have been introduced into village flocks. Many Tzotzil
women from the villages are requesting information about how to buy or borrow
one of these animals. A nucleus flock of 400 sheep is currently being monitored
using this inter-ethnic approach.
The practice is sustainable, cost-effective and locally manageable.
· It is sustainable because the superior rams are more productive as a result of their superior genes, and not because they are heavier or larger, thus requiring proportionately larger amounts of food.
· It is cost-effective because no additional inputs are necessary and the traditional management system does not need to be modified in any way for these animals to perform as superior breeders. More wool and fleeces of higher quality mean that better clothing can be woven, and that better handicrafts can be sold. This has a direct impact on livelihoods.
It is locally manageable because Tzotzil
shepherdesses recognize these superior animals as members of the respected and
appreciated local breed of ‘true sheep’. The animals are perfectly adapted
to the environment and maintain their hardiness.
weaknesses and requirements for the future
The practice has a number of strong
points. It ensures that improvement of the local breed through selection results
in an end product (high-quality fleeces) that meets all the demands of the
shepherdesses and weavers who are supposed to benefit from any intervention
involving sheep-production strategies. The interaction between experienced women
and new shepherdesses that takes place during the grading exercises facilitates
the transfer of indigenous knowledge. The grading exercises are a dynamic and
interactive process through which quality criteria are established and modified
according to the local requirements for raw material for weaving. The Tzotzil
women are the experts, and the sheep scientists are the apprentices. Together
they act in synergy to design and develop genetic selection methods.
One problem has been that fleece graders
who take part for the first time find it difficult in the beginning to assume
their role as experts, and to interact openly and on the same level with sheep
scientists. Another problem is that sheep numbers at the university farm are
The practice will have accomplished a social objective when the ‘blended’ outcomes in the form of selection indices and genetic methods can be taken back to the villages and applied by the Tzotzil women to their own flocks. Extension strategies will have to be developed to make this blended knowledge available to all Tzotzil shepherdesses. These strategies will have to take into account the facts that very few of them can read and they have been accustomed to the more common ‘top-down’ approaches.
Source of inspiration
It would be fairly easy to transfer the methodology of the practice to other marginal, indigenous, sheep-related economies located in high mountains and associated with hand-processed fleeces.
However, more important than the
practice itself is the overall concept that traditional knowledge which has been
developed locally to solve specific problems has to be analysed, validated and
applied, after being blended with scientific knowledge if necessary. The
holistic analysis and enrichment of traditional knowledge is not just possible,
but should be a pre-requisite when development interventions are being
Adaptations should derive from the
particular needs, practices, beliefs and culture of the people whose traditional
knowledge is being used as the basis for development. There is of course no
universal recipe for successful interventions, but before any interventions are
designed and applied, there should be a commitment to understanding the cultural
and socio-economic context of the area, the people, and their livelihoods and
If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.
Additional remarks and information
The programme for the genetic
improvement of Chiapas sheep has been evolving for the last ten years. It began
with an analysis of the characteristics of Chiapas sheep, the native breed. An
open-nucleus breeding scheme has been used to improve wool production and fleece
quality. The University of Chiapas sheep farm maintains the nucleus flock under
traditional management, with wooden shelters and extensive grazing on native
pastures. Use of feeding concentrates is restricted, and maize stover
supplements constitute the feed during the dry season.
Several articles published in
social-science and technical journals describe the approach and implications of
the genetic improvement programme based on collaboration with local experts.
Articles in English include the following:
Perezgrovas, R., A. Parry, M. Peralta, P. Pedraza & H. Castro.
(1995). ‘Wool production in Chiapas sheep: Indigenous knowledge provides the
basis for selection’. In: R. Crawford, E. Lister & J. Buckley (eds.),
‘Conservation of Domestic Animal Genetic Resources.’ Rare Breeds
International & AgriFood Canada. Ottawa, Canada. pp. 240-244.
Perezgrovas, R. (1998). ‘Ethnoveterinary studies among Tzotzil
shepherdesses as the basis of a genetic improvement programme for Chiapas sheep’.
In: E. Mathias, D. Rangnekar & C. McCorkle (eds.) ‘Ethnoveterinary
Medicine: Alternatives for livestock development.’ Proceedings from an
international conference. BAIF Development Research Foundation. Pune, India. pp.
Instituto de Estudios Indigenas, Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas
Centro Universitario Campus III, San Cristobal de Las Casas, 29200 Chiapas, Mexico
Tel.: +52 967 678 3534
Fax: +52 967 678 3534
partner(s) involved in the practice
The total budget for 1999-2001 was the equivalent of USD 15,000. These funds came from two sources:
· Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas (UNACH), Mexico
· Sistema Regional de Investigacion Benito Juarez (SIBEJ-CONACYT), Mexico
who have described this Best Practice:
Instituto de Estudios Indigenas-UNACH, Mexico
Tel.: +52 967 678 3534
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