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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.

Persons involved

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 fleece-quality grade.

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.

The 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 Tzotzil villages.

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.

Strengths, 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 still low.

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 considered.

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 traditions.

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. 47-48.


Administrative data

Organization involved

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

E-mail: rgrovas@montebello.unach.mx

Website: www.unach.mx


Contact person

Raul Perezgrovas

E-mail: rgrovas@montebello.unach.mx or raul_perezgrovas@hotmail.com


Other partner(s) involved in the practice

·           Guadalupe Rodriguez
Centro Ovino de Teopisca, Centro Universitario Campus III, San Cristobal de Las Casas, 29200 Chiapas, Mexico
E-mail: grgalvan@hotmail.com

·           Hilda Castro
Departamento de Genetica, Facultad de Medicina Veterinaria, UNAM
Ciudad Universitaria, 04510 Mexico, D. F., Mexico
E-mail: hildacg@servidor.unam.mx



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


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice:

Raul Perezgrovas

Instituto de Estudios Indigenas-UNACH, Mexico

Tel.: +52 967 678 3534

E-mail: rgrovas@montebello.unach.mx or raul_perezgrovas@hotmail.com


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