Payún Matrú Spinning Mill: knitting dreams

CONICET researchers conduct a project where they combine environmental care and the contribution of added value for the production of guanaco fibre

The interior of the spinning mill. Photo: Secretaría de Ambiente y Desarrollo Sustentable y Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva de la Nación.

The guanaco, one of the camelids with the broadest territorial distribution in South America, inhabits areas that range from the northwest of Peru to the southern lands of Patagonia. This species is vital for this region because it helps to prevent further desertification of the Patagonian territory and revitalize their economies. Due to human pressure on the environment, which causes extinction processes of wild animals and habitat degradation, the alternative production from the sustainable use of species of wild fauna such as the guanaco is a conservation strategy. Considering its broad distribution, its use has the potentiality of generating regional economic impact on arid ecosystems in Argentina.

“It is the most important native herbivore of arid and semiarid environments, therefore the main consumer of vegetation. This makes these places have an herbivore pressure vital for the evolutionary process of these environments. Furthermore, it is the main prey of the puma, the major native carnivore, and that contributes to the food chain. From a historical-cultural point of view, this species has been essential for the survival of several original cultures such as the Tehuelches, Mapuches and Onas”, Pablo Carmanchahi, associate researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones en Biodiversidad y Medio Ambiente (INIBIOMA, CONICET-UNCOMA) [ Institute for Research on Biodiversity and the Environment], explains.

The biologist, together with Gabriela Lichtenstein, CONICET independent researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano (INALP) [National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thinking] have worked since 2005, each in their area of studies, with the cooperation of Payún Matrú guanaco fibre producers in order to turn this species into a productive alternative under a sustainable management. The researchers are both members of the Grupo de Especialistas en Camélidos Sudamericanos (GECS) [South American Camelid Specialist Group (GECS)]. “It is important to preserve the guanaco due to its biological, cultural and productive roles that provide a unique value to this emblematic species of our country”, the researcher states.

“From the area of biology, Carmanchahi works with the captures and the monitoring of the guanaco’s populations throughout time and from a social perspective, analysing economic impact and identifying the necessary components to guarantee the sustainability of the experience. The interesting part of this cooperative is that the management of the guanacos was traditionally performed by ranchers in Patagonia, so the benefits of the use of the species were received by the owner of the farm; in this case, however, those benefits are distributed among the members of the cooperative, who are small producers with a subsistence economy. We would like to use this project to join the conservation of this natural resource and poverty alleviation”, Lichtenstein comments.

Carmanchahi and his research team develop a roundup and capture methodology for wild guanacos. With high standards of animal welfare, it was written on a document that established roundup rules for this species: “Protocolo de Buenas Prácticas de Manejo de Guanacos Silvestres” [Good Practices of Wild Guanacos Handling Protocol]. To have a sustainable activity, it is vital to minimize the risks for the animals during their manipulation and define the manoeuvres of the workers.

Fibre harvest, the researcher explains, is conducted in La Payunia, a provincial area, through roundup on horses towards a structure for capture, which has the shape of a funnel. At this place, people make contact with the animals, they are “hooded”, immobilized and put on a stretcher were they are taken to the electric shearing machine. Once they are sheared, the animals are identified and released. The fibre begins the processing circuit for the production of the yard.

“This project was a unique opportunity to create a different model, a change of paradigm. As all Patagonian producers sold crude fibre – and the buyer paid the least possible–, the cooperative denied that and decided to provide added value. For this reason, it was necessary to develop fibre processing”, Lichtenstein affirms.

The most substantial progress regarding the guanaco fibre processing was achieved on July 24th, after ten years of learning and work, with the inauguration of the first spinning mill of this type in the country, which was located in La Salinilla – in the south of Malargüe, Mendoza. This initiative is the product of a consortium that was formed by th CONICET, the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Industrial [National Institute for Industrial Technology, (INTI), Municipalidad de Malargüe and the Cooperativa Payún Matrú, which consisted of small and neighbouring goat producers. In 2012, the project was presented to the following call “Fondo de Innovación Tecnológica Sectorial – Desarrollo Social Camélidos” of the Argentino Sectorial (FONARSEC) belonging to the Agencia de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica. Finally the project received the subsidy and the objective was to improve the value chain of the guanaco fibre in the small scale producer sector.

The initiative includes five modules: the principal production of the fibre considering the high standards of animal welfare; textile development of the fibre, which begins with the inauguration of the spinning mill; marketing of products; institutional strengthening; and finally promotion and transference of the experience. Lichtenstein states that the inauguration of the spinning mill was a milestone within this project which was possible thanks to the role of several institutions, such as the ones that are part of the consortium as well as those ones that became part later(the Labour Ministry, the Environment and Sustainable Development Secretariat [SADYS], the Ministry of Lands, Environment and Natural Resources of the province of Mendoza), which participated in the project and strengthened the management of the mill through their support.

The first module includes the extraction of the fibre under the standards suggested by Carmanchahi, the ones that were used to train the producers. For the second instance, semi-industrial machinery with low energy consumption was imported from Canada.

“The consortium committed itself to install the plant at a rural area in order to generate more jobs there and provide locals with more possibilities of connecting with the place, especially in the case of young people. An instructor from the Canadian company helped to install the machines and train the cooperative in the use. The training was enriching for the cooperative and the technicians of the project as it was the first time that machinery was used for guanaco fibre. We aim to obtain excellent quality products but we will have to work a lot with the fibre for that, there is no other way”, the researcher states.

For his part, Carmanchahi highlights the great possibility of having incomes because the guanaco fibre is included within the precious animal fibres. As it is very fine, its thickness ranges between 14 and 16 microns. It has unique thermal properties and softness, therefore it is very attractive for the textile industry. One kilo of yarn of this type may be worth USD$800 to USD$100.

As it is the first time this yarn is processed in the Mini Mills, the Textile Research and Development Centre of the INTI is currently conducting textile trials to produce different types of the fibre mixtures thanks to possibilities the machines offer. As regards this, the researchers explain that the objective of the plant is to provide third parties with services such as washing, spinning, and intermediate products. Furthermore, the machines can be operated by other producers of Patagonia who do not belong to the cooperative in order to process their fibres, either guanaco, llama, goat, vicuña, chivas, sheep and other species from the area; thus having the possibility of selling them at a higher value.

Lichtenstein explains that the learning experience is really enriching because this project will inspire other initiatives in the region. “We have been enquired about this initiative by “comuneros” from Perú and Bolivia who consider it as an alternative to improve their incomes. The investment provided by the National State for research on camelids and development of value chain is far superior to other neighbouring countries. With this development, we hope to collaborate with other countries”, she says.

Some of the challenges of the marketing module are to let people know the fibre at an international level, place it as an Argentine product, and generate the rich textile alternatives for national designers. The idea is to sell not only the yarn but also its history: a very careful development from the conservation of the guanaco, the way it is obtained, and the production of the fibre until the last product. These will make the product have the certifications that will provide more value to the yarn. Thus, it will be recognized in the price, as a model of fair price.

Finally, the scientists added that they are constantly thinking how to maximize the spillover effect of this project. “The idea of installing the plant in Salinillas was to provide the place with more possibilities. For us, the inauguration is the beginning of a new stage, the chance of getting together to celebrate the realization of a dream and thank the institutions. We have learnt to work in an interdisciplinary way, add knowledge and create a new model. As CONICET researchers, we are very proud of belonging to an institution that supported us and provided concrete benefits to the people. It is a privilege for us to have the opportunity of transforming realities”, Lichtenstein concludes.

  • By Cecilia Leone