Buying and Selling Tagua: True Story
This entry in my Working Outside
Contest is about buying and selling tagua figurines. It is
also from my wife Ana. Of course she does not qualify for a prize,
but then she has fifteen copies of my book on the shelf in any
My Tagua Outdoor Story
By Ana C.
One of the most prosperous indigenous groups of Latin America
is the "Otavalo Indian", original from the valley of
Otavalo in Ecuador. One easily finds their traditional crafts
(textiles mostly) in stores, kiosks, malls and even streets all
around the 24 Ecuadorian provinces - including the Galapagos.
It has always been common to find an Otavalo Indian - whether
man, woman or the whole family, selling their beautiful creations
like sweaters, scarfs, bags, blankets, etc. all over my country.
However, what I did not expected is that after I moved to the
United States I would find them all over here too.
Well, it happens that there is an Otavalo Indian displaying
his crafts in almost every street fair, flea market, and arts
and crafts show in the US, whether is in a small town or a big
city. As a matter of fact I have read that "More than 80%
of textile businesses from the Otavalo region are property of
families whose products are sold around the world." On our
several road trips in the United States we found them commonly,
and when chatting they confirmed that, yes, they are everywhere.
Most Americans, when they see them here selling their merchandise
and music, do not know that they're are not just people from
the Andes, but also from an amazing culture rich in history,
traditions and anecdotes of conquest, self-help, and prosperity.
They have strongly stood up in a very racist society, reached
high levels of education, acquired political power and developed
effective business skills. Many of them travel the continents
with their creations. Back home they own businesses and very
expensive real estate, hoping to someday come back and retire
Being a witness of such an amazing life lesson and having
some Indian blood in myself too, I told my husband years ago:
The next time we are down in Ecuador visiting family let's see
if we can bring some imports to sale in the States. So we did
it. Our outdoor adventure started buying Tagua Figurines from
street vendors in the South American coast and then selling them
in the North American regions.
For those of you
who don't know what Tagua* is (see side bar) , it's a form of
nut, also known as vegetable ivory, harvested from ivory palms
in South America. When carved these make beautiful figurines
(also piano keys, buttons, and more). We brought back miniature
turtles, dolphins, owls, elephants, frogs, and smoking pipes.
It was a small investment of 6 dozen figurines for about 60 or
70 dollars. When arriving to the States we didn't report it as
an import but just as gifts for friends and family, avoiding
any taxation, if there was any.
That summer, the summer of 2003, we started our flea market
venture or--more appropriately-- adventure. We traveled around
northern Michigan selling my husband's hand crafted walking sticks,
some pewter figurines that I mounted over colorful beads and
our Ecuadorian imports; the tagua nut carvings. We had paid around
a dollar a piece for each figurine and we sold them for 7 to
10 dollars. That certainly was a great return and a fun experience.
We got to explain about Tagua, the harvesting process, how this
makes a difference in the economy of local families, and we created
awareness as an actual alternative to elephant ivory--and of
course we made a profit too.
The international entrepreneurial spirit of the Otavalo
Indians was our inspiration. After that summer we went into other
businesses and other interests, but the beautiful memories of
that season always remain.
Steve's Note: We also sold beautiful and interesting
earrings we brought back. They were made of fish scales, which
were dyed different colors.
Do you have your own interesting story from work, your business,
or about making money in any other way? If so, you can send it
to me. If I use it on the site I'll email you an e-book (I'll
let you choose from several that I publish). You can also subscribe
to the Unusual Ways newsletter (form to the right) and
watch for the next contest to enter.
If you liked this page please let others know with one of
Want more ways to make and save money? Try my newsletter...
Full of useful information. Subscribe now...
More About Tagua
*Phytelephas is a genus containing six species of palms (family
Arecaceae), occurring from southern Panama along the Andes to
Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. They are commonly known as ivory palms,
ivory-nut palms or tagua palms; their scientific name means "plant
elephant". This and the first two of the common names refer
to the very hard white endosperm of their seeds (tagua nuts),
which resembles elephant ivory. The kernel is covered with a
brown, flaky skin and shaped like a small avocado, roughly 4-8
cm in diameter.
Given trade restrictions in elephant ivory as well as animal
welfare concerns, ivory palm endosperm is often used as a substitute
for elephant ivory today, and traded as vegetable ivory, palm
ivory, corozo or tagua. When dried out, it can be carved just
like elephant ivory; it is often used for beads, buttons, figurines
and jewelry, and can be dyed. More recently, palm ivory has been
used in the production of bagpipes. Vegetable ivory furthers
important environmental and socioeconomic goals by stimulating
the local economies and microenterprises in South America, provides
an alternative to cutting down rainforests for farming, and prevents
elephants from being killed for the ivory in their tusks.