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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 case.

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 there.

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.

TaguaFor 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.

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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.

Wikipedia Source