Empowering Indigenous Women

More than anything, the production of prestigious Wounaan & Embera woven art gives indigenous women a unique sense of power.

Building Self Esteem

By offering them the status of “master weavers” with world-class talents—as opposed to low-income earners supporting Panama’s tourist souvenir market—Jennifer and Ed Kuyper, owners of Rainforest Baskets, have helped to change the way these women think. Through the success of their craft, the women have not only been able to raise their families out of poverty, but they have also been able to create a product that, after paying such careful attention to it for so many years, is as significant to them as if they had just given birth to another child.

The location of the Wounaan and Emberá tribes, deep in the Darién rainforest and surrounded only by rivers, is only accessible by dugout canoes and modest boats. A sturdy off-road truck can make it through the unpaved roads only at certain times in the dry season.  Through the income Wounaan and Embera women receive, they are able to buy outboard motors for dugout canoes as well as books and school supplies for village children, medicine and medical treatment beyond the scope of traditional Darién healers. Thus fighting the threat of being forced out of their villages and into city slums, where they would have to survive on a salary of $1.50 an hour

Within Wounaan & Embera homes, the work required to complete baskets and masks builds self-esteem for the artists who make them, protects the institution of the indigenous family, and aids members of the tribe in their fight again threats from Colombian “guerillas.” Their work, therefore, is more than just a job—it’s a factor in the growth of their culture.

Supporting The Local Economy

By engaging in a long-term relationship with master weavers of the craft, Jennifer and Ed Kuyper help to alleviate poverty in the region; not only at the individual and family level, but also at the community level. Through this relationship, these fine artists earn three- and four-figure prices for their hard work and dedication—far more than their counterparts in Third World countries around the world, and a direct result of the mandatory education system that Panamá, itself, instills.

The talented weavers know the value of their craft, and as a result, they have become more empowered to price their skill similar to that which artists in the United States might receive; a unique trend for indigenous peoples in remote locations. In fact, the most talented weavers will not accept any less. As a stable and primary source of income for Wounaan & Embera families, the money these weavers receive is used to pay for their children’s education, as well as medicine, trips to doctor, surgical procedures, clothes, shoes and other necessities these families need for everyday life. Furthermore, as they live in a remote village, this money goes towards food that cannot be grown or gathered in their region, as well as wheelbarrows, concrete, modern conveniences, lanterns, flashlights, and plastic tubs to do laundry at home, instead of in the river. Finally, if the weaver is not able to gather the chunga fibers she needs to make her baskets, she has to use that money to purchase some herself.

Though a solitary task, weaving is, historically, a communal activity—bringing women together to talk amongst themselves throughout the course of its construction. Through this process, these talented women not only preserve their culture worldwide, but they also garner the support they need from their surrounding community to cultivate master artists.

Crossroads of the World

Functioning as a “bridge” between North and South America, Panamá is often referred to as the “Crossroads of the World.” Stretching anywhere from 30 to 130 miles in width this flourishing country welcomes visitors from across the globe, as well as 12,000 ships, through the famous canal that bears its name. As popular as it has become, Panamá still seeks the protection of its delicate rainforest ecosystem and the indigenous people who live there—an initiative supported by the continued production of Wounaan and Embera art, the entirety of which are made from natural resources of the Darién rainforest.

The country of Panamá is divided into nine provinces, each ruled by a governor of the President’s choosing. Encompassing nearly 17,000 square kilometers in length, the Darién rainforest—which borders two oceans and Colombia—is the most popular of these regions. Historically one of the most biologically diverse regions in all of Central America, this rainforest serves as the meeting point for thousands of species from North and South America—and as such, has always required special government protection.

Since its development, it has always seemed as if the outside world has taken more of an interest in Panamá’s delicate rainforests than the Panamanian government itself; with the majority of its conservation efforts coming from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Wildlife Fund and others. However, in 1980, Panama took a step towards its own preservation by setting aside 5,790 square kilometers of Darién rainforest land as a national park—recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1981 and marked as a Biosphere Reserve just two years later. Despite these efforts, the majority of the land was still unprotected—and mining, farming, ranching and logging from outside parties has persisted.

The primary residents of this rainforest land are those who make the baskets and masks, members of the Wounaan and Emberá tribes, who have learned to live off the land and use these baskets as their natural source of income. Aiming to help their community build a strong economic base, and continue to bring favorable, international attention to the region, they continue to create what curators believe to be the highest-quality baskets made anywhere in the world.

Vegetal Dyes

Sourced from the Rainforest

Shredded palm fronds, dried in the sun, readily absorb the vegetal dyes created out of local resources. Roots, berries and river silt are just some of the items that are used to boil, bury, and simmer palm fronds in to take on vibrant colors.

From Our Collectors

“I love decorating with baskets. These “master” baskets are really special!”

Carrie’s Design Musings

Traditional Coil Construction

Hand-Stitched by Master Weavers

Each piece is begun with a small knot of gathered and dried palm frond, then as that bundle of palm starts to wrap around the center it is meticulously covered. The internal coils are covered completely by the colored palm fronds, thin as thread, using a sewing needle.