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Getting to Know Alpaca

Team Zady

High in the Andes Mountains of South America live one of our favorite animal species, alpaca. How much do we love these gentle creatures? Well, let’s just say that we found it the perfect fiber for our .06 Lightweight Alpaca Sweater and .07, another piece launching this weekend! It’s #alpacaweek at Zady, so here’s a bit about these efficient and adorable animals.

What is alpaca?

Alpaca are domesticated animals from the South American camelid family, which is the same family that camels belong to. The vast majority of the world’s 3.5 million alpaca, over 85%, [2] live in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where they are primarily raised by small-scale herders. [3] The rest are found in the US, UK, and Australia, which have imported and bred alpacas in order to develop local populations. [4] The fiber from an alpaca animal is also called alpaca. Alpaca fiber is both lighter-weight and stronger than wool, and provides excellent insulation from the cold. [5] Because of their length and texture, alpaca fibers tend not to pill. Currently, alpaca represents less than 0.25% of animal fibers globally. [6]

History

Quechua Indians domesticated the first alpaca in the Andean highlands of Peru between 5000-7000 years ago. [7] Since that time, alpaca have played a vital role in the social and economic structure of indigenous peoples across the Andean Region, providing clothing, food, and a source of livelihood. Beginning in the 12th century, with the formation of the Inca Empire up until the colonization of Peru by Spain in the 16th century, the Inca mastered the art of alpaca breeding. As a result, alpaca reached their peak during this time in terms of both fiber quality and vitality of the species. [8] Alpaca were practically revered by the Inca, who called alpaca, “the Fiber of the Gods.” [9] They separated alpaca from other livestock and used alpaca fiber only to clothe nobility and high-ranking officials. Alpaca was considered so “soft and alluring it was prized above almost all else in the highland empire centered in what is now Peru.” [10]

In 1532, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro arrived in Peru. By the following year, the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco fell at the hands of the Spaniards, marking the end of the Inca Empire. In the decades that followed, disease introduced by the Spaniards, including smallpox and measles decimated the Inca population, who by 1570, had seen their population decline by half. [11] Accompanying this decline in the Incan civilization was a dramatic reduction in the population of alpaca, who were mistreated or slaughtered by the conquistadors. Roughly 90% of the alpaca population was killed during this time. [12] In the mid-1800s, a renewed interest in alpaca fiber led to a resurgence of alpaca farming. Despite many ebbs and flows in production since that time, alpaca today remain fundamental to the indigenous communities of Peru.

Why is alpaca sustainable?

Among natural, animal-based fibers, alpaca has one of the most highly favorable environmental profiles. Alpaca is more environmentally friendly than wool, which is produced from sheep, and significantly more friendly than cashmere, which is produced from goats, despite having similar properties with respect to aesthetics and functionality. Here are a few of the characteristics that make alpaca so great.

First, alpaca are gentle on the land. Alpaca herds interact with the land in a sustainable way, both in terms of how they graze and their physical footprint. [13] While grazing, alpaca do not pull the grass from the root, which allows for the grass to grow back and pastures to renew naturally over time. [14],[15] As opposed to goats and sheep, which have sharp hooves that tear up the ground, alpaca have soft padding on their feet that allows them not to destroy pastures. [16] These characteristics mean that alpaca do not disturb grass systems, allowing the soil and habitat to remain healthy over time. [17] Further, alpaca waste can be immediately used as fertilizer, without any chemicals or treatment, providing an excellent source of nutrition to the soil. [18]

Second, alpaca are highly efficient animals. They can also survive for days without food or water. [19] Their daily food requirements are 1-2% of their body weight. By contrast, goats eat more than 10% of the body weight in roughage daily. [20] When it comes to yield, alpaca can grow enough wool for 4-5 sweaters in a year. [21] By comparison, it takes a goat 4 years to produce a single cashmere sweater.

Third, alpaca can endure in harsh climates. Alpaca predominantly live in the Andean highlands in South America, where the altitude reaches 10,000 feet above sea level. [22] They are resilient animals that can tolerate extreme temperatures and difficult conditions. As the world’s climate changes, and resources such as water become more constrained, alpaca can thrive in fragile or compromised ecosystems.

Finally, alpaca come in a natural palette of colors, ranging from black and white to brown and beige, and a mélange of many colors in between. As such, alpaca fiber doesn’t have to be dyed if a garment is produced in a naturally occurring color. Given what we know about the impacts of chemical dyeing on our water supply, a fiber that avoids dyeing by design gets high marks for sustainability in our book.

Beyond the environment: alpaca in Peru’s modern social landscape

Alpaca production is closely tied to the welfare of indigenous communities in South America. Ever since the Spanish colonized Peru centuries ago, the indigenous population has struggled in terms of both social and economic development. Today, 80% of indigenous children in Peru live in poverty. [23] In, Huancavelica, a remote highland region of Peru primarily home to an indigenous population, 80% of families, most of which are farmers, live below the poverty line. [24] In fact, poverty in Peru is overwhelmingly concentrated in indigenous communities. [25]

Because of the geographic and socioeconomic conditions shaping the lives of indigenous peoples of this region, alpaca farming can raise ethical issues. Geographically, indigenous communities are spread out across the region’s harsh terrain. Poor or lacking infrastructure to connect these communities means that farmers often sell their alpaca to middleman, who may not be transparent about the market price of the alpaca fiber in order to maximize their own profit. Socioeconomically, these communities often struggle with such extreme poverty that sustaining an alpaca heard comes at the expense of human welfare. Reporting from the region has found then some indigenous farmers rely so heavily on alpaca for their livelihood that, when forced to prioritize scarce resources between their families and their alpaca herd, choose their alpaca, to ensure their survival. [26] Additionally, as climate change alters the global weather patterns, these high altitude regions are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, bitter cold, and dramatic changes in local ecosystems. [27]

References:

  1. Gillespie, J., & Flanders, F. (2009). Modern livestock & poultry production. Cengage Learning. p. 917
  2. The Alpaca: A South American Camelid
  3. Alpaca: Packing Fiber
  4. The Alpaca: A South American Camelid
  5. [Alpaca] http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/fibres/alpaca.html
  6. Alpaca Production Statistics
  7. New World Encyclopedia: Alpaca
  8. http://www.tallgrassfarm.biz/index.cfm/feature/28_10/the-history-of-alpacas-and-the-people-of-peru.cfm
  9. DiPiazza, F. D. (2007). Chile in Pictures. Twenty-First Century Books. p. 15
  10. Secrets of the Alpaca Mummies
  11. Hansen, V., & Curtis, K. (2013). Voyages in World History. Cengage Learning. p. 426
  12. The Story of the Alpaca
  13. Why your next sweater should be alpaca, not cashmere
  14. Alpaca: A Soft, Warm Fiber With A Better Ecological “Padprint”
  15. Sunset Ridge Alpacas: Frequently Asked Questions
  16. New England Alpaca Fiber Pool
  17. Alpaca: A Soft, Warm Fiber With A Better Ecological “Padprint”
  18. New England Alpaca Fiber Pool
  19. The Alpaca: A South American Camelid
  20. http://www.nrdc.org/international/cleanbydesign/files/CBDFiberFactsCashmere.pdf
  21. Why your next sweater should be alpaca, not cashmere
  22. The Alpaca: A South American Camelid
  23. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/opinion/arana-the-kids-left-behind-by-the-boom.html?_r=0
  24. Peru’s mountain people face fight for survival in a bitter winter
  25. http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/country/home/tags/peru
  26. Peru’s mountain people face fight for survival in a bitter winter
  27. Peru’s indigenous people spot signs of climate change in killer freeze
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