Artisans in Ecuador, 1975–2015

Since the Spanish conquest of the Incas, the social and economic fortunes of artisans in Ecuador have been influenced by changing national and international circumstances. From the colonial period, through independence and the liberal revolution to the mid-twentieth century, when Ecuador became the world’s largest banana exporter, artisans have been an important part of the country’s political economy.

I first carried out a survey of the artisans in 1975, when oil was beginning to flow from the Ecuadorean Amazon region and artisans were seen as an integral part of a global phenomenon known as the ‘informal sector’ of the economy. I followed this up with similar surveys and further interviews in 1982, 1995, and 2005 – as the country experienced rapid industrialisation, failed structural adjustment policies, hyperinflation, the collapse of the banking system, and the adoption of the US dollar as the national currency. Since the 2005 survey, the Government of Rafael Correa has introduced populist-socialist policies aimed at reducing inequality, providing a new context for artisan development.

Throughout the period covered by the surveys, information was also gathered from newspaper articles on artisans. National census and survey information, including industrial and labour force data, has been analysed. Interviews have been carried out with key informants, including the presidents and other senior officers of artisan guilds. 

Sr. Ricardo Orbea, master tailor at work in Quito.

The research shows that since the 1970s, artisanal activity in Ecuador has declined and been restructured, but many have adapted and survived. This project involves in-depth, life-history interviews with a sample of the survivors. The life histories of tailors and dressmakers, shoemakers, carpenters, mechanics, printers, jewellers and others will provide case studies and colourful examples of the personal experiences of artisans through a rapidly changing social and economic context over a period of 40 years.

In 1975, the research was carried out in the principal geographical areas of informal activity in Quito at the time and a map of all the workshops employing less than seven workers was created. This map represented a census of artisans at that time, street by street over a large area of the city. It provided the sampling framework for the interviews and, following re-mapping for subsequent surveys, it became the basis of future research.

The main 1975–  2005 questionnaires were carried out with workshop owners and were structured around seven issues: the relationship between the family and the firm; education, training and skills, including those of family members and workers; the nature of backwards and forward linkages to suppliers and customers; the impact of changing technology; social capital in relation to guilds and other organisations; changing business conditions and their impact on the artisans; and their relationship with the state and social security provision. 

The new life-history interviews with will be structured around the main themes of the previous surveys, providing a qualitative thread through the quantitative data. This will involve fieldwork in Ecuador over a period of two months, mapping the latest geographical configuration of workshops and interviewing elderly artisans about their working histories.

Professor Alan Middleton
Birmingham City University