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Fourteen years ago, Miguel Chasoy, a young Inga-Kamëntšá Indigenous man living in Putumayo, Colombia, and his family were plunged into an economic crisis after losing their crops. Chasoy left behind his trade as a farmer to become an artisan, and this led him to start a new business with his brothers and cousins. Their company, the SHINYAK Association, uses Indigenous techniques to make furniture, instruments, ornaments, and Indigenous masks.
Chasoy’s business is one of six Indigenous enterprises in Putumayo selected by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Amazon Indigenous Rights and Resources (AIRR) project to receive technical and financial support. In Colombia, the project was led by the Indigenous Peoples Organization of the Northern Amazon of Putumayo (OZIP), the Indigenous Peoples Organization of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), and WWF in partnership with NESsT, which invests in social enterprises in emerging markets and worldwide.
AIRR was established to further the work and support the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon who are facing large-scale infrastructure development and extractive activities that affect their livelihoods. The project will also lead to reduced emissions from forest loss and the conservation of biodiversity. As part of its efforts, AIRR works with Indigenous enterprises to help them grow and consolidate their businesses through a combination of grants, loans, and market access.
To begin the AIRR selection process in Putumayo, the Indigenous Economy Committee (CEI)—formed by OPIAC, OZIP, WWF, and NESsT representatives—launched the call for proposals using WhatsApp, phone calls, and other outlets in October 2020. After a month and a half, CEI reviewed and interviewed 122 applicants, shortlisted 33, and narrowed the awardees down to six businesses. The primary criteria considered included sustainability and income generation.
With their participation in AIRR, Chasoy and the other grant winners hope to build up their enterprises so they can become examples of green businesses in the region, strengthening their cultures and the economic growth of their communities.
SHINYAK generates a source of income for 18 people working full time and eight people part time. This includes mothers who are heads of households or who were affected by armed conflict during the decades-long civil war. The association seeks to preserve the cultural legacy of the Inga and Kamëntšá Biyá peoples.
According to Chasoy, working with wood is a way of conserving his culture because each craft and piece of furniture serves as a canvas. Aspects of the Indigenous worldview can be represented on the canvas so that they endure and can be shared with others.
"My grandfather made traditional benches, as did my father,” Chasoy said. “They taught us about wood, the types and uses, and that knowledge helped us start this enterprise."
Chasoy will use the resources from the AIRR project to build a facility to produce furniture and handicrafts made of sustainably harvested wood. This will help expand his business and apply the company’s models for standardizing carving methods and measurements to save materials.
"In our case, the idea is to become a model company in the southern part of the country for its sustainable production techniques and to continue growing to increase our capacity to help people in our communities," Chasoy says.
With AIRR support, SHINYAK has received strategic advice to define its business model and type of client and to expand its client portfolio. The company is improving its administrative, commercial, management, and marketing capacities to achieve this. And in terms of investments, SHINYAK has been awarded funds to develop its work plan and acquire machinery and equipment.
Along with efforts in Colombia, AIRR is being implemented in Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru through a partnership between WWF, the Amazon Indigenous Peoples Organization, national Indigenous organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. AIRR started in August 2019 and will run until August 2024.