The Pre-Hispanic dye on the brink of extinction

With only 15 traditional dyers left and its source endangered by tourism and fishing, this dye is about to disappear
The Pre-Hispanic dye on the brink of extinction
Cotton threads dyed with rock snail fluids – Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez/EL UNVIERSAL
28/05/2018
15:59
Juan Carlos Zavala
Oaxaca Mexico
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Most people don't know it, but among the coastal towns in Oaxaca, the Japanese aren't very welcomed. The blame for this international strife is a gastropod mollusk, a sea snail. This mollusk spends its life on the coasts of Oaxaca and produces a unique purple dye. Yet this dye is on the brink of extinction today.

The National Commission of Protected Natural Areas documented that during the early 80's, Japanese workers would detach these sea snails from their rocks to extract the purple dye they would later use to paint their beautiful kimonos.  Yet they were careless with the animals, discarded them as if they were nothing, and in just five years, this species almost became extinct.

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(Woman weaving – Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez/EL UNVIERSAL)

“It was when the 'purple snail' dwindled. [The Japanese] would throw them away, leave them under the sun, and this mollusk is fragile; you can't leave it under the sun because it dies. The Japanese ruined the sea snail,” says Mauro Habacuc Avendaño, a dyer.

The one responsible for this overexploitation was the Japanese company Imperial Purple, which reached an economic agreement with the landowners to obtain greater volumes of this sea snail and prohibit the Mixtec inhabitants from using the mollusk to dye traditional clothes according to a technique they've passed on since Pre-Hispanic times – one that actually spares the life of the animal.

This situation continued until 1985, when dyers from the community Pinotepa de Don Luis denounced the exploitation and the federal government forbade the Japanese from killing this rock snail.

It's been almost 40 years since then and the sea snail population still struggles to recover, given that it faces other threats, such as tourism, gastronomy, pollution, and climate change, factors which have put this species “under pressure,” according to Omar Gordillo, Manager of the Huatulco National Park.

The scientific name of this animal is Plicopurpura pansa and it can be found all over the coasts of Oaxaca until the rocky shores of Huatulco Bay. The dye is formed when the fluids of the sea snails are exposed to sunlight and oxygen.

Although the technique to extract this dye was practiced in other states, it only survives now in the community of Pinotepa de Don Luis, where dyers make sure to detach the snail from their rocks carefully, use its fluids to dye cotton skeins, and leave the animal, unharmed, in a wet place with enough shade so it can return to its natural habitat.

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(When the snail is detached from the rock, it expels a white fluid as a defense mechanism; this fluid turns purple when exposed to sunlight and oxygen – Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez)

Mauro Avedaño remembers he was 15 years in 1956 when his uncle taught him the Pre-Hispanic technique to extract the dye from rock snails safely. Back then, they were able to dye up to 20 250-gram cotton skeins in five days. Now, they can spend 15 days searching for sea snails and only dye four skeins.

Scarcity has raised the prices of the garments dyed with the snails, which sell for MXN$ 10,000 or MXN$ 12,000. Mauro remembers that when there was an abundance of rock snails, they even sold their skeins to Italy.

The dwindling of this rock snail population isn't just a perception of the dyers. According to the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas, the 18 coral areas inhabited by the Plicopurpura pansa face several environmental problems, mainly arising from human activities.

Tourists who swim, dye, and water sky, together with the activity of the Mixtec dyers and the restaurant owners who offer it as a dish are contributing to the overexploitation of the rock snail, at the same time they contribute to the pollution of Oaxacan shores.

Gordillo Solis, Manager of the Huatulco National Park, rejects the idea that the snail is an endangered species although he acknowledges the rock snail population has dwindled significantly.

For Gordillo Solís, tourists who purchase this species to eat are fostering the demand, and fishermen compete with dyers to retrieve rock snails. The difference between fishermen and dyers, according to Solís, is that dyers have a sustainable technique.

Dyers, the keepers of the purplse snail

In order to preserve the Pre-Hispanic tradition, dyers have decided to exploit the rock snail only six months a year, from October to March, to allow the animal to recover and reproduce – a measure which has hit their economy hard.

“We're not making money because we're only working six months,” said Mauro Avendaño, who won an award in 2015 for protecting the mollusk through traditional and eco-friendly techniques.

“Dying with the 'purple snail' is something we only do to preserve our culture and for those who value it and admire the dye,” Mauro claims.

“No one ate them before. We had a lot of snails,” he bemoans.

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(Woman with dyed fabrics - Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez)

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