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The native sheep of Chiapas (Mexico): A story of fleeces, global markets and women in woollen skirt

Dramatic changes have been observed during the last 30 years in the countryside of Mexico. What we used to see as the romantic view of a smallholder farmer caring for a bunch of cattle, sheep and goats is no longer a part of the landscape. The original multipurpose and diversified farm has given way to specialised livestock operations that use high technology and high external inputs. This seems to be the only way to survive the challenges of the new globalised millennium. But at the same time, a different concept of animal husbandry undertaken by Tzotzil shepherdesses shows that the old romantic ways can also be very efficient and productive. This article presents a brief outline of how, despite considerable external pressure, Tzotzil women have preserved their local breeds of wool sheep at a time when global markets are shifting production goals into uniform, standardised outputs.

Chiapas lies in the south of Mexico and is by far the poorest state. The largest ethnic group in Chiapas is the Tzotzil who number about 200,000 people, living in scattered hamlets in the mountains. Alhough the Tzotzils are financially poor, many aspects of their society and culture are worthy of our attention. One of these aspects is the unique way in which the women in the villages care for their sheep, and their philosophy about these animals and their woollen souls. In the early 1970s, the great number of coloured sheep in the mountains of Chiapas caught the attention of government officials. At the time, this highland region had the highest density of sheep in the whole country. With good intentions, they decided to ‘improve' what they saw as a small and unproductive local sheep by means of crossbreeding with high-yielding exotic sheep breeds. This technical approach had been used in many other parts of central and northern Mexico with very good results, and most sheep farmers in those areas were able to ‘upgrade' their local sheep. By the mid 1990s, the local breeds of sheep in these areas had vanished, and thousands of black-faced crossbred sheep were producing large amounts of white and fine wool, with an important impact on the domestic economy.

In Chiapas, however, the crossbreeding programs were unsuccessful. Several foreign breeds were introduced and the outcome of such efforts was always the same: the exotic breeds failed to adapt to the local environment and the availability of native forages, and the animals died in a matter of weeks. More importantly, the Tzotzil women did not like the fleeces of these exotic animals because they could not be processed into woollen garments using their traditional spinning and weaving techniques. The wool of what the women called “Mexican sheep” was too short, too fine, and too white, as compared with the fleeces of their batsi chij, their ‘true sheep'. Government officials always blamed the Tzotzil sheep farmers for the failures, and thought that they were doomed for keeping their small and unproductive sheep.

The impact of globalisation In 1995, the waves of globalisation struck sheep farming in Mexico, and soon the first changes were observed. A free trade agreement with New Zealand and Australia allowed countless containers of live animals, frozen mutton, and greasy fleeces to be distributed all over Mexico. This caused the price of mutton and greasy wool to plummet, and most sheep farmers were not able to compete. It was more expensive to shear the animals than to buy imported wool, and the farmers were forced to sell all their animals, to use their savings for subsistence, and to look for alternative sources of income. The number of people migrating to the United States increased drastically in a matter of months.

In the mountains of Chiapas, globalisation had a different impact. The local breeds of sheep maintained their numbers, the cost of animals and fleeces remained very high, as did the contribution of sheep to the domestic economy, representing an average 36% of the annual income. The reasons that the Tzotzil were able to successfully side-step globalisation are complex, and it is necessary to take a closer look at the Tzotzil traditions, particularly the sheep husbandry system.

Sacred sheep and woollen clothes First of all, sheep are part of the culture of the Tzotzils; since they are sacred animals protected by the local religion, it is forbidden to hurt, to kill or to eat them. Secondly, they are also the exclusive responsibility of women, who take every decision over any issue related to these animals and also keep and manage any money derived from their sheep. The Tzotzils believe that every person has an ‘animal companion' who suffers the same fate as his or her soul mate. When a person is ill or dies so does his or her animal companion. Even when most animal companions are wild animals, it is recognised that sheep can be the secondary soul mates of shamans and healers, and this is the reason for not hurting or killing them. However, it is only sheep that are sacred, and cows, horses or pigs are just domestic animals for the Tzotzils, who raise them, kill them, eat them, or sell them as needed.

The importance of sheep is related to the traditional clothing of the Tzotzils. Clothes for ceremonial or daily use are made out of wool and any visitor to the villages or to the local markets will find men in their heavy black coats or their sleeveless white jackets. Women wear their black woollen skirts and their richly embroidered brown blouses, and they cover themselves with black shawls. Children's clothes, blankets and bedspreads are woven to blend fleeces of different colours, to create an infinite number of grey and brown shades. These woollen clothes are quite heavy and a hairy finish is highly regarded; they are also waterproof and last a very long time: two or three years of daily use.

The traditional textile process is quite complex, and includes spinning the wool with a wooden spindle into threads of specific characteristics of tension and thickness to form both the weft and the warp for the loom. Also, the time-consuming process of weaving the threads with a back-strap loom is accompanied by a series of additional steps for washing, carding, felting, dyeing and embroidering. Sheep husbandry among the Tzotzils also has an important economic role. Adequate amounts of high quality fleeces represent the possibility to weave clothes for every member of the family. Fleeces of such quality have a high value at the local markets, which makes them a valuable asset in case of urgent cash needs. Additional income is generated through the sales of surplus rams, old sheep, woollen garments and handicrafts, and surplus manure not used on the family land for crops.

Local diversity vs global standards These last few paragraphs give us an insight into the Tzotzil livelihoods and how they are related to the husbandry of wool sheep. They can also help us to understand why the original crossbreeding programs designed by government officials did not succeed. These top-down interventions did not consider the objectives, rationale, logistics, and social implications of sheep within Tzotzil culture. The government officials thought that sheep production was the same all over Mexico, and they did not take the time or the interest to get to know the culture and the tradition of the local people, or the local husbandry systems and sheep breeds. How could these officials know that in the mountains of Chiapas there are no shepherds, but only women shepherdesses? How could they imagine that the exotic sheep breeds that they were imposing did not have a double-coated fleece like the local ‘true sheep'? The fleece of the high-yielding exotic sheep only had short, fine and white wool fibres, very good for the mechanised textile industry, but totally inadequate for hand-processing.

It took time and a new approach to understand the role of sheep for the Tzotzil livelihoods. It was not until 1982 that the characterisation of the local sheep and the traditional husbandry system got started, and only in 1992 a programme was proposed to improve the local sheep by selection. This time women from the villages set the parameters for the quality of the fleece. This highlighted the differences between the shepherdesses and government officials on what was meant by ‘high-quality fleeces'.

For the women in the mountains of Chiapas, the best fleeces have long and loose staples formed by a considerable amount of long-coarse fibres with little or no kemp. Fleece colour is also very important, in order for the weavers to make all the variety of garments required by their families. All black, all white, or cinnamon brown fleeces reach the highest prices, because they are woven directly into clothes without requiring a time-consuming and complex dyeing process. Work continues to study and understand the role of sheep in Tzotzil society.

Credit to the shepherdess The effects of globalisation for sheep farmers in Central and Northern Mexico resulted not only in the loss of several of the local sheep breeds, but also in the end of many livelihoods. There are no local sheep left in central and northern Mexico, and sheep farmers are an endangered species themselves. It would be almost impossible to recover those sturdy heterogeneous sheep breeds that had significant hardiness and capacity to endure adverse environmental conditions. The original genes were diluted through cross breeding with a number of different exotic breeds, according to the official technical approach being pushed by the government. In desperation, farmers eventually sold their remaining animals. By contrast, those humble shepherdesses that were considered ‘backward' for opposing progress and technology have not only been able to preserve their local sheep breeds , to improve their productive traits and to sustain their own livelihoods. Today, at least 150,000 wool sheep are kept in small flocks (of about 10 sheep) all over the mountains of Chiapas. The traditional sheep management system designed by the Tzotzil shepherdesses is efficient in terms of lamb and fleece production, it requires very little or no external inputs, and it keeps inbreeding at negligible levels.

Tzotzil shepherdesses must be credited for maintaining their sheep breeds that would be extinct by now if they had not systematically opposed official interventions aimed to dilute the genes of their ‘true sheep'. These local wool sheep of Chiapas should not only be seen as a pool of valuable genes, nor just the subject of genetic improvement research. On a wider perspective, Chiapas sheep represent the ability of human groups to design their own survival strategies.

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