Colombia to Protect Traditional Hats Against Chinese Knock-offs
The Colombian Congress declared the “vueltiao” hat a national cultural symbol in 2004. These hats are hand-woven from natural cane fibers by Zenu indigenous people in the northwest provinces of Cordoba and Sucre. Colombian and foreign artists, athletes and politicians have worn the hat in numerous occasions. In 2011, the vueltiao hat became a collective mark and Zenu weaving became a denomination of origin
In the past few months, almost one million knock-off vueltiao hats entered Colombia from China. The imitation hats are smaller, made of plastic fibers, and much cheaper. Colombian artisans, whose hats sell for anywhere between $40 and $400, cannot compete with the Chinese imports that sell for about $8 dollars.
In the past week, indigenous leaders demanded protection from the government to prevent further damage to the income of their people. Significantly, the Chinese imports entered Colombia legally. Colombian laws allow the importation and distribution of hats subject to the payment of standard tariffs; thus, without any monitoring, the Chinese hats made it through Colombian customs and onto local markets, particularly in Cartagena, without breaking any law. Colombian Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, Sergio Diaz Granados, announced that the government will ban the importation of knock-off vueltiao hats from China or elsewhere given its negative effect on Colombian artisans. Granados explained that further imports will be banned at customs and that the Superintendent of Commerce and Industry will conduct an investigation to determine whether there is unfair competition, misleading publicity, IP or consumer rights violations to take the appropriate measures.
Since 2008, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism promotes the use of intellectual property rights (IPR) to protect Colombian crafts to ensure their quality and competitiveness. These rights provide hat makers with the opportunity to pursue legal action and obtain support from government entities to protect their works. Although a denomination of origin or collective mark cannot prevent the production of knock offs by other parties using different materials, they do prevent other parties from using the registered collective mark or denomination of origin without the authorization of the mark’s owners.
This case is another example of the potential benefits that a sound IPR system can bring to certain industries, including artisans communities. The Intellectual Property Institute, a Washington-based NGO that promotes IP in developing countries, published a report in 2010 and an article in 2012 on other examples from Brazil, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Swaziland, etc. where IPR such as trademarks, geographical indications, and certification marks have protected the work of local artisans against unauthorized use and reproduction.