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Tempers fray in Bolivia over used clothing imports

Written by: Staff
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EL ALTO, Bolivia, Feb 26 (Reuters) That Gap pullover you gave to charity might have ended up on sale at El Alto's muddy, makeshift market where mountains of imported second-hand clothes help dress the people of the impoverished Bolivian city.

Men and women rifle through heaps of tangled tracksuits, velvet jackets and sweaters piled onto plastic sheets among the puddles. They are hoping to pick up a quality brand name for less than a dollar. The scene at the market in El Alto near La Paz is played out at markets around the country.

''My baby is dressed in second-hand clothes,'' says young mother Victoria Bautista, gesturing at her sleeping daughter.

''It helps us to economise and you sometimes find things that are much better quality than Bolivian-made stuff.'' The flood of used clothing pouring into Bolivia, much of it contraband, angers local manufacturers. And though Bolivia is South America's poorest country, critics say accepting cast-offs from the United States and Europe is an affront to national pride.

''Our ancestors did not use second-hand clothes. It was seen as an offence to our dignity and in Aymara culture it is bad luck to wear someone else's clothes,'' said Emilio Gutierrez, who represents small businesses in El Alto and is leading the fight against the trade. ''A lot of it is rubbish,'' he added.

At the start of this month, with protests by retailers going on outside, the leftist government of President Evo Morales extended a decree allowing imports by six months.

While that was too much for the manufacturers, who accused Morales of breaking election pledges to protect local firms and create jobs, it was not enough for the second-hand clothing retailers who have vowed to defend their business to the last.

''The extension of six months was welcome, but we don't want temporary solutions. We want permanent solutions to protect our livelihood,'' said Rene Arispe, president of the national used clothing commission during a rowdy rally in La Paz.

Amid hisses by passers-by and shouts of ''Out with second-hand rubbish'', Arispe said the main beneficiaries of the used clothing business were the poor.

''There are many thousands of families who embrace this sector. This business benefits the poor people of the country who cannot afford to buy new clothes,'' he said.

While many of the hundreds of protesting vendors wore the traditional Indian dress of a wide skirt, shawl and bowler hat, others were kitted out in the kind of branded sportswear that is hard to find and expensive to buy new in Bolivia.

While a Bolivian-made shirt typically costs 60 or 70 Bolivian pesos (7 dollars or 8.60dollars), a similar second-hand one can be had for as little as 5 Bolivian pesos (61 US cents). ''There is no point of comparison,'' said Gutierrez.

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