A Conversation with Rahua founder Fabian Lliguin about Hair, Supporting Indigenous Rights, and the Power of Nature
Fabian Lliguin and partner Anna Ayers founded Rahua in 2008, with a simple (albeit idealistic) goal in mind: to create all-natural hair products that achieve better results than their synthetic counterparts while empowering indigenous communities of the Amazon and preserving the future of the rainforest. How do these topics merge, and how can the support of human rights (specifically indigenous rights) become a foundation for business models in beauty and beyond?
Words by Stephanie Gill, photography by Walis Lárraga Anstis
Stephanie: I want us to talk about Rahua products, but I’m also curious about the work you were doing in environmental activism before you started your brand. Can we start there?
Fabian: Rahua has been a lifetime of work as a hairdresser, and my passion has always been to protect plants, to protect trees. I grew up in South America, and when I was young, I loved to climb trees and pick fruit because when you put in the effort, it tastes even better. I visited many farms in South America – haciendas – and I was always in awe of how nature takes just soil and sun and creates something so delicious. This needs to be protected; that’s what I had thought growing up.
I started my NGO, Ecoagents, while I was working at my salon in New York City because I realized that the land was being destroyed by large corporations, and the indigenous communities had no means to defend themselves in the court of law. And that’s because they didn’t know about their rights – it was something very foreign to them. Through my work with Ecoagents, I started teaching them about their rights and showed them the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I started to see their faces light up as they realized: “I guess we can protect ourselves with this.” And then I start seeing the results, and I realized, “This is easier than I thought.” [laughs].
How did those first conversations go, when you were talking with members of the community about wanting to help and educate them about their rights? Was there any resistance or questioning of your motives?
Well, it was difficult for me to even get into that area of the Amazon. The indigenous groups there don’t want anyone from the outside coming in because they usually bring bad news – that’s been their experience. People from the outside arrive, offering this and that, and five years later, their land is taken.
So, there was resistance at first, but I’m an Inca Indian myself, so culturally and genetically, I understood all of that. When they saw me take off my shoes and walk in the mud, they were like, “Oh, this guy is different.” That opened the doors, and when I introduced myself, they saw my last name (Lliguin), and they were like, “Wait a minute.” They showed me the file of a man who had my last name. And he looked like one of my relatives – and in that moment, I remembered feeling: “now this is personal.” The Spanish Conquistadors brought so many years of pain, and out of every ten people nine were killed. That’s one of the very sad stories of the world. But in that moment, I had a feeling that a lot of wrongs can be made right; I saw the light of hope.
So, how did the Rahua brand begin?
I started getting more and more involved in environmental work, and by then, I was actually planning on leaving the industry because I thought the hair business was too superficial, that there were a lot more things that the world needed. It was during one of my trips to the rainforest that I was introduced to the rahua oil. When I was a kid, people told me legends about this oil in the rainforest – women with long hair past their knees, special ceremonies – and I heard all that, but, you know, sometimes you think they’re just legends. When I actually ran into these ladies with the long hair and learned how they created and used the rahua oil, that’s when the two worlds came together.
I eventually created my brand using this fantastic oil from the rain forest. And, of course, I wanted to do justice to it. I was an environmentalist first, so the company was created with that DNA in mind, to preserve the rainforest. That’s why everything we do has to preserve the power of nature. The women of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon are so particular about how they create this oil, so particular about how they work and how they make everything happen. At the same time, because the rahua oil is so pure, so good, we decided that since it is very limited, it can never be mass produced. So, we had to make it high-end using the best methods possible.
You mentioned that you had wanted to stop doing hair because you thought it was superficial. Have there been any moments since you began Rahua where these two ideas of hair and activism seemed like they were going to be at odds? Were there any moments of difficulty in merging the two together for you?
It wasn’t ever difficult for me. It was more when I was talking to the outside world – because they thought that to style your hair, you have to use chemicals, and in order to eliminate bacteria and maintain the shelf life, you have to use chemicals. I knew this was wrong, because indigenous people worldwide need to preserve their food without refrigeration. And that’s been done for thousands of years. Tribes all over the world use natural products to do their hair beautifully. Your ancestors, your great-great-grandmothers used only natural products for their beauty rituals.
This ancient knowledge was something that was buried underneath the technology of our time, and it just needed to be brought up again. In my heart, I knew that it would happen. We’ve always had the knowledge, it’s just been buried for the last hundred years to benefit the chemical industries, or to “progress” in the world.
And how did your clients in New York react when you first brought these products to them? What benefits did they see?
Some of them were not too happy when I first started traveling to the Amazon because they thought I was abandoning them. But when it came to the environment, when it came to what I was doing, they were really happy for me. Later on, they enjoyed the new Rahua products. With the treatment that I started giving them, their hair became so healthy, and they didn’t need to get their hair cut that often because it wasn’t dry at the ends.
The hair that grows from the roots is nurtured by the natural oils, and it’s very healthy. Toward the ends it becomes more porous. And when your hair is porous, it’s not going to react to heat and styling in the same way – it’s very unpredictable. But when you put Rahua products in your hair, the porousness gets filled. Dry hair has a negative charge, and it’s attracted to the positive charge in the oil, so the hair becomes the same density from root to end, and it’s easier to work with. It’s like when you iron a piece of cloth that is very wrinkled – you have to put a lot of effort into it. But when the texture of the fabric is more even, it’s much easier. The iron doesn’t change; it’s the texture of the cloth.
Has the formula of the products changed over time at all?
Well, yes and no. The formula of the oil itself hasn’t changed for thousands of years, but the product has. For instance, we used to use wheat protein, but I started getting email requests to make the product gluten-free (for people with gluten allergies). So, I started doing further research and discovered quinoa. I grew up with quinoa – I’m an Inca guy – and so we worked with quinoa, and we realized that quinoa protein is fantastic, and contrary to wheat, it hasn’t been genetically modified. We then decided to make everything gluten-free. That was one evolution.
I consider my company a technological company, because we always have to adapt. At the beginning, the first products that we made were the Rahua shampoo and conditioner. I wanted to create a fully natural product, but there wasn’t such a thing as natural preservation systems at that time. “You have to use chemicals to kill germs and bacteria” – that was the belief. But then I started using Palo Santo, and Palo Santo is antibacterial and antifungal. So, with Palo Santo, we’ve been able to create a natural preservation system. And now, of course, in the last ten years, science has evolved, and there are now different ways to preserve products naturally.
I want to go to talk a little bit about the production of the oil, which has traditionally been produced in special ceremonies by the women of the indigenous tribes in the Amazon. How have those ceremonies changed or been affected by the production of Rahua oil?
When I was introduced to this oil in the 1990s, there were just a few women conducting the ceremony – they were maintaining the ceremonial process, but it was almost disappearing. Now, we take these women to fly to other communities, and they teach the women there how to do the ceremonies. This was something that, I think, had been popular for many years among the indigenous communities and tribes in the rainforest, and over time, it was disappearing. Now, we can bring it back and populate it again among the tribes, reviving it for good. Another thing is that the tribes are now becoming more aware of their past, of things that are disappearing – and how they can bring it back. It’s a renaissance for ingredients grown deep in the rainforest, using only natural methods. Beauty is power.
You created the Symbiotic categorization specifically for Rahua products. What prompted that decision?
You know, people like to label things. If somebody labels your product as “organic,” people listen a little more to you. So, the Rahua oil is the purest thing you can find in the world, made by ancient traditions, made by hand – it’s not even farmed, it’s naturally grown in the forest. I originally wanted Rahua oil to be considered organic, to have that seal. And I went to the USDA to see how I could make it organic, and at the time they just said, “no,” that it would only be considered a “natural product.” After researching and reading about organic certification, I realized that this ingredient is so special, it needs to have its own category. Because even if it was considered USDA Organic, this oil would attract many ingredients seekers from the beauty industry but, in my opinion, it wouldn’t protect its sources, the indigenous people and their traditions, and it might even become another token for destruction (via agricultural industrialisation as it is happening in Brazil at this time). In order to protect the indigenous people, their families and their traditions, I had to create something completely new.
I thought, what’s the most important thing this oil has? It’s made by going deep into the rainforest, in symbiosis with the wild. But this ingredient is also amazing because it’s made using traditional means – ritualistic means. And that has weight; that has importance. And in order to preserve this tradition, in order to keep these people strong, whoever buys this needs to pay a good price – the best price. But the best price out there is “fair trade.” Fair trade is just fair – which is fair, but the effort that they use is so much bigger than any machine. They do not deserve just fair, just enough to get by – they deserve something more. That’s what this Symbiotic Seal needs to mean: that every plant, tree, fruit, nut, needs to be grown deep in the rainforest in symbiosis with the wild, needs to be obtained by hand, and the people who make the oil need to be paid above fair-trade price. Because we don’t just want them to get by – we want to build a strong economy, so the tribes will continue doing what they always did, preserving the rainforest for the future of the planet and keeping the oxygen going.
Let’s talk more about the technological initiatives of Ecoagents, which involves flying in computers and generators to set up computer labs in the villages deep in the Amazon. Can you talk a little bit about how this technology is helping to preserve culture?
In many ways, the first layer of defense is preservation. The first line is making them understand that the knowledge that they have is something very valuable. That the knowledge “out there” isn’t better – it’s just different. In order to preserve the knowledge, they have to feel like they’re doing the same things that the rest of the world does. So that’s why I decided to bring computers to them, and now, they know how to create all kinds of documents. We introduced the tools to them, and now the tools work in their favour. In the past, if they wanted to go to the authorities (to seek help against the land abuses of large corporations in their territories), then they needed to have certain documents written in legal terms. So, they would have to leave the rainforest, which is already very difficult because they would have to get out in a plane, and this is very expensive. It often took them years to make enough money for the plane, just to get a document that was written for them in the correct legal terms. Once they got to the outside world, there was no guarantee that anyone would help them write this document for free, so some people never even came back. Now, they have computers – so they only have to type up the documents, sign them, and take them to the government offices.
Every time I create a computer lab, I bring one camera. I designate one person to go out into the jungle and take pictures of whatever they see – insects, plants, whatever – download it to the computer, and write a description of what they saw, in their own words. So, they document things in their own way, and because we don’t use internet in the computer labs, those things are safe there. There are libraries right now being created as we speak; pictures and images in their own words, with their own expressions.
I’m happy that you used the phrase “in their own words” – I think that’s a really important point that activists should always consider, making sure that they are listening to and respecting the voices of the people they want to help without overshadowing.
Right. We think that we have this magic formula, and we see people with no shoes and think, “oh, that’s terrible.” But it’s not. Every plant, every animal has an energy, and it’s the same energy as the energy all humans have. At the end of the day, were all the same. Humans are just dust with pride.
You also serve on the board of directors for the Land is Life, a nonprofit that supports indigenous communities and organizations. Can you tell me about that?
This organization is one of the most fantastic organizations because they work with indigenous tribes worldwide. They meet with these groups, educate them about their rights, and bring them to speak at the United Nations Indigenous People’s forum. And the leaders of Land is Life are always thinking about how indigenous communities can preserve the environment through their own culture, not imposing their beliefs.
Do you think the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as the new president of Brazil could become a threat to indigenous communities and nature in the Amazon?
Jair Bolsonaro’s proposed policies are very concerning for the rights of indigenous people and the protection of their territories. Bolsonaro is putting forward to combine the ministry of environment and agriculture and has publicly declared that the Amazon is being under utilised and should be opened further for agriculture (which could mean expanding into indigenous land). If he is officially confirmed as president and if he is successful with his proposals, this would be the biggest blow to the protection of the Amazon in Brazil’s history.
Are there ways in which his negative influence could be counteracted?
Brazil is the world’s largest soy exporter, with 13 percent of the planted area in the Amazon. If the inhabitants of the world’s largest cities (New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, etc.) reduced their consumption of soy and its derivative products (tofu, soy milk, Chinese pork, etc.), the demand for soy would decrease. This would save hectares upon hectares of land from getting burned and destroyed, along with thousands of endangered animals, water supply, birds, insects and medicinal plants, and its indigenous inhabitants. It would reduce violence and wars and maintain the health of individuals. And that is just to mention one product – soy.
You’ve been able to merge two seemingly disparate worlds, beauty and activism. What advice do you have for people who are seeking to do activist work, or merge their industries or expertise with activism?
My advice would be: find in your heart what it is that you want to do. If you want to do good for the world, get to the point: What exactly is the change you want to make? And once you decide, be a witness and do the work – grassroots. Find out what it is that people need, not what you think that they need. Talk to people, learn more, read more. Read about the history, read about the culture of the people you want to help. Try to understand what they think and respect their culture. And just get going – just get moving.
Are there any specific books that you could recommend?
The documentary Affluenza and the book Germs, Guns, and Steel. I also like reading Confucius to understand human thinking, and another one of my classics is The Art of War – it gets to the basics of understanding human thought. As a Man Thinketh, Think Like Da Vinci, and The Philosophy of Jesus are also fantastic.
Where do you see the future of environmental activism going, and what kind of progress do you think still needs to be made?
Progress will be made to the point that we realize that there’s no real progress. We need to reduce consumption, reduce all the pollution in the ocean, in the earth, in the air. And we need to reduce the pollution in our heads; sometimes we read and watch things that torture us, when we can use our brains to do something better for the world.
And what are some things that you do to reduce this ‘brain pollution’ that we all have?
I try to stay focused on what I’m doing: “What is my goal today? How is it benefiting myself or my neighbour?” Stay focused, and then those things will come – whatever it is that you want to achieve. And give time – like 30 minutes a day – for the crazy impulsive thinking. Whatever is there in your head, give yourself 30 minutes for that. Set a timer, and at the end, go back to the real deal. Because we can achieve happiness. You know, people think it takes a long time, but it takes one second. To stay happy takes a lot longer – but just choose happiness, again and again and again. Paradise is right here.
What other developments are you really excited about, at Rahua or with your NGO affiliations?
Actually, I’m really excited about our new products – a Hydration line using the legendary oil. Our ancestors used only natural products, but the synthetics industry created new standards for how we judge hair products, and cosmetics in general, and that’s been the challenge. My new products fit the standards of any high-end products – by using only natural ingredients. And I’m excited!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to say to your readers that we are lucky to have this decision in our hands. We can make this a cleaner world, so do the best you can do – and the future will tell.