I flew to El Salvador 40 years ago this month, and recently I was remembering the day in 1977 when my deputy at the ADOC tannery had been arrested at an army roadblock. It was a Thursday and we had until the weekend to get him out or he would most likely turn up as a corpse on the far side of the volcano.

We got Ernesto out on the Saturday morning, thanks to the Herculean negotiating skills of our Admin Chief Sr. Rivas. It was, at that moment, clear to us all that the leather industry was not immune from geopolitics; we needed to take much greater precautions at our remote countryside plant, 45 minutes’ drive out from the capital.

In 1977, a contested election and unclear U.S. foreign policy had tipped a volatile political situation in the country into the start of a lengthy civil war. During that year, our dentist was shot and killed because of his links to the University, and a young man from our little group of 10 small houses was kidnapped. He was the Head of Tourism and from a rich family which paid out a hefty ransom, only learning when his body was later found that he had died from stray bullets during the kidnap.

Worried about the security of my own young family, we left at the start of 1978 and returned to Europe, and the two other British employees running the rubber plant and the shoe factory left shortly after, although not before one had been forced to drive an armoured SUV through the perimeter fence to escape kidnap or murder.

The famous American author Joan Didion wrote quite a shocking short book on “Salvador” after a trip she made in 1982, the same year I had the opportunity to return to help the founder, Don Roberto Palomo, keep the business alive in difficult circumstances. He too, as a prominent personality, had left to live in nearby Costa Rica where ADOC had many shoe shops and a small shoe factory, putting a brave Dutchman in charge in El Salvador to hold the fort during the war.

I am glad she had not written her book before my trip, as the easy way we travelled to the tannery each day, enjoyed our evenings and talked our way through roadblocks was alien to the way she saw things. Most of my old team, including my wonderful PA, Carolina Linqui, were still present and it was easy slotting back into the jigsaw.

A heavily guarded Don Roberto felt able to return briefly to El Salvador during my trip and we worked together on prioritised projects. He flew home to Costa Rica a little before I left but, on my last day (Friday, January 29, 1982), I had a telephone call from him to discuss our plan of work for the next few months in the tannery. The lengthy call went well into the normal lunch period, and I heard him shouting to his team that he would follow them later to the little Costa Rican restaurant they preferred.

He never made it, instead walking into an attempted kidnapping on his way to his car. He escaped with the help of a young local policeman but was badly shot and flown to Miami for treatment; I was able to visit him in the hospital that weekend on my way back to the UK. He survived three bullets in his arms and legs and continued to actively run the business until his death at 84 in 2009; although the stress of the event put a huge strain on all his family.

The leather industry is of course much wider than merely Central America and, in my limited career, we have seen problems from Northern Ireland, through to Ethiopia and Sri Lanka at various times.

While El Salvador was always a powder keg, it was an event in Pakistan that surprised me the most. In August 2012, we were on holiday in Iceland and walking around an outdoor museum when I received an unexpected call from an Associated Press journalist asking about Warren Weinstein and seeking permission to use a photograph I had taken of him in 2009 at the University of Northampton.

Armed men had broken into his house in Lahore, overwhelming his security team, and kidnapped him. It was the same house where I had stayed with him for six weeks or so while doing a project on the Pakistan leather industry. He had done excellent work there on dairy projects, furniture and in other sectors and, once funding had been found, the Pakistan government were keen that he was involved in the work.

It was easy to see why as his skill, understanding, dedication and energy were outstanding. On the day of his kidnap, he was 48 hours from leaving for retirement at home in the U.S. In January 2015, he was “inadvertently” killed by an American drone attack in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. He was 73.

Geopolitical uncertainty

As we look out at the world today, geopolitical uncertainty, brinkmanship and military risk-taking is very much back. A leather industry adapting to all the impacts of Covid-19 in terms of resilience, supply chain developments, rising costs and changing markets will have to factor this global belligerence into their thinking; just as they have had to do many times through history.

Leather was needed in the past to fight wars and now is required as one of the most sustainable materials to help the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Mike Redwood


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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