Madagascar silk industry helps save endangered forests

Jul 31, 2012

  This year at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, a federation of silk weavers made thousands from sales of its scarves.

That’s good news for the impoverished women of the Sahalandy Federation of Madagascar. But it’s also good for the island nation’s forests, home to the wild Malagasy silkworm.

Madagascar’s Tapia forests cradle the silkworms’ cocoons, which are collected, then sold to a growing number of weavers. The forests are the last vestiges of the original vegetation in the highlands of Madagascar. But they are rapidly being eliminated for agriculture and charcoal production. That means fewer cocoons just as the silk industry is poised to boom.

Sahalandy, a federation of mostly female weavers, is finding eager buyers for scarves woven from the wild silk. After just one go around at the Folk Art Market last year, the group took home thousands of dollars for the weavers, including Rado Herivonona Ambinintsoa.

“The lives of the women completely changed,” said Rado, speaking through translator Natalie Mundy.

Rado, speaks good English, but is shy about using it. Mundy helped get the federation into the Santa Fe market as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country. In Madagascar, women’s lives traditionally revolve around the home and raising children. The federation’s success in last year’s market brought more economic independence, and new respect from their husbands, said Rado, speaking through Mundy.

“And their husbands are like ‘We should stay closer to our wives because they know what they’re doing,” she says.

When Mundy first arrived in Rado’s community two years ago, there were only 10 or 15 people doing weaving regularly. Before Santa Fe, there was no market outside the country for the scarves, each of which takes one month to weave. Now there are 91 members of the Sahalandy Federation, said Mundy.

“It’s expensive to do this. It’s expensive to make one scarf, so they didn’t want to spend all their money making one scarf and not see it sell for years,” she says.

The success of organizations like Sahalandy is bolstering efforts to preserve the Tapia forests. Rado said the federation has changed how it deals with cocoon sellers.

“We’ve learned to respect the environment and the forest, so now Sahalandy is looking to only find people who collect cocoons from the forest who respect the environment,” she said.

On opening night at this year’s Folk Art Market, Rado carefully arranged piles of scarves in earthen colors. Customers converged on the Madagascar booth. They ran their hands over the web-like weaves of the wild silk, dyed with mud, tree bark, mushrooms and eucalyptus leaves.  

Sahalandy also makes finer weave scarves, more akin to those from Asia. They’re made from cocoons cultivated indoors, rather than the wild cocoons. They appeal to different tastes. And they also help Sahalandy deal with a conundrum. The federation is poised to grow, with new wholesale clients cultivated through this year’s market. But that means finding more wild cocoons, which is proving difficult.

After the market was over, Rado was ecstatic.

“Oh my gosh I can’t believe – it’s a lot of money. I’ve never seen a market like I’ve seen here. It’s huge. We made a lot of money and we are happy,” Rado said.

Sahalandy made about $37,000 this year. One thing it will do is buy more cocoons, if it can find them. One solution the group is exploring is creating a protected nursery of Tapia trees. It would be expensive and take several years. But after seeing the results from just one year at the market, Mundy says it’s worth the effort.

"Everything that could have changed changed," she said. "Everybody is more confident. Everyone has a completely different idea for their future."