A Silk Road To Community Prosperity

The revival of wild silk in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots is helping to protect forest areas by improving the economic situation of local people.

The island nation of Madagascar is famed for its amazing concentration of rare and endemic species. In the northern rainforests live species such as the endangered ring-tailed lemur and the aye-aye, the world’s largest nocturnal primate. In the southern savannas grow majestic baobab trees and alien-looking orchids. The island is a “biodiversity hotspot,” home to more than 10,000 species that exist nowhere else on Earth.

Madagascar also holds a less-happy distinction: It is among the poorest countries on the planet, with an annual per-capita income of less than $1,000. In the rural areas, average annual income falls below $200. As in many other poor places, Madagascar’s natural wealth and human impoverishment fall into antagonistic alignment, as desperate people resort to stripping the land to feed their families. There is no such thing as a hungry conservationist.

farming terraces in a tropical setting In the highlands of central Madagascar, silk-worm silvaculture has proven to be
an effective way to stop deforestation.

But there’s good news, also. Today local people and international-development experts are working with some of the island’s smallest, most nondescript creatures – a handful of obscure moth species – to protect biodiversity while improving the economic plight of the Malagasy people.

About ten years ago, a group of women in the Amoron’i Mania region in the island’s arid central highlands approached a man named Jamie Spencer for help in reviving an ancient tradition. Spencer, an anthropologist from Scotland, was well known in the area. Since the early ’90s, the organization he founded, Feedback Madagascar, had been working to bring basic infrastructure into the most impoverished villages in Amoron’i Mania – building schools, drilling water wells, setting up health clinics, and “filling in the bits that they are unable to,” as he says.

The women were weavers, and the source of their thread – the landibe silk moth (Borocera madagascariensis) – was disappearing, along with the modest income the moths provided the women. They were wondering if Spencer could help to fill in a couple bits in the equation that were eating away at their livelihoods. First, the food source of the landibe silkworm – the tapia tree (Uapaca bojeri) – was being cut and burned at a frightening rate for firewood, charcoal, and to make space for farmland. Tavy, the Malagasy word for slash-and-burn agriculture, is the biggest threat to Madagascar’s forests. Second, tourism was sparse to nonexistent in Amoron’i Mania, and the local market for their handiwork fetched pennies. The weavers needed access to global textile markets.

For Spencer, the combined social-and-environmental problem represented a perfect target for his shoestring aid operation. Tapia trees are the sole species of the primary successional forests in the region; their loss at the hands of tavy pastoralists was turning the highlands into a barren, eroded wasteland that offered little in either agricultural or ecological value. If there was a valuable export commodity associated with the remaining forests, it would incentivize locals to protect what groves remained, reforest the degraded landscape, and jumpstart a sustainable silviculture industry. The exquisite quality of the local weaving tradition – and the fact that it was almost unknown in the outside world at the time – gave Spencer the confidence that any investment in marketing and distribution would reap a worthwhile return for local communities.

“The conservation world in Madagascar is dominated by zoologists and biologists,” says Spencer, who feels that a lack of holistic thinking in the conservation movement hinders its success. “But income generation and economic development have a role in the well-being of people and in conservation.”

Spencer says big league conservation players in Madagascar like Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund give plenty of lip service to the idea of sustainable development as a means to make conservation efforts more effective in the long term, but in practice, “the way the conservation and [sustainable] development industry works is ‘in and out’: Make some promises, rush some outcomes, and go.”

His approach, he says, involves “no exit strategy.” Feedback Madagascar focuses on conservation from the poverty side of the equation and, of equal importance, it only supports projects that originate in a grassroots fashion. “The silk works fabulously,” Spencer says, as a conservation and development strategy. “It’s very easy for people to see: If we have more tapia trees, we have more moths, more cocoons, more silk, and more money.”

As a results of his organization’s efforts, the forests of Madagascar’s central highlands are slowly growing after being diminished to just 50,000 hectares when Spencer’s reforestation program began a decade ago. Through its locally run affiliate, Ny Tanintsika, Feedback Madagascar has planted more than 700,000 trees so far, a large percentage of which are tapia.

photo of dyed silk

A thousand kilometers to the north of Amoron’i Mania, in the remote and heavily rainforested northeastern portion of Madagascar, silkworms are playing a starring role in another Malagasy experiment in social entrepreneurship. Here in the Makira-Masoala forest complex, an area the size of Delaware that contains approximately 1 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, a group called Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International (CPALI) has established a silk enterprise using a similar framework as that established by Feedback Madagascar in the tapia forests. Unlike Amoron’i Mania, which has a long tradition of silk weaving with landibe moth cocoons, CPALI is working to develop a silk industry from scratch using several moth species native to the Makira-Masoala region.

In 2002, the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international NGO based in New York, established a large national park in the area in cooperation with the Madagascar government. The formation of the park has been lauded as one of the biggest conservation successes in Madagascar, but the actual level of wildlife protection provided by the park’s boundaries is unclear. Approximately 300,000 local people depend on the natural resources within the protected area for their livelihoods – most of whom lack any economic opportunities beyond small scale subsistence agriculture. Lemur poaching, illegal logging of rosewood, tavy, gold prospecting, and hunting for bush meat continue to be rampant within the protected area.

In 2006, Catherine Craig, an American biologist working in the region, teamed up with Mamy Ratsimbazafy, a Malagasy entomologist, to identify moth species in the Makira region with potential for use in silk production. Three species were selected, their host plants identified, and a process of husbanding the silkworms, harvesting the cocoons, and creating marketable textiles with the silk was developed. Craig established CPALI in 2009 as an organization to market the products abroad, while Ratsimbazafy has headed up a local group (the Madagascar Organization of Silk Workers or “SEPALI”) to train local families in their newly minted silk-production techniques.

SEPALI’s silk is completely unlike the supple, rippling silk of the domesticated Asian silkworms, which are traditionally raised on mulberry trees. This silk is not spun into thread at all – the individual cocoons are sewn together and ironed flat into a fabric more reminiscent of felt than silk. Earth-toned and highly textured, the novel textile has generated a minor buzz in the ethical fashion and design world and is being transformed into everything from clothing to lampshades to wall coverings. Three hundred Malagasy farmers are enrolled in the program, each of whom has planted between 250 and 2,000 native trees on deforested land surrounding the protected area for the purposes of raising silk moths. About 300 meters of the raw, hand-crafted silk has been produced thus far.

The lack of a local silk tradition has presented many challenges for SEPALI in persuading locals to adopt a new cottage industry. Several ecological and cultural circumstances appear to be on their side, however. The silkworm production season coincides with a seasonal lull in farming activities – exactly the time when the farmers typically head into the forest to harvest anything they can to bring in a little extra income. The host plants for the silk moths are also proving to be good hosts for the primary cash crop of the region – vanilla, which comes from the pods of a vining orchid. The orchid vines can be planted at the base of the trees, where they benefit from the fertile droppings of the silkworms.

“Farmers need to survive during the hard period when there is nothing to do,” Ratsimbazafy says. “The best way to get money is to cut the forest or to harvest something like bush meat. But we have noticed that the farmers who have joined this program have stopped doing that.… So for me that is our contribution to conservation.”

Just after the Makira park was created, local farmers were surveyed in an effort to find out how much of their income was derived from ecologically destructive activities such as logging, hunting, and prospecting. The results showed that an additional $60 per family per year would dissuade further tavy activity, while $175 was enough to convince locals to abandon all use of forest resources. With one meter of SEPALI’s wild silk selling for $250 on the world market, there is hope for a forest product that can be extracted without threatening the ecological dynamic of the landscape.

Back in the tapia forests of central Madagascar, more and more silk enterprises are popping up, giving the impression that a fair trade industry – à la the coffee and chocolate cooperatives in other tropical regions of the world – may be on the verge of blossoming. One of the most successful, from a financial point of view, is Sahalandy, a women’s collective in the Sandandahy district of Amoron’i Mania.

photo of someone handling cocoons in a basket

“It was an emergency situation when I first got there – they were losing their market, literally, and needed to find a way to earn an income,” says Natalie Mundy, a Peace Corps volunteer who helped the cooperative to develop an overseas market for their products. Mundy developed a slick website for the “silkies” and invited a documentary producer to make a movie. It was a smashing media success.

The weavers made their American debut in 2011 at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and brought home $30,000 after one weekend. Mundy says the cooperative grew from 12 to 95 members while she was there and income from weaving increased 3,000 percent over five years, allowing the women to buy homes and send their children to school.

Ny Tanintsika, Feedback Madagascar’s on-the-ground sister organization, has also expanded rapidly since taking up silk as a means to advance the cause of social and ecological regeneration. The organization now has a paid staff of 50, all of whom except one are Malagasy, while Spencer runs Feedback Madagascar from his home office in Scotland with a small collective of volunteer staff. This separation keeps overhead costs low and allows Spencer to focus on fundraising and developing the international market for wild silk. “We run on vapor as an organization,” he says, citing an annual budget of around $600,000.

Feedback Madagascar recently launched a web-based fundraising initiative called TreeMad.org in an attempt to funnel a larger share of conservation philanthropy toward the organization’s grassroots, village-based initiatives, rather than the more glamorous campaigns oriented toward wildlife. It’s the “teach a man to fish” concept, but with trees. “It’s not about how many trees you plant, it’s about how many you keep going,” Spencer says. “That seems to be the magic formula.”

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