[This is our last post from our 2009-2010 trip.]
Laos — a small, landlocked, mountainous country wedged between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma — was once home to some of the best weavers in the world, masters of discontinuous supplementary weft, as detailed and ornate as European tapestry.
However, during the "Vietnam" war, American B52s rained cluster bombs over Laos — more bombs per capita than in any other conflict until the 2003 bombing of Baghdad. Lao people were forced to flee their homes and their villages, often taking refuge in caves for years while the war raged on. Understandably, much was lost, materially and culturally.
At the close of the war in 1975, life expectancy, literacy and per capita GNP in Laos were ranked some of the lowest in the world. In the last 20 years, with much international assistance, Laos has slowly climbed to 133 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index of 182 countries.
In an effort to support women and rural communities in these changes, we ride 11 long and crowded hours on a 2nd class bus through the mountains of Central Laos.
When we arrive tired but safely in Xieng Khuang, we are warmly greeted by Kommaly Chanthavong, visionary and founder of Lao Sericulture Company. Two years ago we purchased some beautiful scarves made by them. This year we have made a special order, rather than purchase stock on hand at their shop in Vientiane, so we’ve come to see for ourselves where and how it will be made.
"We work for our producers," Kommaly tells us early in our 3-day visit. As the visit unfolds, the importance of this simple statement becomes clear. This fair trade enterprise works with hundreds of families in this and neighbouring provinces.
Sǔan Món – Mulberry Farm – becomes our home base. It’s a demonstration organic farm and a centre for research and training. It’s also home to a large but low-tech sericulture facility where silkworms are raised, new varieties are bred and silk yarns created. The farm also includes a weaving and dyeing centre, where most of Lao Sericulture’s natural dyeing takes place.
Lao Sericulture has a long-term lease on the land from the local government. In fact, the government invited Kommaly here to work with local village groups to reduce poverty by providing training and markets for sericulture, natural dyeing and weaving. When villagers come to the farm for training, they are taught the entire cycle of silk creation as it is practiced organically and sustainably by Lao Sericulture.
Kommaly goes on to tell us that 21 people will have their hands in the production of each of the silk scarves we’ve ordered. It’s easy to believe, as we visit a herd of cows, a large composting operation, and fields and fields of mulberry bushes: all of which are cared for by people rather than machines. We also go into the silk rearing houses where 4 different kinds of silkworms are carefully raised – without chemicals. During our visit they sit empty, however, as winters on the plateau of Xieng Khuang, although pleasantly cool for us Canadians, are too chilly for Bombyx mori – the cultivated silkworm – which prefer a consistent, warm temperature around 28˚.
In one workshop, we watch the reeling and finishing of silk yarns. In another, we see dye pots filled with mulberry fruits, indigo, stick lac insect resin, leaves of all sorts, even mud. All of them simmer away on custom-made, fuel-efficient stoves that burn coarse sawdust from a nearby mill that processes hardwood timber.
We drive 2 hours – more than half of the time on an unusually narrow and badly fissured, unpaved road. Before it was built a few years ago, Kommaly and her husband walked 5 to 6 hours along a dirt path to visit these villagers. While travel is much easier now, it’s still true that silk is an ideal cash crop for remote villagers, as it has a high value relative to its weight or volume. It can also be stored, waiting for transportation or customers, without spoiling.
COPE (the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise.) Obviously, it’s a long road to recovery when you’ve been bombed back to the Stone Age, as some have said of Laos.
Lao Sericulture is proud of its work and its recognition as a fair trade enterprise by the World Fair Trade Organization. Kommaly has received international awards for her designs and she was one of the 1000 peacewomen nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. But we sense that most important to her is the reward of helping reduce poverty in northeast Laos while reviving traditional skills that were almost lost. We’re pleased to play a small part in that recovery, and proud to bring these artisanal and sustainable fashions to the West.
Ellen & Alleson