It may be a surprise to many that there are hundreds of producer and artisan cooperatives around the world concerned with environmental issues and finding solutions to protect their natural resources. One explanation is their dependence on their natural environment for survival. Many ethnic groups live in isolated areas where they understand the need to respect their natural surroundings. In addition, recent outside interest for resources (wood, oil, water, space) has required special attention to protect what is valuable and necessary for their community's survival.
In Pajapan, Mexico, the forest surrounding the village is part of the bio-reserve of Las Tuxtlas. The indigenous people have long been known for their excellent carpentry work with furniture. Their concern for the depleting sources of wood and the effect on the forest, also threatened by clear cutting for cattle grazing, inspired them to replant grazing fields with precious local trees 30 years ago. By cultivating beautiful trees such as cocuite and granadillo to carve smaller items like fine kitchen utensils and home accents for the fair trade market, the cooperative and the community benefit from an economically sustainable activity while protecting the forest surrounding their village.
Others, having suffered serious health consequences from the use of harmful pesticides, return to traditional and organic farming techniques. Shade grown coffee and cocoa are great examples, with crops planted under fruit trees or a forest canopy, providing critical habitat for birds and wildlife. Another common conventional crop is cotton. The devastating modern cotton farming practiced in various parts of the world cause one million human poisonings a year from exposure to pesticides. An alternative has taken root in Peru in the 1980s. In fact, naturally coloured cotton plants have been cultivated in the Andes by the Quechua and their ancestors for 5,000 years. The ancient native plants were found still being farmed by indigenous people, inspiring a return to safe cotton cultivation. No chemicals or other synthetic processes are used to grow, soften or colour the naturally pigmented cotton. The ancient cotton plants grow in various colours: cream, beige, brown, rust, chocolate, mauve, green and other earthy tones. Related cotton plants are also being cultivated and woven by indigenous people in Guatemala, contributing to the social welfare of rural communities, healthier and safer working conditions, and rebuilding natural environments. Though the ancient cotton produces wonderful luxury items, it is possible for most of us to support this ancient cotton revival, and the growers and weavers in this project, by purchasing reusable coffee filters, bread cloths and weaving made from indigenous coloured cotton from Peru and Guatemala.
On paper, it is sometimes also valuable for organizations and governments to collaborate with communities when building sustainable environmental projects. Within the mountain districts in Nepal a rotating harvest and replanting management programme was initiated in 1985 by the Nepal government with the assistance of community workers. It was necessary to implicate the people who use the forest resources and to understand the importance of these resources to local villages and culture. The bark from the lotka shrub is harvested once during an eight–year period, the time it takes for new shoots to mature and be ready for another harvest. The shrub grows at 1200 to 3000 ft in the forest, usually a two day walk from the nearest village. The bark is boiled, cleaned and beaten to produce a fibre pulp, then mixed with water and poured onto a floating frame to make paper. Women are involved in the harvesting, preparation, paper-making and printing of the fine paper.
Nepalese artisans have been producing hand-made paper for thousands of years, and for 400 years using the lotka bark. Other materials used for paper making are recycled paper and cotton. Printing is done using natural vegetable dyes and block prints, with many of the designs a reflection of Nepal’s traditional art and ancient culture. The paper workshops connected to fair trade export markets have a strong commitment to social and environmental issues and employ mostly women in an effort to fight poverty and child labour in Nepal.
When looking at the cooperatives producing fair trade products around the world, we find many other eco-friendly projects. Selecting fairly traded products for our purchases means we are at once buying what we need and supporting responsible production and community well-being. For some cooperatives, the simplicity of the production means no power tools are used, and the tasks can be done by those without access to electricity or fossil fuels. For others, solving an environmental problem becomes key to the well-being of the community. It’s a good idea to make sure our decisions as consumers enables their positive action instead of supporting harmful production practices such as those found in many large-scale agricultural and manufacturing centres. Small but sustainable projects found in fair trade networks are a practical, viable solutions for healthier environments and communities.
Written by: Nicole McGrath
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