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Laos: Women Village Weavers Pursue Moderate Livelihoods

A weaver weave a cup coaster set

By Toung Eh Synuanchanh

This article is the 24th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BUNGSANTHUENG, Laos: The consciousness of finite resource and traditional wisdom are inspiring a group of women in the Southeast Asian country to pursue business practices based on the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood, the art of responsible and sustainable living.

The women weavers of Ban Bungsanthueng, Nongbok District, Khammouane Province of Laos – about 400 km south of the capital Vientiane – have formed a women handicraft group that draws upon longstanding traditional and cultural knowledge of sard-phue (reed mat) weaving.

The aim is foster the young generation's awareness that nature is a shared and limited resource, and enable understanding of the interconnection between economy and nature.

The weaving of reed mats is a rural cultural tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation. Phue (reed) is a papyrus grass growing year-round in the marsh and mud in the Ban Bungsanthueng village. Reed can be an alternative crop to the economy.

The process of the weaving includes collecting the reed, slicing, drying, and colouring. The main woven materials comprise the loom and a locally available weaving comb made out of wood. Reed mat is a value-added product that could generate income and help to improve quality of life of women and their families.

"We have witnessed that this activity provides an income and has a potential to be an additional source of income that can support our family. I am sure that we can use this as our additional source of income if our members are harmonious and actively produce the product. Today, there is an increase in the market demand, but our group cannot meet it," says Mrs. Luam, a member of the group.

The villagers undertake reed mat weaving after completing the annual rice season. This skill is also widely practised in some areas in the northeast of Thailand. The villagers produce the mats for use in their family, as a gift, souvenir, and in exchange for food. However, the traditional pattern known as sard-yeng did not suffice and it required creativity in order to value-add. Thus, the group requires training in contemporary art and creativity.

"We invited weavers from other villages to share ideas about developing their mats. The group members were also sent to train in Vientiane from time to time where they have been taught about business operations, such as marketing and financial management," explains Venerable Phithak, a monk who advises the group.

In fact, men's earnings are a primary source of family income; families entirely rely on them. The ability of women to supplement family income will empower them, promote their social, political and economic roles in their family and community, and allow women to take greater control over their daily lives.

"In the past, my family relied only on my husband's income, but the income from selling mats promotes my role in the family and share financial burdens with my husband, such as buying food," Mrs. Luam tells IDN-Lotus News Feature.

Being a part of the 'Buddhist Volunteer Spirit for Community Ban Bungsanthueng Initiative', a Buddhist monk in 2013 initiated development activities in the village. Before constituting the group in 2015, the villagers observed and engaged in development activities spearheaded by the monk for two years where they were taught Buddhist ethics and interconnection between humans and nature (Pali: paticcasamuppada).

This moral teaching has helped raise villagers' awareness of the significance of nature's contributing vision of the self-sufficient economy. "Buddhism does not support killings and a market-oriented economy, because it consumes more natural resources. It supports moderate consumption," says Monk Phithak.

In 2015, when the women handicraft group was launched with the support of the monk, it operated on the basis of a moderate use of local resource, keeping in view the need to preserve culture for future generations and generate additional income for the family.

"The reason underpinning our assembly is to preserve the knowledge and transfer it to young generations," Ms. Khien, head of Women's Union and the group told IDN-Lotus News Feature.

In this project, the monk seeks funds and organizes training for the group through his network of Buddhist Volunteer Spirit for Community under the Buddhism for Development Project (BDP).

The group is funded by the BDP and NGOs such as PADETC of Laos. Indeed PADETC, the Participatory Development Training Center, funded the group's two-year initiative allowing 15 members use the fund to buy their material and equipment required in their production. "The contribution to the group fund is deducted from every sale of each member for their membership expansion after completing the initiative," added the group member Ms. Muan.

The group is expected to expand its membership to other groups in the village. The project is expected to be self-reliant and sustainable backed by their cultural wisdom and a sense of ownership. “After completing the funding period, our group is confident that we can run our activity ourselves because our group is united, cherished and owns our cultural knowledge,” said Ms. Khien.

Harmony and trust among members are crucial for the project’s sustainability. “Harmony is central to our activities, without it, the activity cannot move forward,” argues Venerable Phithak. "However, we should begin with training people's mind as we are doing today through moral teaching. With moral awareness, the villagers will comprehend the 'interbeings' (the essential interconnectedness of the universe) including their social and economic behaviour, so they do not destroy the nature any more."

Photo: A weaver. Credit: Toung Eh Synuanchanh

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