By promoting cloth-weaving and natural dying, Poonsap Suanmuang, a chemist, is demonstrating how village women can develop both income generating skills and environmental consciousness–and greatly empower themselves in the process. In marketing these products, she is also creating public awareness of the value of traditional methods of weaving and dying.
The New Idea
Poonsap Suanmuang has developed a comprehensive program that addresses the problems of rural poverty, environmental awareness, and women's leadership structures on several levels. Poonsap is helping women to refine natural dying techniques and target markets for the hand-dyed products, generating much needed income for the women.
The women's environmental awareness is built into the process of learning about and gathering materials for dye stuffs, found mostly in the forest. As the women learn about the trees and plants in the forest, and the income potential they hold–a natural respect and appreciation develops. They become less willing to see the forest destroyed for their own or outside developers' short term economic gains.
Beyond this, the women learn leadership skills, gain the understanding of an organizational structure, and experience self-empowerment as they master a marketable craft. They take on the responsibility and leadership involved in the maintenance of their village cooperative and the marketing of their products.
Finally, through their marketing efforts, the women are educating consumers about the value of non-wood forest products as well as promoting and supporting a new consumer awareness.
The pattern of development in Thailand has consistently stressed industry and business over rural development. This has caused severe environmental degradation and an imbalance in the social order. For instance, massive poverty-driven migration to urban areas has emptied villages and left many women helplessly awaiting remittances from relatives as they watch their families drifting apart and away.
The forests, which in former times mitigated climatic fluctuations and provided many products critical to the livelihoods of the villagers, continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate, even though some protective legislation is in place. Many villagers have lost their traditional knowledge of non-wood uses for the forest and with it their appreciation of what the forest can provide. In their struggle to survive and in the absence of viable alternatives, they have hastened the destruction of the forest through slash and burn farming as well as use of chemical products. Chemical dyes have caused further damage to the lakes and rivers in which they are dumped, and have produced serious health problems, such as skin burns, in the rural women dyers.
Profitable, large-scale marketing of naturally woven and dyed products has not been possible over the past several years as higher quality synthetic fabrics and dyes have become increasingly popular. However, there is a small, steady market among Thais for natural products and output is still limited enough to demand high prices for quality products. Public education, effective marketing, and quality control are needed to keep the demand for high value products ahead of the supply.
Poonsap first assists the women of an area in cataloging and recording the plants and trees in the forest from which natural dyes can be made. She then employs her knowledge of chemistry to use natural ingredients to ensure that these plant dyes are as colorfast and bright as chemical dyes. In the process, women gain a sense of stewardship over the forest and learn to value and protect its potential, while maintaining or learning safe and sustainable fabric dye practices.
"Do you want to be the owner or just the workers?" is the question Poonsap poses to women who become interested in learning natural dying techniques. It is this sense of ownership and accompanying responsibility which informs the project and creates opportunity for women's leadership training. As women practice and learn the many technical skills involved in producing, testing, and using natural dyes, they learn to rely on themselves-and on their own observations and judgements. By taking responsibility for the marketing of the products, they transcend the limits traditionally put on village women in Thailand.
Involving an increasing number of village women over the past seven years, the project has already had positive results. A specific aim of the plan is to maintain complete self- sufficiency among each cooperative. Shares are sold in the cooperatives to raise money for a revolving fund that makes loans to members for supplies, and members take turns performing marketing and administrative tasks.
In marketing their products, the women come into contact with consumers to learn their tastes and requirements. They see the value people give their work, which helps build confidence and create market awareness. All products are sold with a label that credits the weaver and identifies the natural sources of the dyes used. This educates consumers and helps develop their pride in purchasing products that are environmentally friendly and help preserve traditional skills. Learning about marketing techniques usually involves visits to Bangkok or other urban areas where the women are exposed to poverty-stricken families. Forced to migrate to the cities out of desperation, these families serve as a powerful warning.
Poonsap began her program in 1986 in one village of sixty people. Today, over 500 people from twenty-four villages are part of the natural dyeing project.
Poonsap comes from a farming family. She was active in the 1970s student movement in Thailand and graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in physics in 1981. Since then, she has worked both as a volunteer and employee with non-government organizations primarily in the field of appropriate technology. During one work assignment in which Poonsap was asked to find ways for dyers to overcome the negative effects of chemical dyes in the rural silk industry, she realized the problem was being conceptualized incorrectly. The need was for a more comprehensive approach that prevented the health and environmental hazards altogether, while also empowering rural women to take control of the production process themselves and thereby improve their status, circumstances, and environment.
Her technical background is combined with a demonstrated ability to gain the trust of rural people and work effectively with them. In developing and perfecting dyeing and fixing techniques, she has worked closely with several traditional craftspeople who have not previously shared their knowledge with others.