During 2005 and 2006, the Bebali Foundation received World Bank funding to hold two weeklong festivals for natural-dye traditional weavers from across Indonesia. Each festival was held in an indigenous weaving community, bringing together a hundred weavers for facilitated discussion to identify common concerns and aspirations, and open workshops for the sharing of dye and weaving knowledge.

A key issue raised through these festivals concerned the supply of a dye plant known by many weavers as loba and used as a mordant with the red dye they obtained from the bark of the roots of Morinda citrifolia trees. Loba was sold as dried leaves wrapped in dried bark and supplies were dwindling in the markets while prices were rising rapidly. None of the weavers had ever seen a growing tree, they did not know what the plant was or where it grew, and nobody selling loba was willing to divulge their sources. The weavers all knew that their red dyes depended on this plant and that their incomes depended on making dependable red dyes. They gave the Bebali Foundation a mandate to identify the plant, find out where it was from, and rebuild a sustainable supply.

Tony Cunningham (People & Plants International), Pung (Bebali Foundation) and Chuck Peters (New York Botanic Garden)

With funding from the Ford Foundation (www.fordfoundation.org) and the help of ethnobotanist Dr Tony Cunningham from People and Plants International (www.peopleandplants.org) and taxonomists from Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (www.kew.org), loba was found to be a Symplocos tree from a genus known for its aluminium hyper-accumulation and favoring habitats in old forest above 600 meters (2,000 feet) elevation. During a year of tracing marketing chains back across the islands, we found many severely degraded Symplocos stands, damaged both by deforestation and by harvesting the bark in a way that killed the trees.

We found the largest accessible Symplocos stands in southeast Indonesia in the protected Kembang Boleng forest, along the high ridges of the mountain range that runs from the center of the island of Flores to its eastern shores. With further help from the biology labs at Kew, we determined that old fallen leaves had higher aluminium content than the fresh leaves, the bark, or the wood. This offered a wonderful, sustainable solution to the traditional weavers’ problems.

Three communities within this forest, and with close links to weavers’ cooperatives the Bebali Foundation was already working with, were identified as potential Symplocos suppliers and a pilot project was started. With the support of the Ende regional department of forestry, we began a two-year consultation with the neighboring villagers of Mbo Bhenga and Oja that resulted in the establishment of the Loba Na’a Ana women’s collectors group and the establishment of customary laws protecting the Symplocos trees. Throughout the Kembang Boleng forest, villages’ customary adat laws and their associated sanctions can govern land use far more effectively than statutory law. A significant problem in traditional communities is that the nationalization of the nation’s forests in the 1970s emasculated the customary adat institutions and adat leaders are still striving to establish appropriate roles under the new conditions. In all the communities where the Plant Mordant Project has been discussed, these adat leaders are among its most enthusiastic supporters.

For the professional government foresters, Symplocos also offered an exciting opportunity. With few staff they have the impossible job of protecting the forest from encroachment. Across the NTT province, 38% of land is listed as forest. In practice, much of the listed forest has no trees. As the department of forestry readily admits, over 700,000 hectares of forest (38% of all forests) are damaged and the rate of destruction is more than 15,000 hectares per year.

This is why the foresters are looking for non-timber forest products that people can harvest sustainably and that give communities an economic reason to maintain the woodlands. Symplocos fit the bill. With tens of thousands of Symplocos trees across the Kembang Boleng forest dropping hundreds of tons of leaves per year, the few hundred kilograms collected for dye use was insignificant.

In 2009, new regulations allowed the foresters to issue permits for the collection and sale of up to one ton per year of a non-timber forest species. The permit required that unprocessed leaves be shipped, so that the leaves could be identified on inspection. This gave the Bebali Foundation the advantage of being able to ensure quality control at source. From this beginning, the Bebali Foundation facilitated the establishment of a new trade network between the Symplocos leaf collectors and its network of a thousand weavers on eleven islands across Indonesia. As natural dyers beyond Indonesia heard of the work, interest in Symplocos grew internationally. Particular support for developing an international market came from natural dyers Esme Hedrick-Wong (www.esmelivingcolour.com) and Sara Goodman (www.saragoodmanfiberstudio.com) until the Plant Mordant Project was born in 2012.

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