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The ikat weavers’ "vacation from the kitchen"

This month’s blog takes us to Indonesia with Helen A. Cruz, Impact Resolutions’ senior human environment specialist. And so, a very interesting story is woven…


Taken from the Indonesian verb “megikat” meaning to bind or tie off, ikat is an ancient and sophisticated process of textile weaving using a simple back-strap loom. The loom-decorated textiles are dyed using natural colours processed from raw materials. The entire textile production process (planting, processing and spinning) is predominantly a female activity.

During the mid-1990s, Impact Resolutions' Senior Human Environment Specialist Helen Cruz was working as a development advisor for an Australian Aid funded Watershed Management Planning Project. Based in eastern Indonesia in what’s now known as West Timor she decided to help organize a study trip to South Sulawesi province for a group of up to thirty female ikat weavers. The tour would be a fact-finding mission to not only augment community-based awareness but also learn from other villages in the region indigenous approaches to natural resources management.

The study tour would focus on two catchment areas: the Walanae and Saddang watersheds where there was a plan to study re-greening initiatives and other income generating activities. Mulberry tree leaves are a silkworm’s staple food and the South Sulawesi province is well-known for its loom woven silk sarongs. The tour would be an ideal opportunity for the weavers to develop new ways of critical thinking and develop initiatives, not only in watershed management, but also the use of silk thread. In addition, as sarong and ikat textiles are highly sought after from both national and international tourists, they are an ideal way of supplementing household incomes.

The weavers were selected to participate in the tour due to a lack of opportunities to contribute to the development of their own communities. The initiative’s objective was to gain firsthand knowledge of the efforts of other communities in the region—knowledge that would help empower the weavers to plan and manage their own communities.

The tour was preceded by a pre-departure orientation. This was particularly important as it was the first time many of the weavers had left their own villages. Most had never stayed in a hotel before let alone been on a plane. A palpable sense of excitement was in the air together with the number one question on everyone’s lips: What would it be like to fly? The day before departure, one participant in particular became so anxious that she tossed and turned all night—keeping her roommates awake in the process. So worried was one concerned roommate that she approached Helen to explain the situation. Helen discreetly took the nervous flyer to one side. The weaver expressed disappointment that although she was very much looking forward to the trip, didn’t feel she’d be able to make it. Helen tightly held her hand and asked if she’d feel better sitting next to her on the flight. To Helen’s delight she agreed. This seemed to placate her as well as soothing her sleep deprived roommates.

On the day of departure, while waiting at the airport, the group caught the attention of a crowd of journalists who also happened to be there. One of them approached the participants and asked where they were going, and why. Without hesitation, a group member blurted out, “To take a vacation from our kitchens!” Such a candid remark even made the headlines in the next day’s local press.

Following the safe arrival of the flight, the group were briefed by local officials followed by a short bus tour of the local provincial capital, Makassar.

After a good night’s sleep, the next day the group set off to a community forestry area in Kadang village, where bench terracing had shown to be an appropriate and successful way of cultivating both tree and food crops. The head of the local farmers’ group outlined the community’s terracing techniques, credit system, extension outreach methods, farmer group establishment process (including women’s groups and work strategy to maximise efficiency), mulching and crop production methods.

Land management and mulching issues were of particular interest to the weavers as they were used to a slash and burn system and were hitherto somewhat sceptical about their crops being able to prosper if they abandoned such a practice.

The next destination was the highland district of Tana Toraja. The journey took about five hours on a narrow and winding road. The group made an obligatory stop at a lookout point overlooking panoramic Mt. Nona. Nona literally means “maiden” in the local vernacular because the mountain’s contour was said to resemble the virgin maiden’s intimate area. This caused a lot of giggles followed by gleeful screams when the penny suddenly dropped, and the weavers realized the origins of the mountain’s name. The destination was memorable for other reasons too—as the group’s first experience of a sitting toilet and hot shower.

The next morning, the study tour convened to listen to a representative from the district head of the Peoples’ Consultative Assembly explaining how the community been able to achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency in their district’s development. He explained the process had involved the restructuring of village government institutions, in particular revitalising the leadership by replacing older personnel staff with younger, university educated cadres and developing a successful partnership between them, the private sector and non-governmental organisations. Signs bearing the district’s development motto “Bangkit!” (meaning to rise) were prominently displayed throughout the area.

A reduction in the once requisite rituals and festivals—which accounted for a large portion of individual and household savings—had also assisted in the development process. Subsequently additional funds were made available for village improvement programs. For example, a local vocational college provided non-agricultural employment and also offered tourism training.

Previous land ownership arrangements had not encouraged the utilization of fallow land for communal production. Structural modifications had led to an increase in the production of coffee beans as well as other cash crops. Environmental management attitudes were also an important factor too: increased food security helped to ensure that the community would not destroy the forest to expand agricultural lands.

The fourth and fifth days of the tour focused on silk weaving and production. The participants visited a private silk producer and entrepreneur to observe the mulberry plantation and witness the entire silk production process—from incubation through to weaving. The group visited Wajo district where almost every household owns silk weaving looms and our weavers were keen to try a new technique involving silk threads.

At the end of the tour each participant was given a mulberry tree cutting to take home with them, so they could attempt to cultivate them in their village gardens. The group also had discussions with local government representatives about the possibility of starting a silk production and weaving apprenticeship training program.

After returning back home safe and sound, the weavers were debriefed. It was evident the tour had been an enormous success. The weavers were no longer the shy and apprehensive people of a few days ago but had blossomed into self-confident and assertive individuals eager to work in large groups for the betterment of their own communities. When returning to their respective neighbourhoods, they received a warm welcome; many quickly formed groups to plan and implement activities to improve their villages.



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