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Matuba: The Resurgent Traditional Craft of Bark Cloth

The product:  traditional bark cloth made from Ficus natalensis
The Buganda kingdom in southeast Uganda is home to one of the oldest fabrics in Africa. Called “Matuba,” it is made from the pounded bark of the Natal Fig (Ficus natalensis), and was used traditionally as robes for Bugandan royalty and funeral wraps. 

An interesting characteristic of Ficus natalensis is that the trees withstand the removal of a large section of bark from the full circumference of the tree.  In fact, a single tree can be harvested annually for up to 50 years! These trees represent an ideal conservation resource: indigenous, sustainably managed under traditional practices for multiple uses, with innate beauty and value.  

The artisans:
Bark cloth harvest and preparation is traditionally the work of men. The introduction, first of cotton with Arab traders hundreds of years ago, and in modern times of inexpensive cloths and clothing, had greatly reduced the use and production of bark cloth.  However, as conservationists have identified bark cloth sales as a potential alternative income, and are finding marketing sources, the practice and trade of bark cloth harvest and preparation is re-emerging.  As different, non-traditional uses of bark cloth have been identified, women and women’s associations have become involved in the cutting, sewing, and producing of bark cloth products such as table mats, table runners, wall hangings, pouches, purses, cushion covers, and so forth. Efforts are underway to find full scale commercial uses including upholstery, wall paper, even dashboard covers in luxury automobiles. Additionally, we learned that farmers from as far away as Rwanda have come to the Masaka region to learn the practice of growing the Ficus natalensis trees, with the expectation that they will harvest the bark for production and sale in a few years.  Full Circle Trade has identified a designer, a woman, who works with women’s associations in villages in the traditional bark cloth region of Uganda to use bark cloth as a fabric for table runners, purses, wall hangings, and other household items.

The conservation resource involved:
Ficus natalensis traditionally has formed part of an agroforestry system for shade for bananas, and as a supporting trellis for coffee, passion fruit, and, in the case of the farmer we visited, vanilla. It is a highly valued multipurpose tree also used for living fences, marking boundaries, and fuelwood.  As the demand for bark cloth is increasing, people have begun to plant Ficus natalensis in plantations, and conservation organizations are working with farmers to sensitize them about the need to plant and manage to ensure for future supplies of bark.   UCOTA and Nature Uganda have collaborated to protect the Nabajjuzi Wetlands, adjacent to the burgeoning regional center of Masaka. Bark cloth production has been presented to local farmers as an alternative income to their continued encroachment into this wetland. Full Circle Trade and the North Carolina Zoo team visited farmers who have abandoned their farm plots in the wetland area, and are now multi-cropping in an agroforestry system that incorporates cash and food crops with the Ficus natalensis trees.  We spent the day with the farmers and their families, both observing and participating in the harvest and making of a sheet of bark cloth. It was an excellent ecotourism activity, as we found it fascinating and enjoyable, and they were able to share some of their culture and traditional knowledge, and received a very reasonable fee for the day.

 Impact of product production on conservation resource:
Ficus natalensis occurs naturally from South Africa north to Kenya and Uganda. Within Uganda it has long been cultivated as an agroforestry species, and is widespread across the farming landscape.  Where it occurs in natural forest, it is subject to the threats that most natural forest is subject to; logging, conversion to agriculture, fires, etc.  However, the cultivation of Ficus natalensis is well known, and it is propagated widely through the planting of stakes. Increasing the value of the trees through increasing the value of the bark cloth product obtained from them, is only likely to increase their propagation and care.  Increasing value will also improve the likelihood that when farmers do find the tree in a natural forest, they will take measures to conserve the individual.

Implications of increased production of product:
As demand increases for bark cloth, it is likely to increase both planting and conservation of Ficus natalensis trees. As conservation groups encourage the use of the traditional intensive agroforestry system incorporating Ficus natalensis/banana/coffee production, that too will support the conservation and introduction of Ficus natalensis trees. Concerns may arise over unsustainable harvest practices if demand rises more sharply than supply—the traditional methods of harvest ensure that, subject to many environmental and physical factors, a given tree can be harvested for decades—if those methods are abandoned, then the resource would be destroyed.  The introduction of plantations and the fact that most of the resource is held within family compounds are both likely to serve to protect the resource from unsustainable harvest practices.

Finally, if conservation groups continue to link markets for bark cloth products to conservation of wetlands, it will allow the alternative income of bark cloth production to replace that of agricultural expansion.