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Ny Tanintsika

Wild Silk and Tapia Forests in Madagascar: A New Cycle of Sustainability
Photographs used with permission of Feedback Madagasgar

Madagascar is one of the great centers of endemism in the world, with more than 80% of plant and animal species occurring only on that island. These unique plants and animals are critically endangered by the loss of their forest habitat, caused mostly by slash and burn agriculture and human population pressures.

Most remnant forest is found on steep hillsides, or in the remote highlands of the center of the country. Many of those forests are tapia forests, remnants of the primary forest dominated by Uapaca bojeri, or Tapia. The tapia trees remain in part because they are fire-resistant, and mature specimens survive the fires that burn through the upland forests. Fire is identified as a major component of the natural ecosystem’s transformation into the very fragmented and fragile woodlands found in the highlands today. Tapia woodlands are also highly valued by local populations for the variety of fuelwood, fruit, medicinal plants, mushrooms, plant dyes and the wild silkworm, Borocera madagascariensis, known locally as Landibe.

Ny Tanintsika, a Malagasy non-governmental conservation organization, works with villagers and farmers in the Amoron’i Mania, the south central region of Madagascar, where the largest tapia woodlands are found. They encourage the revitalization of the traditional silk-weaving industry in this area as part of a multi-pronged effort to both conserve the existing forests, enhance and reforest degraded forest and farmlands, provide alternative incomes to the poorest and most disadvantaged of the human populations, and stabilize the devastating environmental transformation effected by human activities.

Wild silk is an ancient handicraft, playing an important role in Malagasy culture. Before the advent of other textiles and sources of silk, native silk was used as burial shrouds as well as for clothing, scarves and wraps. However, in recent years unsustainable wild silk cocoon harvest practices and widespread conversion of tapia woodlands to subsistence agriculture have placed the tapia woodlands and their rich biodiversity at grave risk.

Working with Ny Tanintsika, villagers are planting tapia trees in plantations, improving protection of the tapia forests, and are revitalizing the traditional silk industry. The Landibe cocoons are now harvested from the forests and raised in semi-domesticated conditions. A portion of the cocoons are harvested for silk, some are sold, some are released back into the wild, and some continue to be eaten, valued for their high protein content. Silk production involves many members of the population, from the wild silk harvesters, to the spinners, dyers, weavers and artisans who transform the silk into clothing, accessories and decorative items.

Ny Tanintsika is also working to develop the tourist industry in the tapia woodlands, and have developed “silk tourism trails,” where visitors receive guided tours and can learn about the orchids, medicinal plants, and host of other valuable and useful plants in the woodlands, including the wild silkworms. The wild silk trail runs through woodlands near the village of Soatanana, the base of the 65 woman silk weavers of the TAMBATRA cooperative who make the scarves Full Circle Trade offers. At the village, visitors are able to see the different stages of transformation of the cocoons into beautiful silk textiles. Proceeds from the eco-tourist activities go in part to purchase supplies for the local school.

Silk Transformation
Following the sustainable management practices encouraged by Ny Tanintsika, wild silkworm cocoons are collected from the tapia woodlands. The cocoons and the Landibe chrysalides are separated. The cocoons are then soaked in water, and turned inside out using a simple metal tipped tool, increasing their volume by four to five times. They are then dried in the sun before being boiled in soapy water and let to ferment for about four days, before being washed and sun dried again.

During this time the silk is beaten with a stick to make it more supple. When it has dried it is finally ready to be spun into silk thread, which is boiled again in soapy water and left to soak, then rinsed and dried in the shade.

Traditionally, the threads were dyed brown and used to make burial shrouds. Today the women are diversifying, using a mix of wild and domesticated silk and experimenting with different weaving techniques and natural plant dyes. Using the roots, leaves, stem and bark of about 20 different plants, various colors including red, green, brown, yellow, black, and grey are produced.

The dyed silk threads are then ready to be woven into textiles, using the traditional hand looms and indigenous weaving practices.

The final products are crafted, washed, dried and labeled with each artisan’s code. Ny Tanintsika does not benefit from the sale of the products, as the profits accrue to the women who make them, but assists in identifying new markets and potential customers.

Full Circle Trade buys its scarves directly from the cooperative through Ny Tanintsika and facilitated by Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International (CPALI) is a US- based non-profit organization that works to identify, develop and implement new means of income generation for poor farmers living in areas of high biodiversity or conservation value.

The scarves are color fast, washable in cold water, and will only become more soft and beautiful as you wear them!