Newspaper Bags

As I suggested in my last post, I’ve recently spent less time in the Periyar Reserve, i.e. observing and chronicling my encounters with the myriad species of plants and animals there, and more time in and with the local community. Working with resort management and Forestry Dept. officials, I’ve been trying to get off the ground a microbusiness enterprise, operated by residents of Kumily and members of the tribal communities in Periyar East, with the initial goal of producing bags from recycled newspaper.

One such bag, made from recycled newspaper

There are several aspects to this project, and as I delve deeper into them the more complex and intriguing it seems to me. I think the easiest and best way to present the full picture, to identify the difficulties and possibilities inherent to it, is to tell the whole story of my involvement in the project, and in the process to clarify the context of my previous posts.

To set the scene, I offer, in shorthand, a cultural backdrop:

What was only recently a subsistence and agricultural culture and economy, the Cardamom Hills (like all of Kerala) has undergone something of an economic and cultural revolution over the past fifteen to twenty years. Though I’m not an expert in this field, I can say, based on firsthand accounts and observations, that as education levels have risen even among the poorest people in this area (Kerala’s literacy rate is, famously, over 90%), and as the opportunity to pursue non-agricultural employment and consume newfangled products has become commonplace in this area, the demand for disposable income and new ways of attaining it has also increased. Generally, this is true of India as a whole, and as a global phenomenon it really deserves a more nuanced treatment than I’m able to give it (for more information, I suggest you go to your local library or see your neighborhood economist). But, on a microcosmic level, it is perhaps most pronounced, complicated, and—in some ways—easily tackled in the tribal communities of India’s forests.

To get an idea of the rapidity of change in the tribal community of the Periyar East, do a basic Google search for “Mannan tribe India.” This search might lead you to www.indianetzone.com, a comprehensive website which gives general descriptions of cultural and regional tendencies of the tribes of India. The ‘Mannan’ of this illustrative example is a tribe native to Kerala, whose 600 families constitute the largest tribal population still dwelling in Periyar East.

Anyway, indianetzone, the self-proclaimed “Largest Free Encyclopedia on India” describes the houses of the Mannan as “… built with handmade bricks and the roof with leaves .The Mannan village also comprises of tiny bamboo made houses, mostly covered with cashew and are canut trees [sic].”

An example of a traditional house of the Mannan

Its grammar aside, the description is demonstrably false, as a tour of the Mannan community makes clear. Today, most of the houses in this hill and pepper-farm spotted area are not made of traditionally-used resources from the forest, such as bamboo or elephant grass, but are built of cement and roofed with metal, much like the other houses of Kumily[1]. Nevertheless, one can’t really fault ‘indianetzone’ for the mistake, given that the article would have been accurate less than 10 years ago. This holds true for the description of Mannan marriage practices, as well for that of the occupations of most Mannan people.

The Indian government’s practice of protecting its nation’s forests, which undoubtedly enrich and provide balance to the country’s rapid development, is essential to the forest’s survival. And if we grant these forests preciousness and singularity (which it’s difficult to avoid doing), we are prone to support their preservation. However, for the communities that have lived on these lands for generations, this process is more complicated and requires deeper consideration.  Thus, the Forest Rights Act, which I wrote about in past posts, as well as the establishment of tribally-run Community Development Committees.

The chairman of a CDC

The stated goal of both the Forestry Dept. and these CDCs is—in line with their position as conservationists—to eliminate all tribal dependence on forest resources. This is more easily said than done, of course, and as one Forestry Dept. official put it to our team in an early meeting we held to discuss the possibility of the newspaper bag initiative: “You cannot have long-term conservation…unless the people are empowered. Today, they are like thirsty people at an oasis. Why wouldn’t they drink? But the world outside should be green as well, not a desert.”

Therefore, in order to make their goal feasible, the FD and the CDCs have worked to facilitate and sometimes provide (as in the creation of positions for tribal members as trekking guides and watchmen) alternatives to forest-based means of income. As I stated in an earlier post, the FD in Periyar East (aided by the self-regulation of the community members, who, I was told, receive training from CDCs on sustainable levels of resources of resource extraction and, for the most part, abide by it) has been relatively successful in this respect. Approx. 50% of all income garnered by the Mannan community comes from sources outside the village and the forest, mostly from the Cardamom plantations that distinguish these hills.

But the fact that more working adults have found employment outside the community has put an additional cultural burden on the fabric of this already re-oriented society. Moreover, the FD doesn’t have unlimited funds and resources, nor are they the only organization in the Cardamom Hills to which the conservation of the forest is a concern.

The Periyar Reserve, as I hope to make more clear in future posts, is a glorious place to stay, to learn about and to immerse oneself in. But its beauty and preservation cannot be taken for granted, after all. It’s my position, and it’s one that is shared by management where I’m staying, that the resorts and the travelers who temporarily call them home have the privilege of contributing to the strengthening of this destination and eco-system by empowering  the people who have historically dwelled here and by aiding its protectors, some of whom have surprising pasts.

Thus, in short, the ‘newspaper bag’ project. I should add to this screed a brief comment on the FD’s desire to keep plastic items out of the Periyar (for obvious reasons), and their support of the production of recyclable products, such as these bags. The problem of litter and trash build-up in areas of Kerala is well documented by visitors and residents alike, and though there have been sporadic, well-intentioned attempts at fixing this problem, there nevertheless persist signs of the culture’s nascent interaction with non-biodegradable detritus and the out-paced evolution of an effective governmental mechanism designed to combat its accumulation. We at Raxa Collective decided some weeks ago that we could assist in a solution to this problem by applying sound business sense and by enacting conservation in such a way that creates a self-sustaining, systematic apparatus for the cleanup of trash.

In Kerala at this time are several small-scale, independent businesses that use recyclable material—particularly newspaper—to make functional and economical bags, which are sold wholesale to restaurants and hotels, and at times as novelty items in gift stores and eco-friendly retailers. These businesses present themselves variously as charities, informal family enterprises, and local employment initiatives. However, we discovered that a continued demand for these products cannot be met without a broadening of scope and institutionalization.

Since I’ve arrived in Thekkady at the boundary of the Periyar, our team (the membership of which fluctuates, but which is typically comprised of Robin, the resort experience desk manager, Saleem, asst. manager and resident Periyar expert, Crist, head of Raxa Collective, and me) has met several times with officials from both the FD and CDCs to discuss the creation of a local bag-making enterprise, and these officials’ support has been enthusiastic though deliberately cautious. As far as I know, no other full-fledged enterprises exist such as the one we have proposed, which combines private, resort-support for a self-sustaining enterprise that will employ and provide a livable income for members of the tribal community from their homes.

Our team’s meeting with prospective producers and Forestry Dept. officials

We still have a way to go, but we’re well on our way. Last Sunday, we met with women from Kumily who have experience making paper bags, and they accepted the task of assembling our first team of producers. Tomorrow, Saleem and I will meet with local recyclers and, for lack of a better word, scrap-picker-uppers, who will hopefully supply the newspaper. Crist and his wife, Amie, are exploring markets in Kochi to assess demand. We’re in high-gear here, and I’ll keep you posted on the developments. I hope you made it through all that info!


[1] I should add, as an interesting aside, that one Mannan man, Kannan, whose house is currently under construction, told me that this change, rather than a pure indication of increasing wealth in the community, is actually a bit more complicated. I gathered that houses built of elephant grass are these days just too expensive to maintain given that they have to be tended to at least once a year, whereas concrete and metal structures won’t need much maintenance over a decade.

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