By Stella Paul
In the upper Himalayan villages of India, hundreds of women have been finding a livelihood in the fiber of a pariah plant: the itchy nettle.
MANA VILLAGE, India (IDN) - Under a grey sky in Mana, the last Indian village before the border of Tibet begins, 36-year-old Bhotiya woman Gayatri Raut is trying hard to sell a basketful of knitwear to the visitors. A few more weeks and the entire population of Mana will migrate to a village far down the mountain to avoid heavy snowfall and extreme cold.
It is important for Raut to sell all her products before the winter comes. But the small number of visitors dashes her hopes. “People are scared of the road and the weather,” she says, referring to the continuous unseasonal rain and landslides that the region has been witnessing this year.
Knitting and weaving have always been the main source of living for the Bhotiyas – a 39,000-strong nomadic tribal community in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Traditionally every Bhotiya family owned a flock of sheep that provided them with wool and meat.
But of late, erratic rain and lack of fodder have forced many families to sell off their flocks and instead, knit with the wool bought from the market. However, in the past 3 years alone, the cost of wool has increased from 60-70 rupees ($1-1.25) a kg to 120 ($2) rupees even as the community’s exclusive status as handmade woolen producers has weakened among the buyers.
But in Mangroli, another Bhotiya village about 100 km from Mana, women appear unfazed by the cost of wool or the trickle of tourists. In fact, most women here are busy completing the orders they received to weave shawls or scarves. Puny Devi, one of the women is working to weave 50 shawls – an order she received last month.
The credit for their hectic, yet stress-free status goes to a humble plant: the Himalayan Nettle Grass that produces a white, biodegradable yarn with a soft texture and is soothing on the skin.
Shifting from Wool to Grass
The Bhotiyas first learnt to use nettle fiber in 2010, under a Global Environmental Facility (GEF)-funded project focused on generating incomes among the region’s poor and unreached.
Nearly three-year long, the project was implemented in partnership with several government and non government organizations including the Alaknanda Ghati Shilpi Federation (AGAAS) – a local charity that promotes community development through sustainable use of local resources in the Alaknanda river valley of the Himalayas.
However, well after the project wrapped up, the initiative continues with new groups of women from mountain villages receiving training in the multi-stage production of the nettle fiber and weaving.
Ruchi Sharma, a young woman from the village of Naurakha who has been trained in nettle fiber extraction, says that while the Bhotiya community does the weaving and knitting, members of other communities are involved in production of the fiber.
“We gather the grass after the plant has died, remove the bark and clean it in boiling water. Then beat the fiber until it is softened and then dry in the sun. The harder we beat the fiber, the finer it becomes.”
A labor intensive initiative
The process of making yarn from nettle grass might be complex, but according to experts, that works in the advantage of the locals.
“Nettle grass grows in the forest. Every day, women from the local villages climb to the top of the mountain to collect fodder for their cattle. Now, they have an opportunity to earn money by also collecting nettle from the same forest.
The more able-bodied can wash and beat the fiber, while others can do the cutting and drying,” says Pradip Kumar, one of the lead trainers in the nettle grass project.
Presently, for every kg of grass fiber collected, the villagers are paid 55 rupees (about $1) while the weavers roughly earn about 350 rupees ($6 approx) a day from AGAAS which is working as an interface between the fiber producers and the weavers.
About 40% of the fiber is lost during the production, especially washing and beating, Kumar informs. But since the grass is sourced free of cost, the loss does not hurt much, he assures.
Sustainable Community development
One danger of building a local resource-based development model is overuse or overharvesting. For example, in neighboring Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, over-harvesting of a mushroom called Gucchi almost made it extinct after locals learnt of its high demand in the international market.
However, when it comes to the nettle grass fiber, that worry does not arise as the grass is collected only after it has flowered and dried naturally, says Jagdamba Prasad Maithani who heads AGAAS.
“By the time the grass has dried, the seeds have already fallen on the ground, so harvesting does not affect its re-growth,” he points out.
At present, people in roughly 70 villages are engaged in nettle fiber production. There are about 8000 villages in the state and the initiative has the potential to provide a stable, alternative livelihood to several thousands of people, say experts. But, first they must find a way to get past the challenges.
The biggest of the challenges is the low awareness among the Bhotiyas themselves, feels Firturam Divangan – another trainer who has been running a three-month training course in three Bhotiya villages – Mangroli, Tephna and Jhulabagad.
“They are still discovering the finesse of the fiber as a viable alternative to wool,” he says of the trainees.
Maithani of AGAAS identifies marketing and funding as two other challenges. According to him, till the point, the marketing has been handled by the project partners. But to scale up the initiative, the community must build its own clientele and sell its own products directly.
“So far, 1788 people have benefited from this project. With a second round of funding, we could multiply both the numbers of the participants and the impact,” he adds.
Agrees Diwangan: The fiber of the nettle is an exclusive product and this novelty factor can increase the demand if the weavers can explain it well to their clients.
“This is possible if they can learn to market their products on the internet. Learning new technologies such as designing and dying of the yarn to produce colorful and attractive garments can also help them catch the eyes of the clients,” he says.
Meanwhile, Appy Devi, a Bhotiya woman in Mangroli village who recently learnt to weave with nettle fiber, is waiting for the winter when the rest of the community members will migrate from the mountain top.
“I have heard them complain about increasing cost of wool. This time I want to tell them that there is a great alternative,” she says with a smile. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 October 2016]
Note: Source of the data and stats on the project: Alaknanda Ghati Shilpi Federation (http://www.aagaas.org/projects.html). Data on number of villages and Bhotiya population: Census 2011 (censusindia.gov.in/). All interviews were conducted in Hindi and translated to English.
Photo: Stella Paul
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