A flutter of hope in the form of silk moth farming is bringing new sources of income with the added possibility of a sustainably produced by-product of high value protein. Farmers displaced from the Makira Protected Area are adding $50- $150 to their yearly income (mean income average $140/yr) by raising native species of silkworms and sewing their lustrous bronze, silver and gold cocoons into a unique textile with remarkable properties. With a protein by-product of insect pupae, farmers may be able to move away from the hunting of bush meat and enhance family food security with a steady, sustainably produced, high value food.
Madagascar, an island nation off the eastern coast of Africa, is biologically and culturally diverse, politically unstable, and its people live in severe poverty. International logging consortia and wildlife trafficking are decimating Madagascar’s rich natural resources; malnutrition and hunger result in the hunt for bush meat that is forcing many of Madagascar’s unique animal species to extinction.
In Madagascar, wild-sourced silk cocoons are used to produce culturally valuable, silk textiles that have been an important source of income and for rural populations since the 1800’s. Due to over-harvesting and habitat loss, however, production has dropped from 102 tons to only 43 tons. CPALI (Conservation through Poverty Alleviation, International) and its partner SEPALI Madagascar, are teaching local communities how to farm native species of silkworms and harvest the mini-ecosystem of by-products (cocoons, insect pupae removed from the cocoons that provide high value protein, edible mushrooms that colonize decaying tailings of coppiced host trees, vanilla, an epiphyte that that can grow on the host plant). The cocoons that farmers are producing are unlike those spun by the domesticated silkworm. They are a variety of rich natural colors: gold, silver and earth, and have a unique metallic sheen. Furthermore, unlike the domesticated silkworm, the cocoons are porous as are the silk fibers. The result is a lacey, glittering cocoon whose properties in and of themselves make up a beautiful non-spun textile that CPALI is marketing in the US and Europe on behalf of farmers.
CPALI has partnered with artists, jewelry makers, fashion accessory designers, and architects to take advantage of the silks and design unique products. dConstruct, a Canadian jewelry company, designed moderately priced jewelry from silk encased in eco-resins that garnered the 2013 Eco-choice award at NY Now. Tara St. James, winner of the Eco Domini award for Sustainable Design, designed a skirt from the first piece of patchwork silk made by SEPALI farmers. CPALI textiles have been juried and accepted into the world-side libraries of the Material ConneXion and crafted into window treatments, room dividers and chandeliers.
The long-term goals of the CPALI program are sustainable economic development and resource conservation. The farms of our project participants, now hosting a mix of native endemics and foodstuffs, are focused in the boundary forests of protected areas and hence build a “green zone” that supports the forest. US and European fashion, art, home decoration and architecture are supporting farmers’ work and enabling a new approach to conservation through enterprise.
Dr. Catherine Craig is the founder and President of Conservation through Poverty Alleviation, International (www.cpali.org), and a Museum Associate at Harvard University and Adjunct Research Professor at Washington State University, Pullman. She was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Madagascar from 2007-2008. Prior to founding CPALI, Dr. Craig served on the biology faculty of Yale University.