Natural Fiber Brings Riches to Brazilian Weavers
It’s harvesting time for Golden Grass but the smoke columns on the horizon announce bad news. “We’re facing one of the worst droughts I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Adelcina, a local golden grass artisan and mother of four young children. “The drought combined with extreme high temperatures has triggered wildfires in many areas even reaching the humid grasslands where golden grass grows. Unfortunately, this year there is going to be less golden grass available on the market,” she explains as she rushes to the fields near her father’s ranch to harvest as many golden grass stalks as possible before the fires destroy them.
Golden Grass (Syngonanthus nitens) is a delicate flowering plant whose stem has an intrinsic metallic shine and a natural golden hue that resembles a gold wire. It is native to Jalapão, a savannah-like expanse within the northern state of Tocantins in Brazil, where the local population long ago learned to weave the unique fiber to produce utilitarian objects. “My whole family comes from the Mumbuca community that learned the techniques from the indigenous Xerente people,” says Vanda, another golden grass artisan whose family has passed the weaving techniques from generation to generation. “I still prefer some of the more traditional practices like weaving with the thread that I make myself from the leaves of Buriti palm, but the tourists love the objects made with more modern threads. I think it’s good too because it’s much easier to weave with synthetic threads. Making the Buriti palm thread is very time-consuming and, in addition, you can’t weave with it during the hottest part of the day (11am-4pm) because the heat causes the thread to dry and tear during the process. But I like the natural texture of Buriti; it’s so smooth and velvety that we call it seda do Buriti (Buriti silk).”
In the 1990’s, the creation of a series of natural parks in Jalapão attracted some touristic activity to the region. The first tourists were amazed by the golden grass’s shine and began buying the pieces made by the local communities. “My grandparents and great-grandparents just thought of it as a common material that they used to make hats and baskets for their everyday lives. It was simply what they had available to them in the nature” says Vanda. Before long, the fame of the golden grass crafts spread throughout Brazil and became highly sought after, and the communities of Jalapão then saw an opportunity to generate additional income and improve their living conditions. It is currently one of the most important economic sources in this predominantly rural area.
Demand for the golden grass crafts increased the extraction of the plant. Worries about the golden grass’s sustainability have led the local government, non-governmental institutions and the communities of Jalapão to develop sustainable practices to help control the harvest while assuring the vital economic activity around golden grass. To empower the artisans, for instance, the sale of raw material is prohibited outside of Jalapão and golden grass can only be sold in the form of crafts and finished components for jewelry, personal and home accessories. In addition, to conserve the species the stems can only be harvested from late September to November after seed maturation and dispersion have occurred.
In spite of the challenges, Adelcina is optimistic, “Although it’s sad that the fires are burning a lot of the raw material during the harvesting season, we learned from the older generation that fires renew the soil and are part of the natural seasonal cycle of vegetation growth. We believe that next year we will have a great crop of golden grass.”
Cristiane Kimura is the founder of Aruea a wholesale company focusing on jewelry and home accessories made from golden grass. Aurea’s products are eco-friendly, sustainable and hand-made by artisans. For more information about the company and golden grass, please visit http://www.aureagoldengrass.com.