Globally, women and men are learning to bridge social, cultural and economic divides to find ways for their communities to survive and be sustainable. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, local economies are being strengthened through development of community enterprises. As a consequence, livelihoods and local cultural practices are being transformed. This article is based on research in Thailand, in which I investigated different approaches and common concerns of community organizations that work with rural artisans to ensure economic and cultural survival. The article profiles the role of the Northeastern Handicraft and Women’s Development Network (NWD) in encouraging and facilitating community businesses among women who are weavers in rural Northeast Thailand.Global economic forces have increased the number of people living in poverty and undermined traditional ways of life and livelihoods in rural villages of Northeast Thailand. A crisis of social, cultural and environmental degradation has prompted a search for solutions at the local level.
Solutions, emerging in rural areas, are shaping alternative models of development by drawing on the resilience of the people and the relevance of their traditional skills and knowledge. The Northeastern Handicraft and Women’s Development Network plays a significant role in facilitating this process in Thailand.
In the context of rural Thailand, alternative entrepreneurship is a socio-economic strategy of organizing, educating and empowering people to work collectively at the village level to strengthen their capacities to create sustainable livelihoods in their own communities. In particular, rural women weavers are learning to work together to build organizations that serve their needs and concerns for income and social security, health, safety and environmental protection. As a means of employment, alternative entrepreneurship promotes collective responsibility and involvement in management and marketing. As a forum for integrating new knowledge with local wisdom, alternative entrepreneurship fosters appropriate technology and environmentally sustainable practices. And as a counterforce to the devaluation of traditional rural ways of life, alternative enterprises are people’s organizations concerned with preserving cultural heritage. My purpose in this article is to focus on a number of the complex issues involved in creating and sustaining artisan enterprises in rural Thailand.
Rural Economy and the Crafts Sector
Globalization and the 1997 Asian economic crisis have profoundly affected the lives of millions in Asia. Poverty is severe in rural Thailand, especially in the North and Northeast regions, where people did not benefit from Thailand’s economic boom years. Rather, they became victims of environmental destruction, industrialization, marginalization and displacement as a direct result of the dominant development model promoted in the West and embraced by the Thai government in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s (Laird, 2000). Among the rural poor are artisans, many of whom are moving away from traditional livelihoods. Lack of access to raw materials and to markets, exploitation by middlemen, low prices for long hours of work, and the devaluing of rural ways of life, keep wages at poverty level and undermine the sustainability of artisan communities.
In rural Northeast Thailand, known as Isaan, the majority of people are farmers who grow glutinous and white rice, cassava, sugar cane, maize, fruits, vegetables and jute. The region is considered the poorest in the country because of extreme temperatures, poor soil, and alternating droughts and floods. Despite harsh conditions, in the past Isaan farmers were able to adapt to their environment and they were self-reliant as a family unit, producing all their basic needs. Isaan women, known to be industrious, did household chores, worked in fields during planting and harvesting, cultivated cotton and mulberry plants, made household wares from clay and wove cotton and silk cloth. The women worked so their brothers could go to school, become monks or pursue higher education in cities.
As self-reliant agriculture and ways of life have disappeared, rural debt in Thailand has soared (estimated at 100 billion baht or $4 billion US). Nearly every household needs money to buy rice, other food, medicine, household goods and clothes, most of which come from outside the village. Farmers borrow from the agriculture bank for items such as fertilizer and small tractors. Each year they try to earn a living from farm labour and grow enough to make a profit but the price for agricultural products is very low and they can’t cut the cycle of debt. After the four months of agricultural season men used to go outside the village to look for work in construction, in factories or as taxi drivers. However, since 1997, there has been no more work in construction or factories. Women stay home and do sub-contract homework, sometimes sewing school uniforms. But the wages are very low. Up to 85% of Isaan villagers earn less than they need to survive. (WAYANG, 1995, pp. 21-23)
The crafts sector is a significant arena of rural non-farm employment, but it is largely neglected in national policies and development agendas. Increasingly, different levels of government and institutions such as the ILO recognize the importance of women’s home-basedwork in rural areas and their needs for education and training (Saeng-Ging, 2000). Craft activity fits the category of home-based work and for many women it is a primary source of income that contributes to the economic viability of their families and communities. Craft – redefined as an economic and development activity – has great potential to become a means of sustainable livelihood, particularly among women in rural areas who can use their traditional skills to become wage earners, manage small businesses, and take on leadership roles in their communities.
Weaving has traditionally been a significant activity for Thai women. Weaving is part of the indigenous or local “science and technology” developed and handed down by women through generations. In traditional Isaan society, both the weaving process itself and the cloth produced were integral to their social, cultural and economic life. From birth to death, from individual to family to community, from secular to religious rites, woven materials were used (Conway, 1992). For Isaan women, weaving was not only a household duty; it was a way of gaining respect in this life and spiritual merit in the next. With the destruction of village ways of life, traditional weaving lost much of its importance and value and disappeared in some areas. This situation began to change, however, with the work of NGOs in the region that encouraged rural villagers to value their local knowledge and cultural heritage. Women began to organize themselves to participate in decision-making and contribute to community development. And traditional weaving became revitalized in the context of community enterprise development. Now, women use income from weaving to pay for their children to go to school and also to help relieve the family’s agricultural debt.
Northeastern Handicraft and Women’s Development Network
The Northeastern Handicraft and Women’s Development Network (NWD) was established in 1991 as a working committee under the NGO Coordinating Committee on Rural Development of the Northeast. The objectives were to: campaign on the importance of women’s development among NGOs in the Northeast; establish a sustainable economic and marketing base for the Network; upgrade the knowledge, capacity and potential of rural women in the Northeast; and, promote the establishment of social services at the community level (NWD).
Since its inception, NWD worked in areas of women’s health, education, and empowerment. Four founding member NGOs focused on handicraft development, drawing on the traditional weaving skills of village women to help preserve the crafts of the region. During 1994-5, NWD provided management and business skills training to support the development of community enterprises that were owned and run by the village weaving groups. By the year 2000, NWD represented thirty member organizations working with three thousand families in eight provinces of the Northeast. Twelve of the thirty member organizations are involved with natural resource management, sustainable agriculture, women’s rights and women’s homework; eighteen focus on handicraft and business development. Currently, the ILO and HomeNet, an international network of home-based workers, support NWD. (Saeng-Ging, 2000).
The director of NWD is Suntharee Saeng-Ging, a community activist and administrator with a political science degree from University in Bangkok. Suntharee moved to the Northeast in 1990 to do community work in a village 100 km. from Khon Kaen. She worked many years helping women in the community to organize and start a local weaving group. In May 2000, I recorded a conversation with Suntharee at the Mae Ying Handicraft Shop in Khon Kaen where the NWD office is located. Following are issues that arose during our conversation, issues that concern NWD and the women involved in the weaving groups.
Panmai and Prae Pan are two highly active member organizations of NWD. They are large well- established weaving groups, known for their high quality woven products that sell in Bangkok and abroad. Panmai traces its origins to the 1985 initiative of the Appropriate Technology Association of Thailand, called the Local Weaving Development Project. Women’s lack of education, economic status, access to resources, and decision-making power were the impetus to develop a network of small businesses to work towards empowerment of rural women. In early stages of developing “alternative entrepreneurship” both Panmai and Prae Pan received strong support from NGOs for developing women’s leadership and managerial skills, as well as design training and contacting markets WAYANG, 1995). Other NWD member organizations are much smaller weaving groups that do not have the benefit of NGO support and funding for training and marketing.
It takes almost ten years to establish a viable organization in the villages where the aim is to have the group work cooperatively. Rather than having weavers sell their work individually, prices are set and the work is sold as a group. Large groups that receive external funding can pay weavers for their work before it is sold. The weavers receive their wages monthly. For example, in Panmai and Prae Pan every piece that reaches a standard of quality set by the group is purchased from the weaver, and then the organization tries to sell the woven products. In contrast, small groups without funding cannot pay the weavers until the group sells the products. This often takes a long time or the goods may not sell at all and the weavers are not paid. The inability to pay outright for the weaving has a negative impact on the small groups and many of them have had to stop the weaving.
Natural Resources and Environmental Change
The availability of good quality raw materials for craft production is an essential ingredient of artisan enterprises. The transformation of cotton and silk fibres into thread, which occurs at an early stage of the production chain, is a precursor to the weaving process. Hand spinning is labour intensive, but factory produced thread is often imported. In addition, alternative enterprises, concerned about environmental impacts and eco-friendly products need to consider where and in what manner the cotton is grown and the silk reared. While the lives of Isaan women were traditionally interwoven with the art of silkworm rearing and local agriculture produced cotton fibre, recent economic and environmental factors impinge on access to raw materials and decisions about local production of thread.
In the early 1990s, when the weaving groups were selling their products well, the weavers stopped producing silk and cotton thread themselves because they wanted to use their time for weaving instead of spinning. At first they bought thread from neighbours, then from local markets, and then from Laos and China even though they knew the quality of the thread they bought was very different from the quality they could make themselves. Now, they do not know, and they are concerned about, whether the imported cotton is organic, or whether pesticides, insecticides, or genetically modified seeds have been used in growing the cotton.
Climate change and environmental degradation have increased the difficulties of growing cotton locally, raising silkworms and growing indigo, a traditional dye plant. The availability of water and quality of the soil has deteriorated to the extent that farmers cannot grow enough cotton to produce enough thread to be used in weaving. Only 10% of the cotton thread used in the
Northeast comes from the farmers’ fields. Indigo, a plant traditionally used in the dyeing cotton and silk threads, is very sensitive to climatic conditions and the area conducive to growing indigo has become very limited. Indigo grows well in forest shade and needs a lot of rain at a particular stage of growth. However, forests have diminished, the climate is too hot and dry, and the rains come at unusual times. Indigo is sometimes grown in rice fields after the rice harvest when there is rain. But if the rain comes too early or there is too much rain the indigo plants die.
NWD has started to encourage weavers to produce their own thread again. Even though growing and spinning cotton, looking after silkworms, and growing indigo each involves difficult time- consuming processes, and it is almost ten years since the women stopped producing cotton and silk thread, the weavers are beginning to agree that they need to produce the thread themselves once again. They realize they cannot control the price or quality of imported cotton and silk thread. The cost of cotton thread keeps rising and the weavers cannot always get good quality. However, Suntharee said, it will be a difficult slow transition for weavers to return to producing their own thread. If they have the choice, they would rather weave; they can earn more money from weaving than from spinning.
Environment and Health Protection
Many NWD member organizations focus on weaving and business development, but an objective of the Network is to raise awareness through seminars and other activities about a range of issues that impact the lives of women. Panmai and Prae Pan, for example, began by developing the weaving groups, but when they became strong enough, NWD encouraged them to think about how to conserve their local environment. They tell the weavers that they must look after the environment or else they will no longer be able to do natural dyeing or grow cotton in the future.
In the past, weavers used natural dyes from the bark, leaves or fruit of different plants. Their methods for achieving yellows, browns, blues, greens, reds and black were perfected and handed down through generations to give a distinctive character to Isaan fabrics. But natural dyeing takes a long time and hard work and many weavers changed to chemical dyes. These are easier to use, but they create pollution and health problems. Especially in dyeing silk, a variety of toxic chemicals are used to produce a shine or to whiten certain threads in a resist dye process. The chemical toxicity pollutes the land and water close to the women’s homes. How to solve the pollution problems of chemical dyeing is a key issue being raised by the weaving groups.
When dyes are brought into the villages, there is no information about how to use them or how to protect dyers from the dangers of using these chemicals. Suntharee said that the dyes come in plastic bags that only say, “This is for shiny”, or, “This is for washing colour”. Dyers get serious nose and eye problems from working with the chemicals, which smell bad and make the eyes sting and run. Even the weavers who use the chemical-dyed threads put a cloth over their faces and wear eyeglasses to protect their lungs and eyes. As well as looking for ways to introduce non-toxic chemical dye colours, NWD has a program to train home workers about the dangers of toxic chemicals used in their work. NWD worked with the Health Ministry and the ILO to prepare a training program to teach about health risks, safety and protection in the use of chemicals. They have prepared a handbook that can be used in other groups that have not received this training.
Education and Training in Product Development
NGOs within the Network worked many years on the social and political issues of organizing women’s groups. When they began to establish community businesses, they faced problems related to a lack of expertise in business management. Over a ten-year period they solved many problems by acquiring experience and skills in management and administration. Currently, NGOs have a lack of knowledge about product design and marketing and they want consultants in product development to help the weaving groups.
Although many design consultants work with private enterprises, there are only two or three in Thailand who work with NGOs on product design and marketing. Sometimes specialists from the university or business sector in Khon Kaen provide design training. Somyot Sapupornhemint, based in Bangkok, is an active consultant with NGOs. One of the original people who worked on establishing the Handicraft Centre in Northeast Thailand, Somyot is an advocate for organic farming and the preservation of craft skills in Thailand. He has written a handbook on product development, pricing and marketing for Thai NGOs and he gives workshops and advice to weavers groups, including cotton spinning and natural dyeing with indigo.
Weaving groups need training in fabric design and colour and also tailoring, sewing and finishing. Value is added to their work when they make cloth into skirts and shirts and it is easier to sell products, such as, bedspreads, tablecloths and place mats rather than lengths of fabric. However, it is very difficult for the weaving groups to learn about modern urban lifestyles in order to design and make appropriate products. They do not know, for example, the size of the bed or the proportions of pillows for the urban market. Suntharee said they have to learn the right size to make things such as skirts and scarves, to avoid the problem of making something that is “too small to be a shawl, too big to be a scarf.” In addition, the groups cannot follow fashion design and colour trends because these change too quickly. There is too much for them to learn all at once.
Since the 1997 economic crisis in Asia all the weaving groups have suffered from a drop in sales. This has been harder for the smaller groups than for Panmai and Prae Pan. However, each weaving organization is concerned about finding ways to improve their products and increase their access to markets. In the last few years NWD has initiated discussions among the weaving groups about the need to raise the quality of their products. They have also discussed how to make their products “more organic” because they know that more consumers in the world are becoming concerned about the environment.
NWD is trying to reach a very specific market – people who understand social and environmental concerns and want to buy natural products. In general, cotton is sold more readily than silk, which is more difficult and costly to make in good quality. However, few Thai buy natural dyed products; they like bright colours that come from chemical dyes. NWD tries to increase consumer awareness of the environmental and health risks associated with chemical dyeing by disseminating information through newspapers, magazines or exhibitions. The younger generation, mainly university students, has a better understanding of these issues but their income is low, which means they cannot support the groups by buying NWD products.
Marketing is a key issue for the weaving groups and it is especially difficult for small groups that do not have external funding to support training in product development and marketing. NWD has offered training programs to help member organizations with marketing and, since 1997, NWD has operated the Mae Ying Handicraft Shop in Khon Kaen where woven products are for sale and business management workshops are offered. However, the three years since they opened the shop have been the years of the economic crisis and a decrease in sales. NWD also tries to organize exhibitions for the weaving groups. Many times each year NWD sends their colleagues and products to Bangkok where there are more people who understand and support the work of rural community enterprises. Sometimes the Thai government or NGOs organize trade fairs or seminars and NWD participates. For example, in 1999 the Australian Embassy organized an exhibition for NGOs that they support and members of NWD went to Bangkok for the exhibition. However, taking part in this event was expensive, and NWD did not make enough money to cover the costs.
A small number of the NWD weaving organizations, including Panmai and Prae Pan, participate in Thai Craft Fairs in Bangkok, which draw a large number of urban Thai, ex-patriots and foreigners. More than sixty craft producer groups from all regions of Thailand are represented at each ThaiCraft Fair. However, it is difficult for the smaller member organizations of NWD to go to ThaiCraft Fairs. First of all, ThaiCraft has a high standard for quality. Secondly, NWD cannot contact or participate in ThaiCraft on behalf of the weavers groups since ThaiCraft asks the groups to contact them directly. And thirdly, ThaiCraft wants members of the groups to come to Bangkok to sell their crafts themselves rather than send their products. However, going to Bangkok is more expensive than sending their goods and so only the large groups can take their products to ThaiCraft and make a profit.
The large groups, such as Panmai and Prae Pan have overseas customers through the work of NGOs who contact Fair Trade Organizations. However, sales through Fair Trade Organizations are low because the woven products don’t change often enough. Some weaving groups have made the same designs for ten years and customers who bought items previously want to buy something new. Fair Trade Organizations ask for new designs but the weaving groups are not able to change their products quickly. It takes a long time to come up with original design ideas, communicate with the weavers about the new products, and make enough to supply the market.
Strengthening the Network
HomeNet , initiated in 1995 with the support of the ILO Rural Home Workers Project, has played an important role in campaigning internationally for policies that give security of work, wages or welfare to home-based workers. These are new issues in Thailand where there is no law to protect home workers. In 1998, HomeNet Thailand was set up as an NGO to coordinate a network of 89 home-based workers organizations in the North, Northeast and Bangkok municipality (Saen-Ging, 2000).
The main funding for NWD – 50% from ILO and 50% from HomeNet – covers the costs of administration, building rental, electricity and telephone, and salaries for the director and a secretary. There is no ongoing financial support for programs for the weaving groups; the ILO funds only activities for home workers in the sub-contracting system. When groups in the Network ask for help to improve the quality of their products, for example, NWD tries to provide design training for both small and large groups. And every time they plan a training session, NWD has to make funding proposals to different organizations. If they receive the funding they can give a workshop, if not, they have to wait. Otherwise NWD has to ask the people to pay and only the large groups can pay. One sponsor for NWD training programs has been the Canada Fund, operated by the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok, which has a focus on women and has supported many NGO programs in Northeast Thailand.
NWD is doing research on home workers in the seventeen provinces of the Northeast region to gain information about what kind of work they do. With support from the Science ministry, they are also conducting a survey of handicraft groups to find out about community-based techniques used in handicraft processes, group management and marketing. They are also inquiring about the problems craft groups have. NWD hopes that the government will use the information from this survey and make plans to support people to deal with problems of funding, designing and marketing, NWD encourages women to participate on committees in village and district organizations. Suntharee said that it is not enough for women to become strong in their own weaving groups; women have to share and participate at other decision-making levels. If they want to receive funds to support weaving they have to go through the decision making process in the district organizations. If the women are happy only to be in the local women’s group, and they don’t share and participate in the other organizations, they cannot reach the government funding. “So nearly all of our women are realizing they have to learn more and participate in higher levels of the network, not only the weaving groups.”
NWD works on a wide range of issues that impact women by providing a forum for discussion and initiatives for their support. In this article I have focused on issues that concern the weaving groups in particular, which are challenged to develop skills in management, ideas for design and product development and relevant strategies for marketing. Critical issues confronting the weavers also include the state of the local environment, availability of raw materials and risks from toxic chemicals. To address any of these concerns requires access to information, training and education.
The development of community enterprises that utilize women’s traditional skills and aesthetics of weaving is not only providing income for families in the Northeast but also strengthening women’s confidence in their ability to learn and contribute to their communities. However, external funding for training and marketing support is needed to continue to establish a base for sustainable livelihoods within the existing weaving groups and within other village groups that want to join the Network. It is a sad irony that rural women who have been marginalized by the impact of the Western macro-economic development model require the financial support of national and international agencies and organizations that previously neglected them.
Artisan enterprises are part of the informal economy, a sector of the globalizing economy that is rapidly expanding as a major source of employment, particularly for women in developing countries. For example, nearly 75% of manufacturing work in Southeast Asia is within the informal sector where women are home-based workers in the garment and electronic industries. As globalization has led to increased inequality within and between countries, a global movement has emerged in the past two decades to promote better programmes, policy and research in support of income and social security for women workers in the informal sector. The work of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), founded 1972 in India, has been an impetus for recent international networks such as HomeNet, an international federation of home- based workers, and WEIGO — Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. (WEIGO, 2001. See also Lund & Srinivas)
Although there are similar concerns among workers in the informal sector, artisans have unique challenges. And the difficulty of their situation needs to be appreciated as they seek to bridge the gap between rural village ways of life and the urban global marketplace in order to sell their products. As globalization promotes cultural homogenization, artisans have an important role in protecting cultural diversity, such as the example of women weavers in Northeast Thailand who are reclaiming the value of local production of handwoven textiles that bears the mark of ages- old indigenous traditions. In addition, international alternative trading organizations and fair trade networks are promoting consumer awareness of artisan products and the search for sustainable livelihoods in rural areas. Further research into community enterprises based on artisan skills and products will bring greater insight into development alternatives that are appropriate and sustainable; there is much more to learn about how people and cultural practices in rural areas can thrive as well as survive.
Conway, S. (1992). Thai Textiles. London: British Museum Press.
Laird, J. (2000). Money Politics, Globalisation, and Crisis: The Case of Thailand. Singapore: Graham Brash Pte. Ltd.
Local Weaving Development Project (WAYANG). (1995). Weaving for Alternatives. Thailand: Nutcha Publishing Co. Ltd.
Jongeward, C. (2001). Prae Pan: Many Kinds of Fabrics. HomeNet, No. 15, January 2001.
Lund, F. and Srinivas, S. (2000). Learning from Experience: A Gendered Approach to Social Protection for Workers in the Informal Economy. Geneva: ILO
NWD. Women in Northeastern Thailand and their Participation in Community and Social Development.Brochure. (No date available).
Saeng-Ging, S. (2000). Experiences in Community-based Skill Development of the Northeastern
Women’s Development Network (HomeNet Northeast). Paper presented at ILO/APSDEP/TESDA Skill Development Workshop on Rural Employment Promotion for Women. Manila, Philippines, May 15-19, 2000.
WIEGO.(2001). Women in the Informal Economy. Brochure
While researching issues of artisan organizations in Thailand, I conversed with English speaking Thai people and ex-patriots working in Thailand. This article focuses on issues of weavers’ groups in Northeast Thailand and I am grateful to those who have informed this work, including: the director of NWD; 3 Thai rural development consultants involved in organizing weavers and developing artisan enterprises, 4 Isaan women weavers/managers of Prae Pan. (For an account of Prae Pan, see also Jongeward, 2001.) The book, Weaving for Alternatives, has been an important resource. My use of the term “alternative entrepreneurship” derives from this publication, which gives voice to the staff and women weavers involved in the Local Weaving Development Project that evolved into the community enterprise known as Panmai.
This article was first published in Convergence, Volume 34(1), a publication of the International Council for Adult Education