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Rutgers Project Hopes to Turn Andean Peasants Into Master Papermakers

>From the issue dated March 10, 2000

Rutgers Project Hopes to Turn Andean Peasants Into Master Papermakers


Getsemani, Ecuador

Until a few years ago, villagers in this settlement in the cloud forests of
northwest Ecuador expected that economic ruin was their certain fate. Now,
working with papermakers from Rutgers University at New Brunswick, they
have new hope.

To see the changes, one must travel five hours from Quito, the capital -- a
startling, perilous slog over battered roads strung along precipitous
slopes, close to the border with Colombia. Along the way, tremendous
rockslides have brought down millions of tons of huge boulders and rubble
and plunged chunks of the road into the valley below. A major slide can cut
off villagers for months, forcing them to rely on the corn, fruit, sugar
cane, and beans that they scratch from the fragile volcanic soil.

One eventually turns onto a dirt road that connects cloud-forest
communities outside the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. As the
forests merge with the clouds in glimmering grays and greens, one comes, at
a fork in the road, to tiny Getsemani. Home to 40 families, its center is a
few scattered brick, wood, and bamboo houses. Many are mere shacks.

For centuries, and especially in the last 50 years, the people here have
cultivated sisal, also known as cabuya, a wide-leafed, fleshy agave plant
that grows to over 10 feet high throughout the Andes. Its fibrous leaves
were used to make coffee sacks and rope until synthetics displaced it. In
1994, papermakers from the Center for Innovative Print and Paper at
Rutgers's Mason Gross School of the Arts began helping aid agencies teach
villagers how to use the fiber to create and sell high-quality, handmade
paper products.

"Some people thought it would never work," says one villager, Consuela
Ordonez, as she opens the two small whitewashed-brick buildings that house
the project. Inside, almost tripping over a giddy, curly-haired daughter,
she explains the function of equipment that is neatly arrayed amid stacks
of paper sheets. Out back are rows of pegs used to dry the sheets.

She knows that doubts about the project persist. Incomes now exceed
campesino wages, but the project remains much smaller than hoped. Still,
she says, "Things are much better for the families involved."

The cottage industry has begun to reshape the nature of work here. Women,
who predominate in the project, suddenly can earn a wage rather than simply
helping their husbands raise sisal and other crops.

"They become the main wage earners, and that changes the social structure,"
says Gail F. Deery, a master papermaker who manages that component of the
Rutgers center.

In collaboration with the Dieu Donne Papermill, in New York City, the
Rutgers center has mounted similar projects in Peru, India, the West Bank,
and the Yanomami rain forests of Venezuela.

Of the Getsemani venture, Ms. Deery says: "I had been invited to do lots of
projects, but this one was unique. It had all the components we've dealt
with over the years. It had a socioeconomic element, and an ecological one,
and it had a really great educational exchange built in, as well."

Effluents from the washing of sisal, which is very alkaline, had been
polluting streams. So organizers brought in experts who devised a way of
converting the effluents into fertilizer.

Residents of Getsemani and three neighboring communities built the paper
center here, and fashioned molds, vats, and other papermaking equipment. A
pulp-processing facility was built in the nearby industrial town of Ibarra,
which has a more dependable electricity supply.

The recipe for successful papermaking with sisal came from fiber-processing
tests at Rutgers. The raw sisal fiber was too coarse and difficult to
process using standard procedures for making paper by hand, such as beating
the fibers to a pulp before they are pressed into paper. So Rutgers staff
members, working with colleagues at the University of Iowa Center for the
Book, which specializes in handmade books, tried various cooking and
fermentation agents before settling on lime produced in the region.

Ms. Deery and other consultants then traveled here, bringing two graduate
students who helped teach villagers the papermaking craft. That approach
was so successful that Ms. Deery and papermaking colleagues are planning to
pool the resources of several American institutions to start a
postgraduate-degree program in papermaking by hand. It would train students
to run aid projects, teach the craft, or operate their own shops.

Since Rutgers set up the project, it has been overseen here by CARE
Ecuador, a nonprofit agency. The agency's program on sustainable uses for
biological resources operates 15 projects around Ecuador -- harvesting tree
tomatoes, for example -- that bolster local economies and encourage
villagers not to damage ecosystems. That program is financed mainly by the
U.S. Agency for International Development.

Here in Getsemani, Elizabeth Rappe, then a project manager at CARE Ecuador,
gathered a training group of 38 prospective participants from the village
and three surrounding communities. Ms. Deery says they took readily to such
tasks as determining the proper thickness of sheets in the vats and grading
paper by visual inspection. Several pitched in by improvising binding twine
from sisal, fashioning tools, and making dyes from such local plants as
black walnut. They also designed such products as blank books, gift boxes,
and illustrated cards, and began marketing them to tourist shops.

But running the mill as a business is no easy task. High-end paper products
are a hard sell in a country with a beleaguered economy and little history
of handmade paper as a luxury item. Many of the original trainees doubted
that the wages would keep coming, and continued to work part time in
agriculture. Now the paper operation has scaled back to five full-time
employees, but three more are about to start.

One of those is Vincente Vasquez, an easygoing father of four girls. Like
all the men here, he has a face chiseled by the sun and arms wiry from
years of laboring in the fields. This month, he begins work as an
illustrator and designer. He has already done that, off and on, while
working in the fields.

"The papermaking is not as profitable, but I like it," he says.

Because it's easier on the body?


The project's success will have to be measured not in terms of investments
by CARE and others, which will never be recouped, but by whether it can
become self-sustaining, can help preserve the region's threatened
ecosystems, and can stem emigration from the village.

The project has made an impression on the children of this formerly
isolated village. They come running to greet, some days, two or three
carloads of visitors from aid agencies, the pulping facility in Ibarra, and
card designers and other business associates from towns and cities.

As for those who work in the breezy papermill, out of the searing, steamy
mountain sunshine, they have reason to be content.

"Chevere!" says Ms. Ordonez, using a common local expression. "Under this
shade, it's great."

Philobiblon: Book Arts, Different By Design
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Peter D. Verheyen
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