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Exclusive feature news story:
Hemp & Allo fibers: Source of Income for Rural Indigenous Nepalese Women


An Indigenous woman weaving cloth out of hemp in Baglung. Photos: Smita

Rukum/Kathmandu, November 1, 2008- Hemp is often confused with another plant of the same genus, Marijuana which is illegal in some parts of the world. Whether they are walking, gossiping or cattle-rearing, women of these rural districts Rukum and Rolpa never forget to carry two things along with them: taku (traditional tool used to make threads) and Dhaka (fibers/threads).


Peeling of the fibers from hemp stem.
 
"As long as I can remember, my great-grandma, grandma and mother were always with taku and dhaka so when I was about 5 years old I had already learned how to use it. Now, it is an undying habit; I can't go anywhere without carrying it," said Hastakala Budha Magar, a 52 year old local woman from Morabang VDC, Rukum.

The habit she describes is not a recently adopted practice but has been passed on from generation to generation. When there were no products from multi-national clothing companies in those virgin lands, those ladies used to make clothes using natural fibers of hemp and allo for themselves and their families.


Indigenous Magar women of Rukum make threads while attending meeting. Photos: Smita

Now, the indigenous traditional clothing made from the hemp and allo (locally known as puwa) fibers are rarely used by these same indigenous nationalities. However, their habit of making thread and cloth by using 'taan' (traditionally used tool for making cloth) have surprisingly increased compared to the decrease in consumption by the indigenous groups.

The reason behind this is the increased demand for thread and clothing made from hemp and allo fibers by Nepali handicrafts dealers, manufacturers and exporters in national and international market.


A school girl making thread out of hemp in Rolpa. Photos: Smita

"I pay for my daughter's school fee, her clothes and school materials along with buying household things now and then from the money earned from selling hemp and allo thread," said Gaumati Kami of Jhumlabang -8. Now, she says, she does not have to ask money from her husband for little household things. “I feel good for being able to take care of certain things in the home myself,” she adds with smile.

Sher Bahadur Shrestha, the hemp and allo thread retailer from Rukum says people usually exchange thread for goods in villages. “They exchange for clothes, shoes/slippers, salt, sugar, or school materials according to their need,” he stated.

Shrestha collects materials from villagers and sells to other retailers from Dang and Kathmandu. But due to lack of market management he sometimes has to go off to Dang himself to sell before the quality of the goods deteriorates. “It needs very good care, and that is hard to give in villages with rats and a moist environment everywhere,” Shrestha adds.


An old indigenous woman making hemp thread with taku in Rukum.

All raw materials and the workforce needed to turn out good products are available here, but as the villages are very rural and far from factories of Kathmandu, Shrestha feels local communities are not able to benefit enough from their raw materials. “If we had the factories here, it would be profitable to the local community,” he states.


An old indigenous man of Rukum wearing the cloth made of hemp. Photos: Smita

These are under-developed villages without transportation system, without electricity and without communications. As a result many young men and women have gone to work in foreign lands to raise their family’s financial status. Shrestha says, “If manufacturing factories could be in local areas and our local people would not have to migrate abroad for employment, it would not only help local development, but would in fact boost the country’s utilization of all resources.”

Manufacturer/exporter of KD Hemp House, Kathmandu, Karam Prasad Budha Magar, originally from Rolpa, has been in this job for nearly 6 years since moving to Kathmandu during the Maoist insurgency. “In the beginning I felt hopeless trying to survive in the capital. I didn’t know what to do for living but then I somehow stumbled into this business to sustain myself. I grew up wearing clothes made from hemp and allo by my mother, so it was familiar and gave me confidence that I could do it,” said Budha Magar.


The bag made of hemp and cotton.

Hemp and allo fibers are used to make anything that can be made from cotton, says Magar. By mixing hemp and allo with cotton fibers or even with pure hemp fiber, his company is manufacturing an abundant variety of clothing such as caps, shirts, pants, slippers, bags, belts, necklaces, shoes, wallets, mufflers, and so on.

Now, Magar is exporting these clothes to Japan, Switzerland, U.S.A., Germany, Korea and many other international markets. To supply his factory with sufficient raw materials, he uses sources not just in Rukum, Rolpa, but also from Bajang, Darchula and Bajura districts. Nearly 300 people are working for him at the moment.


Horses, donkeys are the only transportation means for hemp raw materials from Rukum and Rolpa.

He says he is thinking of opening a branch of his manufacturing operation in Rukum, Rolpa as soon as the environment becomes favourable. “Right now there is a lack of transportation, electricity and communication, all of which are most fundamental for this business, so, though I want to establish the factory there, it is impossible at present,” he added.

What is Hemp?


Taku and hemp dhaka. Photos: Smita

Hemp is often confused with another plant of the same genus, Marijuana which is illegal in some parts of the world. Although very similar, Marijuana is actually NOT the same plant as hemp. Industrial hemp contains less than 1% of THC the psychoactive component of marijuana. Today, by understanding this imperative confusion between them, more than 32 countries including Canada, England, France, Russia, the Netherlands, Spain, China, Hungary and many other developed European countries are legally growing hemp by the thousands of acres as it is one of the most promising sources of fiber, paper, fuel and natural oil.


Hemp threads dyed with different colour. Photos: Smita

Ford Motor Made of Hemp?

In 1941, the Ford motor company produced an experimental automobile with a plastic body composed of 70% cellulose fibers from hemp. The car body could absorb blows 10 times as great as steel without denting. The car was designed to run on hemp fuel. Because of the ban on hemp the car was never mass produced.

It is believed that if present rates of use continue, in 200 years we will completely exhaust all of our oil reserves. We are already experiencing the shortage so it is imperative that an alternative to fossil fuels is implemented. Even though hemp is illegal now, its benefits are so numerous that it is just a matter of time before it becomes a thriving industry. What the world needs is a renewable source of fuels and fibers that will meet the growing needs of the future. Hemp can be taken as the best option; it has the potential to make better clothes, better fuel, and better paper.

Hemp use dates back to the Stone Age, with fibres found in human settlements over 10,000 years old, where they were used for clothes, shoes, ropes and an early form of paper.

History has it that from 1000 BC to 1883 AD hemp was considered the world largest agricultural crop; from the early 1600's to 1859 hempseed oil was the most used lamp oil in the world. Hemp can be made into fuel, paper, and clothing, which could drastically change the oil, logging, and cotton industries.

If new Nepal law also recognizes the mythical confusion between hemp and marijuana as other countries have, and legalizes the industrial hemp growth in the country, not only many indigenous communities will benefit from it but the country will have something to sell to the world. It is a product that can be almost grown everywhere in Nepal with less fertilizer and in less time.

Even today, if managed properly, this is proving to be a good source of income at the local level. It will not only give employment to the villagers but as there is maximum female involvement, it will also be a route to greater empowerment of women.

-Smita Magar in kathmandu
   
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