Thursday, August 13, 2015

Supporting the cottage industries in Nepal

Since the devastating earthquakes of April and May 2015, Nepal has seen a downturn in tourism.  April and May are normally busy months for tourism, and so for many Nepali, these are the months (along with the winter), when they will make their income from selling handmade items from the country’s many cottage industries.  Changunarayan is one such village that relies heavily on tourism to support some of its residents, with as many as 300 tourists per day coming to visit the temple in high tourist season.  Right now it is monsoon, and it is post-quake Nepal; a different Nepal.  Tourists are hesitant to come with aftershocks still a fading but very real feature of being in this country.  I have been here for ten days now, and we have had one decent aftershock so far and plenty of rain and very hot days.  I have walked through the Thamel district with street peddlers desperate to have me purchase their products – fuelled with stories of their brother, mother, sister, son, daughter or father who died in the quake.  Whether or not this is a marketing ploy to have me take pity and purchase, is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is difficult to say no when there is clearly such a need at this time to sell product.
Changunarayan is home to many small businesses selling traditional handcrafted items such as the Thangka paintings, carved wooden masks and wooden puppets.  The Thangka and masks are produced on-site in Changunarayan and provide an apprenticeship for young artisans looking to gain a craft that will provide an income for their future.  There are also small shops selling pashmina, yak wool blankets and other handcrafted items such as notebooks, tea, gift cards and lampshades.  Many of these items are sourced from nearby villages, which help grow and support the network of artisans making products as their main source of income.

Thangka painting in Changunarayan is big business.  The painting school has also provided many young women the chance to start a career in painting Thangka.

Being in a small village like Changunarayan where traditional handcrafts are nurtured made me draw parallels with New Zealand and our own traditional crafts such as Maori wood carving, weaving and painting.  New Zealand also has a very strong artisan culture; supporting potters, craftsmen jewellers, painters, clothing designers, sculptures and numerous handcrafts and locally made items.  One of the worst things about opening the gates to free trade with China has meant the majority of New Zealand designed items are made off-shore.  I am a keen advocate for supporting New Zealand made products.  What a domestic market does for the country is create an investment in its people.  When we source cheap, easy to reproduce products from China or India, we slowly but surely fritter away the skills needed in a labour force to keep the economy healthy.  Nepal has suffered immensely from large earthquakes, so this small country needs it’s cottage industry’s to be supported through tourism.  It needs to be able to re-invest in it’s people and find value in the local traditional artisans.  I had five items of clothing made last week in Sankhu – the town where we have been doing earthquake volunteer work building shelters.  In Nepal, women who wear the traditional clothing, have these items made from scratch.  A seamstress will measure you up and make to order.  Fabric is cheap and the variety is outstanding.  Consequently there is a multitude of seamstresses (and tailors for the men) to be found, along with fabric shops.  My five items included three tops in traditional Nepali style and two pairs of pants also in the same style.  For fabric and construction the total cost was 37,000 Nepali Rupee – approximately $50 New Zealand dollars.  

                                             Note that she sews on a treadle sewing machine!!

I was very happy with my clothing and the seamstress was very happy with my extravagant spend (five items at once is a big deal!).  I sure hope that Nepal does not sell out to ready-made outfits sourced from India or China.  I remember when my mother used to make my clothes.  I also remember making my own clothes and also for my children.  I remember when fabric shops were a common sight; when a seamstress or tailor would “suit you up”, and I also remember when “The Warehouse” came to town and ruined all of that.  The lure of cheap stuff right now has eliminated New Zealand’s autonomy as a manufacturer and producer of everyday items.  What this does is add more impetus to keep wages low; after all anyone can afford to shop at The Warehouse right?  Sadly, only the middle to upper class can afford to shop New Zealand made and possibly in reality, only the upper class can really afford to do that.   My hope for Nepal is that it will retain its wonderful traditional artisan culture and celebrate the wonderful quality products that are produced here.  

                Cashmere products for sale in Thamel.  These are locally produced in Bhaktapur.

     Felted products are everywhere in Nepal; ranging from purses to bags to booties and mobiles.

I would love for the rest of the world to see these products too and support Nepal’s growth by mindfully choosing Nepalese products over Chinese products.  One of the beautiful aspects of being in this country is seeing these artisans going about their work – especially when it occurs in a small village like Changunarayan.  That can only ever be good for a village such as this as it adds value to the experience of visiting for tourists, and embeds cottage industries into the character of small traditional communities.

Today I went shopping in Changunarayan to buy gifts. I spent 8500 Nepali Rupee (approximately $120 New Zealand dollars).  For that I got the following:
  • One pair of pants
  • Two T-shirts
  • One long-sleeved shirt
  • One set of locally made gift cards
  • Eight “purses” of Himalayan tea 
  • Four lampshades
  • Two stunning yak wool blankets
  • Six 100% pure cashmere “Pashmina” scarves/shawls
  • One wooden puppet
It feels wonderful to be able to support a small community by spending my money here.  In Thamel (Kathmandu) I would be paying “tourist” prices and the street peddlers would be purchasing products from small villages where the items are produced (like Changunarayan) anyway and adding their mark-up on top. 

You really do get a lot of “bang” for your buck in Nepal, but the impact of that buck spent, spreads far wider and deeper than a dollar spent in New Zealand.

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