- People in the highlands of central Madagascar have long buried their loved ones in shrouds of thick wild silk, typically from the endemic silkworm known as landibe (Borocera cajani).
- With support from NGOs, traditional silk workers have widened their offerings to include scarves made of wild silk for sale to tourists and the country’s elites.
- In recent years, the price of raw materials has shot up as the forests the landibe grows in succumb to fire and other threats, making it difficult for silk workers to continue their craft.
- However, where there are forest-management challenges, there is also opportunity: the silk business provides an incentive for local people to protect their trees. Some well-organized and well-supported community groups are cashing in on conservation, in spite of the broader silkworm recession.
AMORON’I MANIA REGION, Madagascar — People in the highlands of central Madagascar have long buried their loved ones in shrouds of thick wild silk. After several years, they exhume the dead in a turning-of-the-bones ceremony and wrap them in an additional layer. Older people often have a shroud ready when they die, but these days not everyone can afford one. The price of raw materials has shot up as the forests they come from succumb to fire and other threats, making it difficult for weavers and other silk workers to continue their craft.
“I’m still eager to work, but the cocoons are too expensive,” Ramaly Razafidrasoa, a 70-year-old weaver in the village of Anjoma, told Mongabay. She now works a roadside stand selling peanuts and other food.
Since the early 2000s, her silk work has involved more than just making shrouds. Like many weavers across the highlands, she received technical and business training from a nonprofit group and began selling silk scarves to urban and overseas markets. But in the last few years, the supply of silk has declined, partly because the tapia woodlands where the silkworm moths grow keep getting ravaged by fires.
“The problem is the doro tanety in Ambatofinandrahana,” Razafidrasoa said, referring to bandits who burn the woodlands in one of the districts where tapia trees and silkworms are most common.
However, where there are forest-management challenges, there is also opportunity: the silk business provides an incentive for local people to protect their trees. Some well-organized and well-supported community groups are cashing in on conservation, in spite of the broader silkworm recession.
Malagasy silk vs. Asian silk
Madagascar has several endemic silkworm species, most notably landibe (Borocera cajani). The species produces much thicker silk than that from Asia; U.S. customs officials have been known to misidentify landibe silk as cotton. In the West, it has a small following, and landibe scarves are a hip accessory among Madagascar’s urban elites.
Ny Tanintsika, a local group affiliated with the U.K.-based nonprofit Feedback Madagascar, helped to commercialize Madagascar’s silk in the 2000s. In an effort to connect business and conservation outcomes, Ny Tanintsika (“our land” in Malagasy) helped start silk workers’ cooperatives and forest management groups. Some villages specialize in one or the other, as silk-making and weaving skills don’t necessarily occur in the same place as tapia trees (Uapaca bojeri).
The village of Ambohimanjaka, surrounded by tapia-covered hills, is key to the local silk business even though it isn’t home to many weavers. Weaving, after all, is only the final stage in the long process of transforming an insect cocoon into a shroud or scarf. People in Ambohimanjaka collect cocoons from the local tapia woodlands and often do the initial work of turning it into thread, using spindles and basic wooden tools. Their forest management group has several hundred members and protects about 1,200 hectares (about 3,000 acres) of land.
Healthy woodlands are the foundation of the silk business, said André Razafimahatratra, Ny Tanintsika’s technician in Ambohimanjaka. “Tapia is what the silkworms really want,” he told Mongabay. “They can eat other leaves but it’s not the same. It’s like the Malagasy people with rice. We can eat cassava or corn, but it’s not what we really want.”
When the silkworms eat tapia instead of other leaves, their reproductive cycle quickens and their cocoons grow bigger, said Tsiresy Razafimanantsoa, an animal biologist at the Superior Institute of Technology of Ambositra, who did her doctoral research on Madagascar’s silkworm moths. This ultimately helps strengthen the shrouds and scarves, which last for decades notwithstanding their delicate appearance.
Despite its good qualities, landibe silk has competition in Madagascar. Domesticated mulberry silkworm moths (Bombyx mori), a species native to China that Malagasy silk workers raise in their homes, produce the thin, lustrous silk that most international consumers are familiar with. Some people in Madagascar consider it to be of a higher quality than their own native silk.
If Madagascar’s native silkworms were domesticated, they would lose much of their power as an incentive to conserve the tapia woodlands. So it’s perhaps fortunate, from a conservation standpoint, that landibe worms are difficult to raise indoors. They require too much food and space for easy domestication. With great effort, it’s possible to raise them in boxes, but landibe do best in the woodlands, Razafimanantsoa said.
Conserving worm and tree
Local people say wild silkworms have become harder to find, and the limited scientific research that’s been done on the subject supports this conclusion. Landibe does not yet have a listing on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, but Razafimanantsoa and researchers at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar called it “critically endangered” in a 2012 study in the journal Biotechnology, Agronomy, Society, and Environment.
The decline in silkworm numbers has become more pronounced in recent years, but it may have started decades ago. Madagascar’s total silk cocoon harvest was estimated at more than 100 tons in 1902, but dropped to about 43 tons in 2009, according to information cited in Razafimanantsoa’s study. About 10,000 families worked in the industry as of 2009, but that number has likely dropped in the past decade, with obvious implications for local economies.
Nevertheless, silk still provides significant income not just in tapia-rich areas like Ambohimanjaka but also in villages with relatively strong silk-working cooperatives, such as Soatanana and Sandradahy, both near the town of Ambositra in the central highlands. A Sandradahy cooperative exhibited its silk at the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in July. (The International Folk Art Alliance, which runs the market, previously made a documentary about the Sandradahy silk workers.) Another silk group from northeast Madagascar also participated in the Sante Fe event, selling non-traditional wares made from Malagasy silkworms other than landibe.
The reasons for the decline in wild silkworm populations are complex. Habitat destruction is often cited, but scientists disagree as to whether tapia forests are receding or not. They do agree that bush fires have played a role in directly killing silkworms, but it’s not clear whether the fires have reduced tapia forest coverage.
Tapia has a thick protective bark that confers fire resistance, which is how it has endured in Madagascar’s highlands for so long. “With the colonization of the highlands by people, the frequency of fire increased, so the vegetation we see now is dominated by species such as tapia that are resistant to fire,” Chris Birkinshaw, a technical adviser at Missouri Botanical Garden, a research and conservation group that has a large presence in Madagascar, told Mongabay.
However, the fires do kill off tapia seedlings and saplings (less than 8 or 9 years old). They also kill off many of the other trees and surrounding brush, reducing the biodiversity of the woodlands.
Lack of security is a major part of the problem: many of the fires are caused by bandits called dahalo or doro tanety. They raid villages to steal cattle or other high-value items and then retreat, burning the forest behind them to cover their tracks. Some also burn the forest before or after a raid in order to distract villagers. There are no fire departments in rural areas, so villagers are compelled to stop defending their possessions from bandits and instead focus on preventing the fire from reaching their houses.
However, the alteration of tapia habitats and silkworm populations is not due to fires alone. People also simply cut trees down for firewood or charcoal. The Ambohimanjaka group has prosecuted several offenders, but needs more help from the local branch of the environment ministry in order to fight deforestation, said Eugenie Raharisoa, Ny Tanintsika’s national coordinator. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Moreover, in some woodlands, invasive pine and eucalyptus trees have begun outcompeting tapia for resources and caused changes in soil composition. Conservation groups have made efforts to stop the march of such invasive species. Missouri Botanical Garden has, for example, helped cut down some 2,000 pine trees in the tapia woodlands near Ibity, a village in the central highlands.
The silkworms also face diseases and predators — not least human beings. The worms have likely been overharvested due to demand for silk and food. In their chrysalis stage, the worms are considered a delicacy and have value at food markets. People fry them up as a snack or mix them with chicken and rice at mealtime.
A safer, silkier future
Village groups with well-established markets for their cocoons or silk products continue to earn money from the silk business. But in other villages, such as Anjoma (often called Anjoman’Ankona, the name of the entire county), the scarcity and high price of landibe cocoons has caused most silk workers to close up shop. The prices vary depending on whether the silk is purchased as raw cocoons or at some intermediate thread stage, but many people in the business told Mongabay that they have tripled or quadrupled in the past five years.
There is, however, some cause for optimism. Earlier this year, Madagascar’s government placed more army personnel in Ambatofinandrahana, the district that’s home to an abundance of tapia, where Anjoma’s silk workers usually get their cocoons. If security and forest management improves there, silk workers in Anjoma and across Madagascar’s highlands might have reason to celebrate.
Ramaly Razafidrasoa would like this to happen while she’s still young enough to weave. She raised 14 children, 11 of whom are still alive, and has 98 total descendants. Many of them, thanks to her teaching, were once part of the silk trade. “I hope there will be enough silk left for us all to be buried in it,” she said.
Photos: Landibe weaving, from silkworm to silk scarf
Banner image: Niry, a weaver in Soatanana, a village well known for its silk production, at work on a traditional loom. Image courtesy of Feedback Madagascar.
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Rakotondrasoa, O. L., Malaisse, F., Rajoelison, G. L., Razafimanantsoa, T. M., Rabearisoa, M. R., Ramamonjisoa, B. S., … & Bogaert, J. (2012). La forêt de tapia, écosystème endémique de Madagascar: écologie, fonctions, causes de dégradation et de transformation (synthèse bibliographique). Biotechnol. Agron. Soc. Environ, 16(4), 541-552.
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