Mediterranean Cane

I spent the Christmas and New Year’s holiday on the island of Gozo, which is part of Malta. The weather was generally nice, and the island was quiet, compared to the summer when I normally visit. The Gozitans know how to celebrate Christmas and New Year, with concerts and performances in the squares and in the churches.

St-George Square, Rabat, Gozo during Christmas

St-George Square, Rabat, Gozo during Christmas

Gozo is a dry island, and there are not many trees. I was surprised to read in the local Museum that in the past the island was covered in woodland, which was cut for construction and fuel. You would not believe that, as currently the main woody vegetation is made up of olive and fig trees. I also noticed that many of the dry valleys on the island have clumps of reeds that look remarkably like bamboos from a distance, and the local farmers call them canes.

gozo-grass

This year, I walked up the dry valley in Mgarr-I-Xini, and I found myself in a forest of these canes. The stems have nodes and the roots have rhizomes, just like the bamboos that we see in many parts of the Global south.

close-uprhizomes

But the leaves clearly show that they are not real bamboo species, and I therefore took this opportunity to learn more about these plants.  Wikipedia tells me that these reeds are Arundo donax, or giant cane. Other common names apparently include Spanish cane, wild cane, and giant reed, and A. donax is native to the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East. Wikipedie says that plants generally grow to 6 metres high, with hollow stems 2 to 3 centimetres in diameter. The leaves are alternate, 30 to 60 centimetres long and 2 to 6 centimetres wide with a tapered tip, grey-green, and have a hairy tuft at the base.

leaves-close-up

The canes in Gozo used to be the main raw material for fishing traps and lobster pots, but these are now often manufactured from plastic an imported from outside the country. Fortunately, there are still some fishing traps to be found, and I saw these for sale in the market on I-Tokk in Rabat, Gozo.

fishing-baskets

The other use of the reeds is the manufacture of curtains that traditional houses have on the front door. It provides privacy when the door is open during the hot summer days. We do this ourselves, as a breeze in the courtyard is very nice, but you do not want the house to be open to the elements and the casual passer-by.
Many of the modern curtains come from the Far East, as it is often cheaper to buy imported mass-produced goods, than hand-made local produce, but fortunately there are still some local manufacturers on the island. My wife and I bought a custom-made curtain from a traditional manufacturer in Gharb, and he has no website or other means of advertising. We got to his house by talking to a lady in the street and asking where he lives. I forgot to take a picture, so will share a photo from the internet.

bamboo-curtain-wordpress

It was an interesting discovery to learn about the Gozo canes, and although they are not a bamboo species, I can relate to them.

Master weavers from the forest

INBAR is in charge of the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) Global Partnership Programme, and is trying to identify case studies of successful NTFP production. One of the striking examples of NTFP use is the production of woven mats and baskets from leaves and strips of material from the stems of plants.  Talking about weaving with NTFP made me reflect on my own memories of basket weaving in four of the countries where I lived

When I was young, I used to visit the Biesbosch, a large area of coastal wetlands in the southwest of the Netherlands. One of the traditional crafts from this part of the country was weaving baskets from young flexible willow branches. This is not a true NTFP, although the way willows are coppiced, allows them to continue growing.

We had a large basket for washing at home and our dog slept in a willow dog basket. Weaving baskets from willow branches is an old craft in the coastal wetlands of Europe, but due to high labour costs it is no longer economically viable in the Netherlands. Some master weavers still practice the trade for educational purposes, and in order to maintain a cultural heritage, and there are enterprises that have combines traditional basket weaving with other more general weaving of screens and partitions.

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Dog basket from willow by kwantum.nl

During my University Studies in the UK, I was fortunate to be invited to join the 1987 Royal Geographical Society expedition to Gunung Mulu in Sarawak, Malaysia. A few years later, I went back to the same place, as a member of the British-Malaysian Speleological exploration team that discovered the largest underground chamber in the world. The limestone mountains are now the Gunung Mulu National Park, a place well worth visiting.

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During the expeditions, we were sometimes invited to the local longhouse to exchange ideas, and to cement our relationships with the Berawan people that traditionally lived in the area. During these visits, I admired the beautiful weaving examples, and I found out that this is a trade that is particularly well developed in Indonesia and Malaysia. Baskets, mats and wall hangings are made with exquisite patterns and colour combinations, using natural rattan fibres.

According to the Sarawak Museum, weaving and plaiting baskets isn’t just for convenience. In the Iban community for example, the ability to plait fine baskets would enhance the standing of a woman within the community. The baskets and other plaited items are made in their own design and technique that represents the ethnic identity.  The following photo is an example that is kept in the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.

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Rattan is the name for the roughly 600 species of palms in the genera Calamus, Daemonorops, and Korthalsia climbing palms of tropical Asia, all belonging to the family Palmae (palm family). Most rattans grow in Indonesia and neighbouring countries, although they are also found in Africa. Rattans are threatened with overexploitation, as harvesters are cutting stems too young and reducing their ability to re-sprout. Unlike bamboo, rattan requires a long time to regenerate, and unsustainable harvesting of rattan leads to forest degradation, affecting overall forest ecosystem services, and this is a serious problem also recognised by the weavers.

In my current position of Director-General of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, I am planning to develop a programme of activities for sustainable rattan management in partnership with our members that produce rattan. We are not alone, and will be working with other organisations that are promoting similar work. I will report on progress in this area later this year.

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A rattan palm from Indonesia

When I moved to Botswana in the early eighties, I discovered the basket weavers from Etsha in the Okavango Delta. They are true master weavers as well, using the leaves of another palm tree – the Mokola (Hyphaene petersiana) that grows in the Okavango Delta – and produce pieces of art. I bought several baskets during an interior design exhibition in Serowe in 1985, and have carried them around the world.

Commercialisation of the basket industry in the Okavango has led to changes in the population structure of the palms, but the Ngamiland Basket Weavers Trust, a local association set up mainly by women from the area is planting new trees to ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials. A private company Botswanacraft is also selling Botswana baskets from the master weavers in Etsha, and they fetch at least several hundred dollars per piece.

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Baskets from Etsha Village in Botswana. Photo by L’Arco Baleno

Now, I live in China and a few weeks ago I visited Qingsheng County in Sichuan Province in southern China. Master weaver Zhang showed us what he can do with bamboo! He makes the finest woven covers for porcelain vases and pots, some of which are sold to exclusive addresses in Europe. The photo below shows Master Zhang and me admiring one of his creations.

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Master weaver Zhang also teaches local people how to make woven paintings, using different colours of bamboo strands. The strands are hand-produced, by splitting bamboo into small strips, which are then separated into 10 layers. These thin layers are again split into even thinner strands of bamboo, and they are used to make the intricate weavings.

 

I have been fortunate to see master weavers in action in several countries, and they all use Non-Timber Forest Products. The NTFP Global Partnership Programme may be able to find other masters weavers, or maybe you know of some. I would love to get in touch with them.