Members of the Crescent Women's Group are working towards creating more sustainable livelihoods through the production of bamboo and straw craft.
The group was prompted to utilise bamboo and straw following a direct call from the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ), in collaboration with the Forestry Department, through funding provided by the European Union (EU). For this call special focus was being placed on upscaling gender sensitive alternative livelihoods to support the sustainable utilisation of forest resources for local communities. These would replace activities such as coal burning which are harmful to the environment. Entities were asked to submit proposals in several areas which included bamboo utilisation and craft item production.
Through research, it was found that there was an existing market for local straw craft, especially in the tourism industry. The craft was, however, a dying practice, leaving a gap in the highly underserved market. The project commenced in 2019 with a focus on both straw and bamboo crafts.
The project aimed to provide support for vulnerable women within Crescent District, which is part of the Angels community which forms part of the Spanish Town development area, where unemployment is a major issue among women. The project therefore started by recruiting and training 20 women in the respective crafts. The project sought to enhance the economic and social development of these women by engaging them in meaningful work.
Norda Dawkins-Lyons, the then field supervisor from the Social Development Commission, who had oversight for the group, says the execution of the project was challenging but notes that the support of the Church of God Seventh-Day Jamaica Conference and members of hard-working project team and the community made it possible.
"A lot of research went into implementing this project because neither myself nor anyone in the community was familiar with the straw and bamboo craft. In fact, we had to go to Glengoffe to engage the master crafters to provide training in the straw craft and other seasoned crafters in the bamboo industry. We had a series of in-depth training sessions and were able to record some of them for later practice. We also had to seek support and guidance from various organisations in order to effectively implement this project. We engaged the Forestry Department, the Bureau of Standards, the Tourism Product Development Company ( TPDco) and any other stakeholders who could assist us in this process."
The EU grant allowed the women to procure important equipment such as a stove and pots for boiling of the straw, which is part of the preparation process, sewing machines for product decorations and finishing and hand tools like drills, a compressor, hole saws and sanders for making and finishing of bamboo craft items. These tools and appliances allowed the women to make bamboo products such as cups, bowls, lanterns, flower pots, jewellery and stationery holders while the straw was used to create hats, handbags, purses and mats, etc.
Speaking on the impact of the project, Dawkins-Lyons stated that the project has positively changed both the group and the wider community.
"The greatest impact of the project has been its ability to lift the morale of the community. As we know, this community is in the Spanish Town development area which is heavily stigmatised and known for high crime and violence and other illicit activities. So the introduction of this project provided members within the community an opportunity to do meaningful work rather than be idle or engage in illicit activities," she said.
Member of the group Yvonne Elliston says she is grateful for the opportunity to learn a skill.
"I didn't know anything about craft until my training. This project showed me the importance of bamboo and the many possibilities that surround it especially in the tourism sector. We saw the rise in demand for bamboo furniture and products so we wanted to create income from it," she added, "initially when this project was introduced to us, I wasn't interested because in my mind crafting was something of the past. But that changed because working and learning together was fun. We were also learning a skill that would empower us through entrepreneurship."
Another member, Sarah Fraser, echoed similar sentiments, encouraging young people to get onboard.
"This is a great programme and I want to encourage young people to join us and learn a skill. These are very valuable skills that not only create income but have cultural value. We must teach our youth the importance of our heritage in order to prevent it from fading," she noted.
Meanwhile, André Fache, programme officer for the EU delegation to Jamaica, Belize, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Cayman Islands, commends the group for their work.
"We want to applaud the group for all their hard work and commitment to this project. Their efforts show that it is possible to create new and sustainable livelihoods for communities, especially those located close to forest areas," he adds, "we hope to encourage more groups to invest in businesses and skills that are environmentally friendly."
The group has also hosted tree planting activities as part of its mandate for the project. This was done in order to increase sensitisation on good environmental practices as a means of addressing forest depletion from coal burning.
Dawkins-Lyons says the activity was made possible through the assistance of the Forestry Department.
"We formally engaged the Forestry Department and asked them to facilitate a day of tree planting given the fact that we destroyed trees to build our centre and coal burning was a common practice within the community. A team of approximately four persons from the Forestry Department came in and helped us to plant the trees. They also taught us about the process and the importance of reforestation. It was lovely and the trees are doing well now," she shared.
Alexander Beckford, project officer at the Forestry Department, says they were happy to be on board for the project.
"The Forestry Department is always happy to help those who want to better protect and preserve our forests. What they are doing has the potential to make a difference in both our fight against climate change and the tourism sector, so we just want to encourage them to keep pushing forward," Beckford said.
The group is now focused on taking its craft to the next level and claiming its niche in the tourism sector.