A few months ago I visited the province of Negros Occidental here in the Philippines. Thanks to some fantastic tour guides I was well fed, got a very nice history lesson and saw some great local arts and crafts to boot.
The area was previously known as the sugar hub of the region, producing about 60% of the country’s sugar at one time. But with so much of it’s resources tied up in one industry, the province suffered a devastating blow when global sugar prices plummeted in the 70s and 80s. Mills shut down and people were out of work. (Over 150,000 workers were displaced, with 84% of Negrenses living below the poverty line and 60% of kids in the region suffering from malnutrition). This plus two destructive typhoons and a severe drought left the area hurting for new ways to sustain itself.
Enter 15 Negrense women with a knack for organizing. These ladies, a diverse group of professionals, entrepreneurs, bakers, homemakers, and artisans, attended seminars in Manila on everything from starting kitchen businesses to mastering handiwork techniques. They brought their new skills and knowledge back to Negros and shared it with the displaced workers and their families back home.
By diversifying their skills and products and sticking together in hard times, the group grew strong and gained a reputation for quality and creativity. The idea spread, and the entire region is now known for their expertise and skill in hand-crafted home decor, which is exported all around the world.
The works are really amazing. Lamps made out of structural beams from the retired sugar mills, ingeniously ergonomic furniture made from banana and bamboo trees, handicrafts made from pandan and coconut husk, striking Mascara festival masks which call to mind Brazil’s famous Carnival, sweets, pastries, you name it.
They even hold a bi-annual design competition: “Bulawan” awards (bulawan is ilonggo for “gold), “to encourage members to engage in continued product and packaging innovation. It aims to encourage ingenuity, creativity and commitment among local producers in terms of product development & invention, as well as packaging & designs.” To qualify, producers must use at least 50% local materials and components, to maximize local labor.