New Delhi, India – At a time when the world is facing an impressive amount of plastic waste and its environmental ramifications, a woman in eastern Assam, northeast India, has faced a new idea to address the problem and also help poor women make a living.
Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi, 47, lives around Kaziranga National Park, one of Assam’s main tourist attractions and home to the world’s largest single-horned rhino population, as well as thousands of elephants. tigers, panthers, bears and exotic bird species.
In 1985, the national park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Gogi and the women of his group, called Village Weaves, collect the waste (plastic bottles, packages of chips and bottles of water) left by tourists, wash it and dry it manually and create loom products.
Launched in 2004, the company has helped empower more than 2,300 women in 35 villages in Assam to date, while reducing plastic pollution around the national park.
“Kaziranga is visited by millions of tourists every year, many of whom leave piles of rubbish behind,” Gogoi says.
“Despite the ban on soiling, there are plastic bags everywhere that are not only a sight to behold, but are also dangerous to the animals that drown them.”
Binod, Gogoi’s husband, works non-profit for the conservation of local wildlife and shares his concern about the threat of plastic waste to the environment and animals.
The couple says they discussed the problem and “found a solution that consisted of three axes: combating waste, recycling it in an environmentally friendly way and empowering local women.”
Gogoi says he experimented for months before finding a viable plan to use the waste creatively.
“At first, I tried to use only plastic to make different objects. But it didn’t work. Then I experimented with other types of materials. Finally, only after mixing plastic with cotton threads was I able to create a strong and flexible fabric that was ideal for creating handcrafted products, ”he says.
Gogoi says he followed simple manual loom techniques he had learned from his mother.
“The weaving of handlooms is a very common skill among Assamese women, especially in the villages. We train in this trade from the age of six to seven and most homes have a loom made by bamboo ladies that grows locally and abundantly, ”she explains.
Once the technique was perfected, the self-taught craftswoman began to share her knowledge with other women from the village of Bocha Gaon, in Golaghat district.
The news spread and soon hundreds of women joined her network, making it a vibrant statewide operation in a year.
Today, hundreds of women make handbags, mats, table mats, wall hangings, coasters, table covers, tea bags, runners, and other plastic waste items.
Her products are sold through Kaziranga Haat, a gift shop that Gogoi launched in her village in 2012. In high tourist season, women can earn about $ 150-200 a month by selling their products in the store.
Over the past two decades, thousands of women have benefited from Gogoi’s business. And it’s not just women.
“Often whole families join in the collection of waste, the weaving of handlooms and other associated tasks that help them make money. For example, at home, my husband, in-laws, my brother, and my mother help me not only to weave, but also to market the products and other administrative tasks. They take care of my house when I travel to workshops, ”he says.
Gogoi is now invited by state governments and private organizations to conduct workshops to teach rural women how to turn garbage into treasures.
“I have traveled to many Indian states like Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Delhi by invitation. It’s a great feeling to be a teacher, ”she says.
But there are also challenges.
The pandemic has put all travel on hold while reducing tourist footprints in Kaziranga, drastically affecting the group’s sales.
Gogoi says he currently relies on the profits from his small cafe, Roop’s Kitchen, which he runs as a side bustle “for dizziness in difficult times.”
The nine-seater vegetarian shop serves an Assamese thali with four local delicacies and breads priced at $ 3.
There are also other problems faced by small artisans like Gogoi.
“We are struggling with obsolete looms and we need better technology and modern looms to improve the quality of our products and have greater productivity. Foreign tourists really appreciate our products, so there is a potential for higher sales and profits, ”he says.
“Although I have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we have not received anything from his office. There are also many central and state government plans for artisans like us, but they never reach our indescribable peoples. ”
The businesswoman hopes that, once the pandemic subsides, women in the group will be able to regain their lives and livelihoods.
Among the many women who have benefited from Gogoi’s business is Debyani Sarkar, 35, who began learning the technique of plastic weaving in 2015.
“I do recycling and weaving in my free time, as I have three small children. It has helped me earn up to $ 150 a month, ”he told Al Jazeera.
“With my income, I can buy good food and school books for my children. I hope to do the same once the coronavirus is gone. “
(June 5 is World Environment Day)