This cab drove me 600 miles into the jungle
AS THE STORY GOES…
Sixteen months ago, I jumped into a hammock outside a tiny hut in Thailand and fell in “love at first swing.” I inquired about my hammock’s origin and first learned the powerful story behind Yellow Leaf Hammocks- how these hammocks had been the means to combating deforestation, poverty, and securing civil rights for the previously enslaved Mlabri Tribe.
Feeling strangely compelled, I convinced a cabbie to drive me 600 miles to visit the remote village where my hammock was woven. I had no idea that this was the first step in a journey that led me to abandon my previous career in commercial real estate and dedicate myself to spreading this story far and wide, trying to carve out a better world for impoverished and marginalized hill tribes- as “Chief Relaxation Officer” of Yellow Leaf Hammocks.
My first visit to the Mlabri village
With a vision so grand and ambitious- I’ve definitely encountered some questionable looks. That’s to be expected when, seemingly out of nowhere, you leave behind a stable job in the midst of a recession to pursue a “career” in hammocks.
But, if you’d seen what I saw in the village that day, you might have felt this calling too.
As I drove into the village, I was shocked by towers of smoke on the horizon, realizing that these forest fires were commonly (and intentionally) ignited using toxic chemicals to quickly clear the land for subsistence agriculture, known as “slash & burn.”
Slash & Burn – A farmer takes a break
Slash & Burn – The aftermath
We bounced down a bumpy road that abruptly transitioned from rough pavement to rocky dirt, the concrete stopping where the allocated budget ran out after being siphoned off by corrupt officials.
Road to the Ban Boonyuen village
When we finally arrived, I was given a tour of the Mlabri and Hmong villages, where I learned more about the history and the impact of the hammock project, which began as a far-fetched attempt to help these hill tribes combat the social ills that had plagued them- to bring them up to a standard of living that allowed for clean water, the chance for some food on the table and the security of preserving their culture.
This is a picture of some hands that have been out planting crops. Their hands are stained with the poison used on the corn seed. If we can provide enough weaving work to support the Mlabri and regional tribes, we will be able to eliminate this form of toxic agriculture in the region and save the forests and the health of farmers.
Walking through the village for the first time was a raw, disconcerting experience for me. On the one hand, I understood that the Mlabri were far better off than they had been 10 years ago, when they were toiling in endless indentured servitude (virtually slavery) to more powerful tribes. Through the production and sale of hammocks, they had been able to establish the foundation for a brighter future. Mlabri children were finally afforded the opportunity to attend school in 2007, and the positive ripple effect had trickled into neighboring villages when the Mlabri had begun offering work to the same tribe that had previously exploited them (something that inspires me every day!).
But on the other hand, as I visited with the villagers in their homes I realized how close to the margin they were living- extreme poverty was still the rule, rather than the exception.
In Thailand, a hill tribe family of 4 or 5 can expect to earn 86% below the Thai national average and members of a smaller group like the Mlabri are generally accepted to be even worse off.
I learned that hammock weaving provides a massive increase in income (we later calculated it at 651%!). To help me understand the difference, they explained that a hammock weaver has the opportunity to earn as much as a college educated teacher in Thailand!
Community Center Being Built- All From Hammock Proceeds!
But something wasn’t clicking for me. I had sat in the hammocks and experienced firsthand the luxurious softness and comfort of that seat. I had seen how the weavers were directly benefiting from their sale. To me, it was inconceivable that they had not yet sold enough hammocks to push past endemic poverty and reach a healthy, stable income.
I wondered: “Why was slash and burn deforestation still so rampant here? Why did the hill tribes resort to less lucrative, more dangerous means of income generation? Why is this region still so impoverished?”
As it turns out, current hammock sales are tied to the Thai tourism cycles, which is based on “rainy” and “dry” season. Without a sales channel outside of Thailand, they are dependent on the population of tourists to purchase hammocks during the “dry season.” When the “rainy” season comes and tourism disappears, hammock sales come to an abrupt halt and people are forced back into the fields. Without a steady, flourishing sales channel, the village seemed doomed to backslide each year and the hammock project could not reach its full potential.
And that’s when the light bulb went off (and it hasn’t turned off since!)!
CONTINUE TO PART 2
This is one of my favorites- a Mlabri weaver playing a prank on Allen as he relaxes in the village!
CONTINUE TO PART 2