JungleVine® grows without cultivation, irrigation, or chemicals. Khmu artisans in northern Laos gather JungleVine® from the forests around their villages, strip the pulp from the fibers within, and then spin the fiber by hand before creating bags. From vine to crafting, it takes about two weeks to design each piece. The Khmu share their beautiful, sustainable bags with the world through the JungleVine Foundation.
The JungleVine Foundation’s mission is to connect remote isolated tribal communities with the global market by promoting their natural fiber handicrafts. Our work reduces poverty in rural Laos, preserves an ancient craft, and mitigates global warming through the promotion of organic vegan JungleVine® fiber.
Meet the Khmu Artisans
Watch Nature Bag Videos
Learn about the JungleVine® Research Retreat
Find additional news on Our Wall
Discover more about the Khmu culture by visiting Professor Damrong Tayanin’s website.
NatureBag Khmu/Lao Poverty Reduction Project Status December 2015
Soon to celebrate its 10 year anniversary, the JungleVine® Foundation presents this summary of achievements, activities and plans:
Initially energized by a souvenir gift from Lao university student Sou to world-citizen/ Iowan “Bicycle Bill” in 2006, the NatureBag Khmu/Lao Poverty Reduction Project now operates globally as a not-for-profit public charity (the JungleVine® Foundation) and in Laos as a social enterprise chartered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Lao JungleVine® Development Co. Ltd).
Approximately 14,500 items (mostly traditional Khmu multipurpose carry bags/totes) made from JungleVine® have been purchased from ~750 households in 30+ villages or settlements in five northern Lao provinces directly affecting more than 2,500 people and indirectly impacting many thousands more. All activities are undertaken using fair trade principles and with sensitivity towards preserving the enduring cultural characteristics of the Khmu tribe as determined by its members.
In 2006 and other early years, the purchased handicrafts were paid for by exchanging comfort items such as clothing and blankets, work tools and building supplies – village isolation, sometimes as great as a 3-day trek, made money useless to the rural Khmu.
Subsequently, advancements in transportation and communications, the availability of electricity and science-oriented healthcare plus increased desire and opportunity for education have resulted in emergence of monetary-based markets in which the Project has become the most prominent of three players. It is the only non-governmental participant. It also is providing critical support to the other entities.
From 2011 through 2015, 9117 products were purchased at a total cost of nearly $50,000. About 90% went directly to the artisans and their families. Initially the Khmu were reluctant to produce goods for sale. There now is an increasing desire and capability for sharing their homemade handicrafts in any quantity for which a market exists. As at the beginning, the Khmu still establish their prices, not on the basis of a survival necessity, but because they enjoy being creative and want to improve their lives. For as many as 5000 years, their culture has been self-sufficient—subsisting on gathering life necessities in mountainside jungle forests. In today’s rapidly developing Laos, desire is emerging to give children non-traditional life opportunities and to acquire now useful things such as phones, motorbikes and appliances.
Global marketing of the Khmu handicrafts has not been as quick to progress as our work in the Lao jungles. More than 9,000 items are unsold. This is not so much due to lack of demand as it is to our focusing of available resources for work inside Laos. A myriad of problems involving communications, accessibility, quality control, logistics and developments over which we could have no control have impeded progress in making the global community aware of what the Khmu traditional handicraft and their JungleVine® fiber can accomplish. Their sustainable earth-friendly style, utilitarian superiority and the mitigation of global warming remain relatively unknown.
The year 2015 resulted in encouraging progress. Khmu bags have become trendy in style centers such as Paris, Barcelona and Milan. Madewell, a subsidiary of J.Crew®, experienced excellent results with a couple of hundred JungleBags® sold in a few of its shops and online. The artisans today are finishing several hundred jumbo sized private label bags for an exclusive high-end Spain-based global boutique alliance.
During the summer of 2015, two more of the six Lao owners of Lao JungleVine® Development had their first experiences in the United States as part of our organizational development efforts. What they saw and learned combined with the enrichment they brought to our American team will pay off in the coming years.
Lao JungleVine® Development is successfully operating a guesthouse in Luang Prabang and is exploring the acquisition of another. The Project’s investments in hospitality assure the ongoing income stream needed to sustain our mission’s progress within Laos and a neighboring province of Thailand.
Some hospitality income, augmented by a grant and a loan from the Foundation (subsequently repaid), allowed for the purchase of a 2015 Isuzu vehicle used as a countryside tool, in guesthouse operations, for organizational development and as an aid in getting donations from foreign guests. It also has greatly boosted self-esteem among those working for the Project while adding local prominence to our mission.
Improvements of our redesigned website will be completed in 2016 substantially increasing the power of that platform upon which successful global marketing is based.
Most importantly, in 2016 we will identify and recruit an executive director for the Foundation who will be able to more quickly and effectively lead the Project’s mission of promoting JungleVine® as a carbon-negative natural fiber. Our homemade fiber has potential for eclipsing hemp, organic cotton and other sustainable eco-friendly fibers.
Nature Bag Khmu/Lao Poverty Reduction Project
This is our official business name as licensed in Oudomxai Province Laos. The essence of our purpose is linking the Khmu tribe of Northern Laos with the rest of the world. The economic foundation of these linkages is marketing Earth’s Greenest Bag™ an organic tote that is rugged, elastic and versatile. Proved by thousands of years of sustainability, it has as much relevance today as humans today work to survive on our planet as it did 5,000 years ago.
The Khmu Artisans - Meet Individual Artisans
The Nature Bag is homemade in Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia which has one of the lowest per person income levels in the world. The knowledge and skill used in its craftsmanship rest exclusively with the Khmu ethnic group, which has lived at high elevations on the mountainsides of Northern Laos for thousands of years.
The Khmu are the indigenous people of Northern Laos. Their rich culture dates back thousands of years. Some scholars believe it to be 5,000 years old, which would make it among the most enduring.
Some Khmu continue to live at a subsistence level, searching the forests for their basic needs — food, medicine and fiber for clothing and shelter to protect from environmental elements. Many have no monetary income.
Their bags offered to the world on this website have been crucial to their survival, allowing for the gathering of essentials for subsistence. Today, as it was thousands of years ago, the loss of a day’s harvest if a bag were to slip off a shoulder and fall from a steep mountainside could be critical. The availability of the Nature Bag worldwide is perfectly timed with the current urgency for sustainability in all lifestyles and combating global warming..
During the past 25 years, basic educational opportunities have been extended to most Khmu children. This has allowed many an option to leave the traditional villages and integrate into mainline Lao culture. Most of those who have left maintain strong ties to their families and continue to celebrate Khmu traditions. Those who remain prefer traditional life and to pass traditions on to their children.
Since 2004 many of those remote villages have been reached by electricity and mobile telephone service. Some have vehicular access for the first time. Opportunities for more efficient linkages between the ancient culture and the rest of the world have emerged.
Our poverty reduction, cultural preservation and environmental protection project is designed to strengthen and extend those links, giving the traditional a means to progress technologically and economically while remaining rooted in and preserving the ancient ways. Our mission can be summarized as being a means of strengthening in depth and economic power the inevitably evolving links between the Khmu and general society. We hope to enhance the empowerment of the Khmu as important participants in the rapidly progressing Laotian nation.
The Forest is our Life
“The Forest is our Life” video is a product of The Khmu Non-Timber Forest Product Research and Conservation Project. The project’s purpose was to protect natural resources, thus securing Khmu traditional livelihood.
We offer it here to allow the modern world a better understanding of the Khmu and their lives. It also presents lessons on sustainability applicable to the future of humankind on our planet.
We acknowledge and offer special appreciation to Rachel Clarke, the maker of the documentary, for allowing us to use her brilliantly crafted work.
Your NatureBag allows their grandchildren to have books for school, money to pay for health care, the benefits of electricity in their villages.
Our Involvement With the Nature Bag
Sou with Khmu Children
Co-Founder of the Project was Bounsou Keoamphone, who spent his early childhood in a village that has dozens of Khmu settlements nearby. Although the Khmu did not trade their bags (even with nearby neighbors) frequently Khmu children would use one as a school bag. Thus at a young age Keoamphone learned about the Nature Bag.
A few years ago Keoamphone gave an Iowa man a Khmu bag as a souvenir after guiding him to a remote area deep in the jungles of Asia. It was a gift to show friendship and to remind of an exotic adventure, but at first sight seemingly too small and fragile to be useful.
The Iowan travels light, even on journeys around the world. Had the primitive bag not
been virtually weightless and easily folded into a tiny nearly flat bundle, it would have remained in rural Asia. But it came to America because it was insignificant additional luggage.
Usually uninterested in souvenirs, he put the gift aside. About 6 months later a reusable canvass supermarket bag used to tote tools, parts and supplies on handyman projects was not large enough to carry everything needed to do a roof repair. The Asian souvenir seemed to be sized right for what could not fit in the apparently larger and stronger canvass bag.
Being of a practical rather than a sentimental inclination, the American chose to use the “fragile souvenir,” reasoning that if it could get its contents onto the roof before failing, enough of the supplies and parts would be consumed during the roof work that the canvass bag would be adequate to take remaining items back to the ground.
Not only did the “souvenir” not fail, it also held much more cargo than expected, expanding around its contents, gently gripping to keep things in place. It had other special qualities: It did not slide down the sloping roof like the canvass bag tended to do. It kept its contents in place, securely enclosed, protected from sliding down the roof and falling to the ground. It was amazing as a tool carrier!
The next day the bag was placed in frequent use to see what extremes it could endure. Nearly every day for 2 years that Nature Bag was used for shopping, as a gym bag (including carrying sweaty clothing back home), transporting books, audio/video equipment and DVD ’s, picking up trash, hauling stacks of newspapers for catch-up reading on extended journeys, harvesting garden produce, carrying picnic items, collecting bottles and cans for recycling, as a laundry bag, for hiking, even as an overnight bag. It was exposed to lots of sweat, sun, heat, cold, rain, snow, ice, leaking liquids while frequently bloated and stretched from volumes of heavy cargo. It required no care, and when empty, it would rest on a shoulder without being noticed, or it could be easily slipped into a pocket.
When a sharp object snagged and severed one of the JungleVine® cords, the American feared that the fabric would unravel and the miraculous bag would be useless. Amazingly, the small hole grew very slowly. Larger holes developed only after nearby JungleVine® was snagged or cut.
That Nature Bag, with some gaps so large that carrying small items is impossible, now hangs on a wall as a piece of memorabilia and work of art, its remaining in-place JungleVine® cord seemingly as strong as ever. The seam, strap and strap attachment techniques show no signs of weakness. The decorative colors applied to the JungleVine® have faded or disappeared entirely, although colorful cotton threads continue to entertain around the opening, and the black bands of dyed jungle vine cord are as they were the day it left Laos. Its original light tan has become more gray, but the color change was so subtle that you can detect it only by comparing it with a new bag. In the years that bag was used, it never seemed soiled and never was cleaned.
The American, now retired due to physical disability, has provided most of the “seed” financing for the poverty reduction project. More about him can be seen by clicking here. There are some wonderful Khmu images posted there as well.
A Benefit Analysis of the Khmu/Lao Poverty-Reduction Project September 2009
Slightly more than 10,000 Nature Bags have been purchased directly from the Khmu families who have made them in their homes. The first few thousand bags were acquired via person to person negotiations with a representative of each family on a bag per bag basis. Subsequently bags were purchased at generally uniform prices both makers and buyers agreed were market values. And we have been moving towards “placing orders” for bags monthly via informal Khmu maker networks specifying design and size factors and quantities. Under the current system. we have declined to buy a few bags that have been presented for purchase if quality and other specifications were not met.
The American has invested more than US$100,000 cash in the project and incurred approximately an additional US$40,000 in expenses, none of which has been reimbursed. Co-founder Keoamphone, has invested the equivalent of approximately US$3,000 cash and incurred approximately an additional US$5,000 in expenses, approximately 50 percent of which have been reimbursed by the project. Neither Keoamphone nor the American has received any salary, return on their investments, any other form of monetary compensation or other material benefits.
Additionally, both have donated thousands of hours of personal time to the project.
Other non-cash contributions with market values totaling the equivalent of at least US$70,000 have been made by dozens of other individuals and organizations as goods and services used by the project and its organizers.
There has been no significant government or NGO involvement other than advice sought by the project organizers, although efforts are made to keep all relevant parties informed about project activities. Less than US$1,000 has been paid to various units of the Lao government for business licenses, permits, translation and documentation. Gifts valued at less than US$50 have been received by Thai customs personnel to facilitate transit of bags through that country. Substantial import duty payments have been made to the government of the United States of America usually at specified tariff rates but occasionally at rates the project believes to have exceeded levels provided for by statutory law. Shipping and import broker fees have totaled approximately US$15,000, some of which included taxes and other charges received by various governments. Nearly US$80,000 or the equivalent has been used in promotion and marketing.
Fewer than 10 percent of the purchased bags have been distributed, some for revenue at both wholesale and retail prices. Total revenue realized has been less than US$5,000, all of which has been reinvested in the project.
Fragmentation and isolation of production sources/purchasing points and substantial fluctuation in the values of the currencies involved (US Dollar, Thai Baht, Lao Kip) over the duration of the project make precise analysis of the amounts received by the beneficiaries impossible. The only precise data is from initial purchases of fewer than 80 bags in 2007 by a trusted German banker, then a volunteer for the project, who paid Khmu makers an average of the then equivalent of approximately US$5 per bag.
However, from what the organizers have seen and evaluated personally during 2009, it is believed that the overwhelming majority of the expended funds, except as noted above, have benefited the families of approximately 100 extremely skilled and proficient bag makers in a cluster of about 10 Khmu villages. This represents a minute percentage of potential bag makers in Laos.
Economically-deprived relatives of Keoamphone (not of the Khmu ethnic group) are involved in project administration and in the acquisition, labeling and handling/shipping/storage of bags in remote areas. They have received significant (for them) financial benefit, believed to total the equivalent of less than US$3,000.
The project organizers hope to have their monetary investments returned sometime in the future. But the timing of such return, if it occurs, cannot be predicted.
Each Nature Bag is made in Laos of natural materials and purchased for resale by project volunteers at a price determined by its Khmu crafter family. The Khmu artisans have refined a primitive tool into today’s fashionable Nature Bag, a convenient, efficient and environmentally friendly way to carry things. Its users in the developed world benefit not only because of its green usefulness and practicality, but also because it reminds others of the importance of sustainable fashion, environmental awareness, cultural preservation and participatory poverty elimination.
Through participation in our project, these families have decided to share their “green” knowledge and skill with their close-by neighbors who live in the forests of the Asian mountainsides as well as with their more distant neighbors around our planet. By doing so they have new opportunities to make living more convenient, productive and comfortable and to allow their children to choose alternatives to the traditional rural village lifestyle.