Nature Bag History and Origins


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.

 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

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.

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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.

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Sou with Khmu children 

Our Involvement With the Nature Bag

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.

Years ago, Keoamphone gave an American 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 him of an exotic adventure, but at first sight seemingly too small and fragile to be useful.

The American, an Iowan named William (Bill) Newbrough, 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, Mr. Newbrough put the gift aside. About 6 months later a reusable canvas 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 canvas bag.

Bill with Khmu children 

Being of a practical rather than a sentimental inclination, the Mr. Newbrough used 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 canvas bag would be adequate to take the 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 canvas bag tended to do. It kept its contents in place, securely enclosed. It was amazing as a tool carrier!

The next day he began using the bag frequently 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 his shoulder without being noticed, or it could be easily slipped into his pocket.

When a sharp object snagged and severed one of the JungleVine® cords, Mr. Newbrough 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.

Mr. Newbrough, 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.

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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.

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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.  

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2016 Year-End Report

Our project has now entered its second decade and we are making great progress. Our mission—to fight poverty, slow global warming and preserve an ancient craft by offering global citizens carbon-negative JungleVine®—is  advancing very well.

Remote village life for the Khmu artisan families continues to improve with better access to education and modern healthcare. Income from JungleVine® means that Khmu mothers spend fewer 14-hour days working in the dangerous conditions of banana plantations, instead earning at home maintaining traditional village life and child-rearing.

Our bags made from JungleVine® fiber continue to be well-received in the outlets where they are offered. There are many more products the Khmu artisan families want to produce, and we hope to increase marketing in 2017 to assist them in that goal. Among the new products they’ve been working on are laptop and tablet bags, 3-teir hanging baskets, and colored hats designed for young girls.

Key to our marketing efforts in 2016 was the addition of Amy McDowell to the team. She’s made many modifications to the website and launched a series of Facebook advertising campaigns. Direct sales outlets have been set up on Facebook, Messenger, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram.

Other highlights of 2016 include:

  • The introduction of a new solid-color bag named “Hak,” which is the Laotian word for love.
  • New cleaning and exfoliation products, including scouring cloths and small soap bags.
  • The Foundation has been approved as a Google Nonprofit and an AmazonSmile Charity. When our supporters shop through AmazonSmile, 0.5% of their qualifying purchases is donated to support our work.

Fashion blogger Kierra Canier will feature our bags in early 2017 at www.NaturallyFarOut.com.  We look forward to adding laptop and tablet bags to our collection early in the year.

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Year in Review - 2017

This has been an excellent year for Nature Bag and the JungleVine® Foundation.  Nature Bag sales in 2017 exceeded 2016 by 79 percent, and we have welcomed more than 20 new retail outlets.

 

Early in the year, Khmu artisans in Northern Laos completed work on a 500-piece custom order for a new customer in Bastia Corse, France. Forty artisans from two villages worked together to complete the order within 60 days. In addition to Bastia Corse, new sales outlets this year included London and Aquitaine in France, Formentera and Ibiza in Spain, and outlets in South Korea, Costa Rica, and four additional Australian provinces. Click here to see our 2018 catalog.

We continue to see improvements in Khmu village life, due in part to the income artisans earn making Nature Bags. One village’s school was recently connected to the electrical grid, and the JungleVine® Foundation is coordinating the donation of a computer and printer.

 

We’ve recently ordered JungleVine® yarn from a second village cluster. Previously all of the yarn used by our artisans and artisans producing for others came only from the one village cluster we developed.

 

There has been an enormous increase in foreign-owned and operated commercial agriculture in the area of the Khmu villages—primarily bananas. This has created relatively well-paying work in the area for the first time. However, the commercial agriculture work requires workers to be away from their villages and families for 10 to 14 hours a day. In addition, the commercial growers use chemicals that are banned in Laos and most countries because of the danger they pose, and Khmu villagers have suffered skin sores and sickness from their exposure to the chemicals.

 

Fortunately, Nature Bag offers an ideal alternative means of earning income, and artisans are highly motivated to produce bags. Making Nature Bags allows the artisans to work from home, preserving traditional village life, as well as providing a safe and enjoyable way to earn a livelihood.  Nature Bags also help preserve an important craft. For example, one artisan is 93 years old and is still weaving Nature Bags even though she has been blind for many years. She learned the art of making bags as a young girl and now makes them by touch.

 

The JungleVine® Foundation received two major grants this year -- a Google AdWords Grant of $10,000 a month in free Google text ads, and Salesforce’s Power of Us program, providing free software.

Since 2010, the JungleVine® Foundation has sponsored 11 Laotian visits to the United States and takes particular pride in facilitating international exchanges. These cultural exchanges are playing an important role in organizational and personal development as well as solidifying the friendship between the United States and Laos. In August and September, two owners of the social enterprise that coordinates our work in Laos participated in an extended U.S. visit that included a coast-to-coast drive and time in Iowa working in the Foundation’s warehouse and meeting U.S. colleagues. (Read more about their 4-H and ICE Exchange.)

Everyone who has taken part in these exchanges has benefited from the opportunity to better understand our similarities and differences, and the exchanges also have contributed to their personal development. For example, one of our Laotian partners who had visited the United States in 2015 organized a trip to Sweden last summer for staff in the high school where he teaches so they could meet with staff in a Swedish high school. The travelers required special passports, and it was necessary to get the approval of several Laotian Ministries and foreign embassies. Some of the six Laotian travelers had never had been outside their provinces. Our Laotian partner was the only English speaker in the group, and his experiences during the Foundation’s 2015 exchange gave him the knowledge and confidence required to lead the trip, which included three international border crossings.

In 2017, a group of Americans visitors also traveled to a Khmu village to meet Nature Bag artisans and observe first-hand the skill and technique involved in making Nature Bags. Two layers of translation (Khmu to Laotian, Laotian to English)   was required as the artisans talked about their work and lives and demonstrated how they harvest the fiber from the stem of JungleVine® that they use to make the bags. A story about this visit can be found here.

The Foundation, in conjunction with its social enterprise affiliate, operates the JungleVine® Research Retreat on secluded jungle land overlooking the Nam Khan River within walking distance of Luang Prabang International Airport. During the past year, we have constructed three basic steel, concrete and wood structures to replace traditional bamboo and thatch structures. The new structures can be used for outdoor conferences, entertaining, meditation, experimentation and storage. A fiber optic link for internet access was installed at the Retreat in October. This allows CCTV security to utilize the Cloud, enhances the productivity of personnel and brings improved reliability over the previous cellular data arrangement.

The Foundation is in the preliminary stages of drafting a strategic plan to help guide our growth during the coming 3 to 5 years.

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