Our story begins in the spring of 1975, when a young American named Bill Newbrough visited Laos. He traveled to the ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang. Nestled on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city first settled in 698 CE. It is the home of many monasteries and was the seat of royal power for more than 15 generations of Laotian rulers. When Bill arrived, he was struck by the beauty of his surroundings and charmed by the kind Lao people.
Laos had been relentlessly bombed for nine years – from 1964 to 1973 – during the American war in Vietnam, and in 1975 was in the final throes of its own civil war. Luang Prabang was quiet and uninvolved in the fighting when Bill arrived. The peace was short-lived though. With little warning, foreigners began rapidly evacuating the city. The intelligence was that Pathet Lao rebels were moving into the city. All of the flights out were packed to capacity, and Bill was unable to get out.
Trapped, he spent a night watching planes dropping aerial flares, the lights from tracer bullets tearing through the jungle, and hearing massive, earth-shaking explosions. The experience impacted him profoundly. When he was finally able to leave, he knew that he wanted to return to Laos when it was safe.
After the war ended, Bill returned to Laos many times. He would take his bicycle and travel the Lao countryside. His guide on a cycling tour in 2004 was a Lao man named Bonsou "Sou" Keoamphone. At the end of their travels together, Sou gave Bill a bag as a souvenir. A minimalist, Bill had little use for souvenirs and would have left the bag behind in Laos had it not been so compact and lightweight.
Back in the U.S. months later, Bill set out to repair the roof of his home. Unable to fit all of his tools and supplies into a canvas grocery bag, he decided to use the bag Sou had given him. He was impressed at how the bag stretched to hold so many bulky, sharp, heavy items. He thought the project might destroy the bag, but what mattered most was getting the roof repaired before the next rain. Bill was astonished that not only did the bag hold up, but it was far superior to the canvas bag in every way. It was rugged, stretchy and strong, and it gripped the shingles rather than slipping down the steep roof as the canvas bag did.
Thoroughly impressed by the bag's performance, Bill contacted Sou and told him these bags should be sold all over the world. Sou told him they are made by the Khmu people for their own use and are not available for sale anywhere. Bill returned to Laos and the two men set out to visit Khmu villages to see if the Khmu people would be interested in making the bags for the marketplace.
The Nature Bag was traditionally used to carry a day’s harvest. The design has been passed down for generations, but cheap plastic import bags from China nearly decimated the craft. Bill was amazed to learn that the bags are made using fiber from a perennial vine (Pueraria phaseoloides) that grows without any agricultural inputs. The fiber is 100% sustainable and genuinely eco-friendly. To the lifelong environmentalist in Bill, this was incredible news. It meant that the bags were even more extraordinary than he’d first realized.
Bill and Sou built relationships with Khmu tribes in remote villages all over northern Laos. They learned which tribes still retained the ancient bag-making skill and found hundreds of artisans eager to create bags. The Khmu artisans enjoy working from home while nurturing their children and preserving their traditional culture. Most Khmu villages are so isolated that there are no other opportunities to earn income. At last, Bill was able to realize his dream of helping the people of Laos.
After a few years, Sou left the organization to pursue other interests. Bill continued to build strong and lasting connections with the villages and coordinate marketing for the bags throughout the world.
Today the JungleVine® Foundation and our sister organization in Laos, the Lao JungleVine® Production Promotion Co. Ltd., work together with a common mission to connect these 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 climate change through the promotion of JungleVine® fiber.
In the years since the project's inception, we have worked with an estimated 1,000 artisans in some 40 villages who have produced more than 35,000 pieces. Hand-made JungleVine® products are sold in approximately 200 boutiques in 20 countries all over the world. The project continues to expand to more villages as more of the world becomes aware of the products and demand grows.
Most often, the individual artisans tell us they spend their income on rice, clothing, and school supplies for their children. However, the impact of Nature Bag income is readily visible when visiting Khmu villages. Villages where there is not yet Nature Bag income generally have single-story homes with walls made of woven bamboo slats, thatch roofs, and bare ground floors. The villages whose artisans have worked with the project longest have many 2-story homes, with concrete foundations, wood or concrete walls, and concrete tile roofs.
The artisans who create JungleVine® products have been able to improve not only the lives of their families but are able to contribute to the well-being of others within their villages. In Khmu culture, for example, the entire village works together to support the elderly among them who have no family to care for them. When needed, they come together to build a home for a neighbor, and as a community, they make sure that everyone within the village has food to eat.
JungleVine® supplies the base material for Khmu artisans to create Nature Bags, the most eco-friendly bags on Earth. It is a product that can provide an entire people with a sustainable livelihood. When you buy their hand-made eco-friendly JungleVine® products you directly support the Khmu artisans and indirectly support their entire villages.
The JungleVine® Foundation is designated a public charity under section IRC 509(a)(2) of the Internal Revenue Service code. Contributions, bequests, devices, transfers, and gifts are tax-deductible and can be made online or by mail at PO Box 1822, Des Moines IA 50305-1822 USA.
Learn more about Nature Bag's History and Origins
Watch Nature Bag Videos
Learn about the JungleVine® Research Retreat
Find additional stories and news in our Blog and on Our Wall
Discover more about the Khmu culture at Professor Damrong Tayanin's website.
Did you know that U.S. President Barack Obama visited Laos in 2016, and was the first U.S. President in history to do so? We've got some fascinating inside coverage of his visit here: Obama's Visit to Luang Prabang
Learn about other organizations making a difference in Laos.