Sapán-Banana Crafts: Weaving from Waste

The banana tree, originally named Musa Paradisica in 1753, is the most widely consumed fruit in the world. Perhaps this is due to its delicious taste, or its nutritional value, since it is rich in potassium vitamin A and C. It originally comes from South East Asia, but it has made its way to almost the entire world. It was not until the XVI century that the Portuguese brought it to the Americas.  Though India is the largest producer, mostly for its’ vast internal market, Ecuador is the leading exporter. Many people relate Ecuador to banana production. It is even stereotyped as a “banana republic.”  Yet, most people don’t realize the banana tree has a wide range of uses, far beyond eating its tasty and wholesome fruit.  For example, in Uganda, the leaves are wrapped for steaming a traditional dish made from goat meat, in Guatemala the same is done with pork. Throughout the Americas, a wide variety of dishes require steaming with the banana leaf.  Expert chefs say it produces an exquisite flavor.

Besides its uses in the kitchen; in the Guayas Province, Ecuadorian artisans are skillfully turning banana tree “waste” into beautifully woven crafts, known as Sapán- Banana crafts.  These crafts are innovative because from the elaboration process, to the marketing process, it’s incorporating a new approach in which priority is given to the environment and to the artisan’s well being.

How are Sapan crafts made?
It takes vision to see trash as a possible raw material for arts and crafts. This is exactly what artisans are doing with Sapán- Banana Products.  First, large banana plantations donate the banana ‘waste’.  Then, the fiber is removed from the plant’s stalk which must be carefully dried.  At this point, the artisan must remove the fiber, and begin the meticulous process of weaving the sapán.   Because the fibers are delicate, one must be very familiar with the procedure in order to make a high quality product.  Sapán is often intertwined with Toquilla straw (the straw used to make Panama Hats) because it gives more firmness and makes the fiber more malleable. The combination of the two fibers produce a myriad of brown, beige, and dark green tones which are the basis for making a variety of  attractive objects. These range from dainty bread baskets, to modern place mats, coasters, and a variety of decorative pieces. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but who would have thought to use the stalk of the banana tree to make beautifully woven objects?!
Obviously, Sapán products are environmental friendly because they are 100% natural, hand-made, and use parts of the banana tree which would otherwise be considered waste.  In this way, no new trees need to be cut down. Sapán crafts allow locals to put less pressure on the environment, and also to give locals an alternative to environmental degradation.

The People Come First
Not only are Sapán-banana crafts original in that they are environmentally friendly, under the leadership of Pro-pueblo, they are also giving priority to the well-being of local Ecuadorian artisans.  Pro-pueblo is a non-profit organization which has  boosted the local economy by teaching coastal villagers how to work several crafts using  natural materials such as vegetable ivory, recycled paper, ceramics and also Sapan Banana products.  Propueblo fosters the well-being of artisans in several ways.  For example, it promotes artisans to work from their own homes and villages. In this way, they no longer have to immigrate to the cities to look for jobs. At a time in which many Ecuadorians parents have to immigrate to the city or abroad in order to support their families, these artisans have the advantage that they can work from home, and keep the nuclear family united.  One can witness then at the San Antonio village, Guayas Province, where one can visit the shops and artisans.

Another novel approach to the sale of Sapán crafts is that it strives to give artisans a more just price for their labor-intensive work.  This is a new approach based on the precepts of “Fair Trade” in which an initial cost is previously established in mutual agreement by the artisan and Pro-Pueblo.  In this way, the artisan is ensured a just price. Through the sales of Sapán crafts, the local artisan is able to make at decent living. Before, many villagers were either unemployed or underemployed.

Novel Designs
It’s not easy to compete in today’s globalized economy.  Even artisans have to face the competition, especially from Asia.  Just like industrialized products, Asian crafts are also extremely cheap.  One Pro-Pueblo representative explains, “Because for us the artisan comes first, 90% of our costs are manual labor.  In Asia, a person is paid one dollar a day, while here in Ecuador we pay six dollars a day. Since we can’t compete with Asia in prices, we try to compete in quality of materials and design.”  This is why the Sapán artisans are constantly renewing and reinventing their objects and designs.

In a world in which mass consumption has destroyed our natural habitat, it is encouraging to see alternatives to exploitation and environmental degradation.  It is only through seeing our natural and human resources with new eyes, that we can salvage our planet for future generations.

Written by: Carolina Matheus