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The Plant Mordant Project works with communities supplying Symplocos leaves in the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT). A quarter of the rural population of NTT lives below the poverty line, and 10% of women are weavers. The Bebali Foundation has been working with NTT’s weaving communities since 2003 and has established or supports thirty women’s weavers’ cooperatives with 700 members across the province. As weaving traditions remain in areas where there are no better economic options, these groups tend to be in the poorest or most remote areas. 

The remote forest communities where Symplocos grows are equally underpowered economically. Their main cash crops are candlenut (Aleurites moluccana) and coffee. Candelnut sells for USD 2.00 per kilogram, or the equivalent of USD 2.50 per day for the work of collecting the fallen nuts, cracking the nuts, and separating the nuts from the shells. Coffee sells for USD 3.15 per kilogram, but the income per day is much lower than for candlenut once the labor of planting, tending, harvesting, cleaning, and drying are accounted for. 

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The harvest time for Symplocos leaves falls during the tree’s deciduous season between August and December, and does not interfere with the main income generating seasons for candlenut and coffee. Women harvest in small groups, taking a packed lunch with them as they walk through the forested hills collecting an average of one kilogram of fallen leaves per day. 

As Symplocos harvesting does not replace other income generating work, it offers a pure addition to household livelihoods. The wholesale price set by the Bebali Foundation for Symplocos leaves reflects both the need to offer a reasonable local wage compared to other income streams, and the need to avoid undermining the retail market to local traditional weavers of USD 4.20 per kilogram. Our business plan for the Plant Mordant Project set an initial price to the collectors at USD 3.15 per kilogram, which is also USD 3.15 per day, and 25% better per day than either of their other main cash crops. 

The significant markup between this and the retail price paid by natural dyers overseas reflects both the amount of work that has gone into this project to date, and the amount of time spent in the field every year to help each community hold quality standards, to document a full chain of custody, and to maintain department of forestry certification. The Ford Foundation has funded this work since 2007 for its potential impacts on both conservation and poverty alleviation, and recognizes that making change in either of these areas takes many years. The plan for the Plant Mordant Project includes a projected “return on investment” for the Ford Foundation’s funding. If global sales reach 2,000 kilograms per year, the project will break even in 2023. Any long-term profits from the Plant Mordant Project will fund the Bebali Foundation’s ongoing work supporting sustainable livelihoods for indigenous peoples across Indonesia.