There are still more than a billion people round the world living in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day. In Thailand alone, more than a million members of hill tribes exist on the margins of society - denied citizenship, shut out of the formal job market and vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.
At Yellow Leaf Hammocks we believe that ethical job creation is an empowering long-term solution to extreme poverty.
Instead of organizing a patchwork of charitable donations to provide water, nutrition, clothing, etc., we are working directly with families to build a comprehensive, dignified, long-term strategy toward a brighter future. The causes behind systemic poverty are complicated, but long-term financial stability is within reach.
To put it simply: By focusing on livelihoods, we can cut out the middle man, get money directly into the hands of smart + resourceful mothers and empower families to tackle their own problems (without being subject to anyone else's agenda).
Across three weaving communities, we are working to create jobs for mothers and build a foundation for positive community transformation. Through flexible, safe “prosperity wage” weaving work, our artisans are able to lift their families from poverty and debt slavery to the middle class.
Meet a Few of Our Weavers!
Yadi was born in the jungles to a traditional Mlabri family as the world around them fell apart. She spent all of her growing up years working as a laborer in the fields, feeling that she had no options to take control of her future. When the opportunity to weave hammocks came along, she leapt at it!
Yadi was among the first group to learn & perfect hammock weaving and she has never gone back to work in the fields again. Yadi is very shy and is generally at the very back of any crowd- but she's an exceptionally fast weaver and she makes more than her husband Tadi! She and Tadi have six children and she has helped ensure each of them receives the formal education she was denied.
Yalana keeps Mlabri traditions alive with her love of music and beautiful singing voice-and her mischievous jokes! Yalana returns to the forest sometimes to reconnect with her roots, but she embraces the security and flexibility of the weaver's lifestyle. Yalana is proud to ensure that all six of her children can attend school.
Taton is one of the few Mlabri men to weave hammocks, but he is often a pioneer within the community! As a young man, he became fluent in Thai and often serves as a spokesperson and a leader for the Mlabri among neighboring communities. He is a committed husband & father and weaves to support his family.
Tang has an especially unique history among the Mlabri people. When he was a young man 30 years ago, he was an advocate between the Mlabri and the 'Outsiders" as the cultures began to clash. He spent part of his childhood in a Thai village, but his father was a respected and influential Mlabri spirit doctor- Tang was positioned to help the two cultures communicate and understand each other. Today, many Mlabri are able to communicate with outsiders on their own, but Taton retains a position of respect in the village. Up until a few years ago, he relied on planting rice and cash crops to support his whole famly- his wife Yaton and nine children! He is glad to have the good income and stability that weaving provides.
Cheerful Song is a dedicated mother and prioritizes her children’s schooling, especially because she was denied the opportunity to receive a formal education. Song doesn’t just weave to support her own children, but to improve the stability and opportunity of her extended family & community.
Daeng is one of the few Mlabri men to weave hammocks, but he is determined to be a great provider to his family! Daeng was the star of a documentary about the Mlabri a few years back and he continues to act as a bridge between the outside world and the older generation. Dang considers himself "a modern Mlabri." He says he values his tribe's roots, but realizes that they need to adapt their lifestyle in order to protect it. He's straddles two worlds- he values living among his tribe, but he has pursued his education and learned how to drive (he has his own motorcycle, too!). In addition to weaving, Dang has become interested in managing the hammock production process. Today, he often helps with quality control, work flow and other production processes.
Khaen feels that she represents a transition for the Mlabri- she is one of the first Mlabri who has never lived in the jungle or relied on traditional hunting and gathering for food. She thinks hammocks represent the best source of income for the tribe and help keep them together- without hammocks, she feels certain that she would be working in the big city, far away from the rest of her tribe. She is married to Dang and they just had their first child.
Without any formal education, Sukanya has mastered the math necessary to budget for a busy household and raised six children on her own after her husband left her. Though she has experienced her share of heartache, she is energetically determined to see that her children earn education and have new opportunities.
Chanai is proud that her children are able to attend school instead of toiling in the fields. As one of the most outgoing weavers, she keeps Mlabri traditions alive with her love of storytelling. Chanai loves the freedom that she has to work at her own pace as a weaver- it suits her relaxed, fun-loving nature!
Jeab weaves in order to ensure her children will be able to attend school instead of toiling in the fields. Education is very important to Jeab- she was the first Mlabri to finish 6th grade! She has continued to take classes locally through the non-formal education department. With her education and language skills, she could seek a job in the city- but her roots in the village make her happy that she has a stable income to support herself, her children and her mother.
Yaton has been weaving for her whole life! Before the hammock project began, she was an expert in the art of weaving traditional Mlabri bags, which were used in the tribe's hunting & gathering and helped inspire the idea to weave hammocks.
Among the tribe, she is recognized as the very best weaver and is a great teacher. She and Taton have 9 children and they support their large family with their income from hammocks, ensuring a bright future for them all.
Today, Mai has very different opportunities as a weaver than her mother could have imagined. She is independent and earns respect for her craft.
Mai and her husband have big dreams for their future. They are staying away from taking on debt from unethical middlemen and dream of raising their own sustainable rice crops near the village.
Talana has worked hard to overcome the obstacles he's faced- for the traditional Mlabri who were raised in a hunting & gathering lifestyle, there has been huge upheaveal in their lifetime. Being illiterate in today's world has been a challenge for him, not to mention the detailed measurements, numbers and patterns that weavers must master! As he puts it, none of that matters too much in the jungle. But Talana has done well for himself- he earns a stable living, maintains his traditional values and he's kept his fun-loving spirit. He is a great story-teller and he's making sure that Mlabri history and stories are still being passed down. He is married to Yalana.
For the first time, Anong feels that she has security through her weaving job. She is proud that she can create a stable home for her three children. Good-humored Anong always tried to keep her spirits up while working in the slash & burn fields, but now she is delighted to be in control of her own future, with brighter days ahead!
In her youth, Eet had great potential as a student, but she was needed in the fields and her hunger for education was denied. She is devoted to her children's education and works hard to secure their future. Determined to continue her learning, she is now one of the only Mlabri who can speak, read and write in Thai.
CASE STUDY: THE MLABRI TRIBE
OUR ROOTSYELLOW LEAF Hammocks was first imagined as an opportunity to transform one small tribal community, the Mlabri. Within two years of our launch, we’ve expanded our job creating mission to neighboring villages and began building the platform for a regional microeconomy to benefit similar impoverished hill tribe groups. Of more than 1.5 million hill tribe people in Thailand, up to half are denied citizenship, marginalized and live in extreme poverty. Our vision is to support the growth of a sustainable economy and chart positive new paths for these communities.
THE STORY OF THE MLABRIYellow Leaf Hammocks has deep roots in the tumultuous, heart-wrenching history of the Mlabri people. From peaceful forest dwellers to 20th century slavery, they’ve battled exploitation, death threats, malnourishment, malaria and displacement. Faced with this barrage of plagues, their numbers dwindled until UNESCO placed them on the “Endangered Languages List”, with only 300 Mlabri left in the world. In spite of the extreme hardships they’ve faced, they’ve maintained a fierce determination to preserve their culture.
THE PEOPLE OF THE YELLOW LEAVESVery little is known about the tribe’s existence before the 1930s. The Mlabri were traditionally a hunter and gatherer society, with spiritual beliefs that compelled them to move every few days. They built huts with thatched roofs of banana leaves and abandoned them when the leaves turned yellow. A gentle and reclusive people, they were rarely seen by outsiders and their presence was only known by these abandoned huts- thus they were called “The People of the Yellow Leaves.”
They lived off of the land, with occasional interruptions from anthropologists, thriving well into the 20th century. By the 1970s, rapid economic development in Thailand stripped their forests of their natural bounty and eventually stripped away the forests themselves- lost to slash & burn farming and an insatiable demand for teak. Bereft of their homes and livelihood, denied civil rights, and with no conception of “land ownership,” the Mlabri were especially vulnerable to exploitation.
Malnourishment and malaria contributed to the rapid dwindling of the tribe’s population. Those who had survived were forced into servitude for neighboring tribes, working in toxic farming and made to perform in faked “primitive” human zoos for tourists.
When the future appeared most bleak, a long-shot effort helped turn it all around.
ENGINEERING A TURNAROUNDIn the late 1970s, an aid worker and his family moved to the region and began to dedicate their lives to improving conditions for the Mlabri people. Local powers who were profiting from the Mlabri’s forced labor threatened the lives of the family and the tribe, but through stalwart efforts over the course of a decade, a humble village was built as a haven for the Mlabri people and they began to focus on finding a new way to earn income while preserving their cultural values.
This determination to safeguard their heritage presented obstacles to financial freedom. Theirs is a culture that values family time above material possessions and has a number system reaching only to 9 (everything else is “a lot”). The land around them had been gobbled up and there were no fertile fields for agriculture. Attempts to sell traditional woven goods met with limited success and didn’t bring in enough income to support the village.
Through a lucky inspiration, the unlikely proposition of turning their weaving skills to hammocks won the day. The villagers worked with a textile engineer to adjust tension and develop new weaves, eventually reaching the cocoon-like level of comfort that is Yellow Leaf’s trademark. A Belgian hammock devotee discovered their products and helped establish several shops in touristed areas along Thailand’s coasts.
THE FOUNDATION FOR A BRIGHTER FUTUREThe security of a stable, growing revenue source had a tremendous impact on the village. The Mlabri were able to start a school and build a community center for weaving and socializing. They established one of Thailand’s first unemployment funds. With increased economic power, they successfully lobbied for citizenship and civil rights, which they were first granted in 2001. Hammock weaving is flexible work, ideal for mothers who can work from home and make their own schedules. Unfortunately, without access to global markets, the demand for hammocks was limited to the Thai tourism season and there was no way to ensure year-round employment.
SPREADING LASTING CHANGE: THE HAMMOCK REVOLUTIONTHIS IS about where Yellow Leaf joins the story! Over the past few years, we have worked to develop consistent sales channels, build international partnerships and stabilize operations within the villages.
Corollary economic opportunities, like a post office, food preparation and sustainable coffee farming have sprung up to employ those who are not weaving. Our partnership with Kiva has spurred financial training and financial planning, with many weavers opening bank accounts for the first time in their lives!
With our growth continuing to accelerate, we will not only be able to employ all Mlabri weavers year-round, we will also be able to continue to expand and provide training and ongoing employment to hill tribe communities in the surrounding region. Until weaving work and sustainable jobs are available throughout the area, destructive agricultural practices will continue and the exploitative cycle of indentured servitude will not truly end.
Through the establishment of Yellow Leaf as a global lifestyle brand, the hill tribe villages we partner with will be able to sustain this positive impact and continue to lay the foundation for a brighter future.