Environment At Heart Of Art

Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit group helping economically depressed artists generate sales from products created with local materials, also ensures the environment benefits from its endeavors.

The organization’s first project, started in Honduras more than a decade ago, involved recycling corn husks that even the pigs wouldn’t eat, said President Clare Smith. The husks were used to create wreaths and flowers that were then adorned with clay cherub figurines.

From these raw materials grew a thriving industry employing more than 600 villagers. Eventually, an export company owned by the local Hondurans was formed.

“The environment is a consideration in all our projects — it’s always a stipulation,” Smith said. “People are a part of the environment, so we try to integrate the two so everyone benefits.”

In Bangladesh, Aid to Artisans is developing a project to make paper products out the water hyacinth and another weed that clog many of the country’s rivers. However, the group must be careful not to create too large a demand for the paper.

“You have to be sensible,” Smith said. “While these plants now clog many rivers, if you had a big run on the paper, you could cause problems because a certain amount of the plants is needed to purify the water.”

Because of the delicate balance between creating economic opportunities and protecting the environment, Aid to Artisans develops relatively small-scale projects. Projects are currently under way in Jordan, Ghana, Mexico, Hungary, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Guatemala, Ecuador and Indonesia.

Aid to Artisans first sends designers to work with the local people in developing marketable products, then brings the products to the New York International Gift Fair, held twice a year, to take orders. The next step is to locate appropriate importers for the various product lines to create steady demand.

In 1990, the Mexican government created a reserve in a cloud forest along the Pacific coast, angering a local community which could no longer expand its coffee plantations by cutting down the forest. Ecologists who came to tell them about the law were threatened.

Aid to Artisans helped the community start painting T-shirts with images of birds and animals common to the cloud forests. A market for the shirts was created and now the community makes a living without continuing to destroy the cloud forest.

“We believe that what we do has to be suitable to both the people and their environment,” Smith said. “There’s an infinite number of things we can do to help save the planet — little by little.”

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