On Borneo, indigenous women earn a pittance weaving rattan for Japan

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Kyodo News

It is almost 11 a.m. and Ati has already been working with rattan peels for four hours.

Yet, even though the pay is low, Ati, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, maintains complete concentration while weaving a piece of rattan carpet destined to fetch a high price in Japan.

The 48-year-old woman is weaving a “kati,” popularly known in Japan as a rattan “ajiro” carpet, a hand-woven mat made of rattan with peels only 2 mm in width and woven diagonally.

She lives in Kapuas, a small village in Borneo’s Central Kalimantan Province peopled mostly by indigenous Dayaks.

Half the population of about 2,000 earns a living in the rattan carpet industry.

Compared with other weavers, though, Ati is a major talent. She is always assigned to weave the “super-quality” ajiro carpets made of sega, or Calamus caesius, a species of rattan found only in the wilds of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Sega’s uniquely glossy golden surface makes it highly sought after for tatami mats and rattan carpets for the Japanese market.

“In the process of making an ajiro carpet from sega, I do the most difficult task by myself — thinning the peels down to a thickness that can only be done manually,” Ati said as she works in a shop of about 150 weavers.

Working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., she weaves about 0.18 sq. meter a day. At this rate it takes more than five days to weave 1 sq. meter, which is worth 160,000 rupiah (about ¥1,300). For the complicated, tiring work, she barely makes ¥7,000 a month.

Her ajiro carpets, and those made by others, fetch up to ¥3,160 per sq. meter, according to Suwarni, a general affairs officer at PT Sarikaya Sega Utama, a rattan factory that finishes the carpets and mats, including cleaning, fumigation and drying, and exports them.

Imis Sawung, chairman of the local Dare Manuntung Small and Medium Enterprises Cooperatives, said the village has exported rattan mats and carpets through factories such as PT Sarikaya Sega Utama since 1965, mostly to Japan and Hong Kong.

He said 8 percent of the mats and carpets produced by the villagers are made of sega rattan, while others are of runti, or Calamus leptostachys, which is popular among Hong Kong buyers for its soft, more flexible peels, and other species of rattan that are much cheaper than sega.

Research by the ASEAN Rattan Center, funded by the Yokohama-based International Tropical Timber Organization, shows that throughout the region, rattan provides a vital economic benefit to village communities, particularly indigenous peoples.

Also, rattan is a prime source of foreign exchange and the industry involves more than a million people who collect, cultivate, process, trade and market rattan products.

Co-op Chairman Sawung, however, worries the traditional Dayak handicraft will disappear.

“The young generation, including my daughters, don’t want to be rattan weavers anymore because the income is small and the work is tough and difficult,” the father of five said.

Young men and women, he said, prefer to work on oil palm plantations where they earn bigger salaries for less painstaking work.

Suwarni of the Sarikaya Sega Utama factory also said demand in Japan for sega-made carpets is declining because younger Japanese are more inclined to use synthetic carpets.

“Now, only elderly people love to use rattan carpets. Time changes people’s taste . . . and plastic will replace rattan,” she sighed.