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Interview with Catherine Craig, PhD

Transforming spun caterpillar silk into textile

Tell us about your work.

Madagascar is home to over 200,000 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world and is considered a "biodiversity hotspot". The future of Madagascar's rainforests is heavily dependent on the communities that live in and around them. Resource exploitation, unsustainable farming practices and lack of alternative livelihoods have led to the erosion of forest resources. In 2002 I began working to implement a conservation project in Madagascar that focuses on the economic development of alternative livelihoods for subsistence farmers displaced from the Makira Natural Park. Makira is located in the northeastern part of Madagascar and is a mixed elevation rainforest. Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International and SEPALI Madagascar have worked together to design income-generating activities that support native ecosystems and that engage communities in protecting them. While I am a scientist by training, it has been impossible to get the kind of quantitative data that I am used to working with to test hypotheses when focusing on local people. Therefore, I have had to explore new ways to communicate our ideas and assess our impact using tools that are culturally appropriate to the Malagasy people. Watch SEPALI's video about the process of making these silks fibers.

This project works at the intersect of art, natural science and social enterprise. How do these aspects of your work weave together?

My team and I taught subsistence farmers how to farm native species of caterpillars. First, farmers intercrop caterpillar host plants on their farms. We then provided caterpillar eggs and larvae to populate the host plants. We taught farmers how to harvest silkworm cocoons, remove the pupae and protect them until they can mature, mate and lay eggs for the next crop. Instead of weaving and spinning silk, five different types of caterpillar cocoons are individually sewn together by artisans. The undyed textiles are sold to artists, designers, product developers. Other textiles are dyed in colors and patterns inspired by Madagascar's abundant wildlife. The decorative silks are then made into baskets and wall hangings and table products. To increase the number of farmers we work with as well as build a stronger product base, we added locally harvested raffia and woven mats. In addition, some team members make hand woven raffia belts. Our products can be viewed on the website:

What are you learning as you reflect on this work and write about it?

From my work in Madagascar I have learned that conservation implementation is not just a scientific problem but a social and economic problem. We call our approach "stepping-stone" conservation and I am spending my time at Sitka writing about the impact of structured economic approaches to achieve conservation goals.

Catherine Craig, PhD is the Sitka Center's Fall 2019 Howard L. McKee Ecology Resident. She is an adjunct Research Professor at Washington State University, Pullman, and a Senior Research Associate at Whitman College, Walla Walla.

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