Salay Handmade Paper

Salay Handmade Paper produces and markets handmade paper and handcrafted using cogon grass, a weed that interferes with local farming, and other natural fibers. The group was founded in 1987 as a civic organization known as People’s Economic Council (PEC) to create employment for people in the community of Salay, an area with little industry and a history of political unrest. Through experimentation, the group developed its trademark handmade paper. In 1990 the papermakers incorporated separately from PEC as Salay Handmade Paper Industries, Incorporated. Through global marketing, Salay was introduced to the concept of fair trade and began providing development assistance to its artisans. Other benefits to workers include pensions and profit sharing. Ten Thousand Villages has purchased products from Salay since 1997.

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A Current of Hope

Within the sleepy coastal town of Salay in the southern Philippines runs a current of hope that is quietly—yet demonstrably—transforming the community. Through the vision and determination of one woman, the once war–ravaged and impoverished town is experiencing unprecedented growth.



Loreta Rafisura, 67, has lived in the small fishing town most of her life. Situated on the coast of Mindanao, Salay is home to some 20,000 people. With 10 brothers and sisters, Rafisura felt the pressures of growing up poor. She had always wanted to be a doctor, but studied nursing instead because her family could not afford medical school.



“Since I was a little kid I have wanted to serve my people—to serve the Lord through serving my people,” she said.



Rafisura received a Bachelor of Science in nursing in Manila, where she worked at the main hospital. She later participated in an exchange visitor program to work as a nurse at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., for one year and at a hospital in Chicago, Ill., for another year.



“During my two-year stint in the United States, my eyes were opened to the whole world,” she said. “I had such a great experience meeting people of different cultures.”



Rafisura’s experience also made her realize how impoverished Salay was. Back to Salay she went, to serve as a public health nurse. Upon her return, she met her husband, a doctor. The husband–and–wife team worked to provide public health services to the community.



Civil Unrest

In the 1980s, the New People’s Army (NPA), an insurgent group in Mindanao, staged a series of rebellions against the local government in the mountains of Salay, displacing and injuring many residents. Rafisura and her husband took care of the hundreds who were injured.



“It was very difficult. During this time, people came to our house begging for food. It really touched our hearts and we wanted to do anything we could to help,” she said.



At the time, Rafisura had been battling cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She used her recovery time to study the community and to work with government agencies to build a plan for sustainable development. In a remote town with little industry, the task was quite a challenge.



The secret? A mangy and uncooperative weed.



From Weeds to Paper

To rebuild the community, Rafisura and her husband didn’t need to look beyond their own backyard. Cogon grass, dubbed the “enemy of the farmers” because of its weed–like qualities, could be harvested to make a functional product—handmade paper.



By leveraging farming know–how, the Rafisuras sought to teach unemployed community members to use local plants and flowers to make paper. The organization, comprised of a mere 10 people, was named SHAPII—Salay Handmade Paper Industries, Inc.



The first attempt at making cogon grass into paper was not only labor intensive, but a bit unsightly. “It looked like an egg carton,” said Rafisura.



So she applied her background in the sciences, experimenting with different solutions to create a viable product.



“Handmade paper is not only an art, it’s a science,” said Rafisura.



With limitless patience, the SHAPII team tried using salago bark (highly prized in Japan for its sheen) and abaca bark (with a consistency like cogon grass). They even found pineapple and banana yielded beautiful paper.



In order to build business capacity, Rafisura traveled around the world—to India, China and the United Kingdom—to learn about the multicultural uses of handmade paper.



Rafisura’s vision for SHAPII is centered on holistic development. Even its flag, equal parts blue and pink with a strip of green through the middle, represents gender equality and environmental responsibility.



Working at SHAPII creates a positive identity for the community, said Rafisura. “Our members take pride in being Filipino and creating beautiful things,” she said. “We have a renewed sense of love for our country.” SHAPII impacts about 10 percent of the entire population of Salay, according to Rafisura.



Rafisura says that many have found a major boost in confidence through their work at SHAPII, especially women. “Women have improved their self esteem by 200 percent,” said Rafisura. “They are prouder, more beautiful because they can now work.”



Maybe it’s the group’s mantra, “Yes, the Filipino can!” which employees recite daily, that has engendered such change. Or maybe it’s Rafisura’s steadfast determination to meet seemingly insurmountable challenges over the years.



But she would never take the credit. “It is a beautiful story that I am so happy to be a part of,” Rafisura said. She insists that it is God’s doing, not her own, that has brought peace back to Salay.

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