Mama’s Got a Brand New Bag

Colombian women recycle plastic bags to save an endangered monkey.

By Melissa Mahony

While fashion designer Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m not a plastic bag” tote made disposable plastic bags ‘so last season’, a group of Colombian women are bringing them back in style—by recycling them. The women travel door-to-door through their village of Los Limites to collect plastic bags, cut them into strips, and crochet them into more durable purses and beach bags, called mochilas. And they are doing it all for an endangered monkey.

Weighing in at less than a pound, the cotton-top tamarin, or titi, may be small, but the species is running out of space. Deforestation for fuel, cattle grazing, and slash-and-burn agriculture is pushing the primates into smaller and smaller portions of northwestern Colombia’s dry forests, the only place this snowy-maned monkey lives in the wild. Spanish for “knapsack,” the mochilas bring in around $6,000 annually to Proyecto Titi, an organization working with local peoples to preserve the cotton-top’s habitat and provide economic alternatives to catching the tamarins to sell as pets.

“Everyone in the community is involved. The kids help collect the bags, and the men will even crochet,” says biologist Anne Savage, director of Proyecto Titi. But it’s the women, she says, who are leading the effort.

Fifteen women started the mochila-making cooperative, which Savage says has grown to more than 100 members. The group has produced 7,000 mochilas and recycled nearly 700,000 bags since 2004. Each mochila typically consists of about 120 tightly woven plastic bags.

“People want to do the right thing, but if they don’t have any way to feed their families, they are going to be forced to go in and hunt tamarins for the pet trade or cut down trees,” says Savage. “If you give them alternatives, they are going to do the right thing.”

These alternatives include eco-mochilas, clay cook stoves that burn less wood than open- pit fires, a school that teaches more sustainable farming practices, and an anti-slingshot campaign for the kids.

Baby tamarins ride piggyback on their parents and older siblings as they swoop through the trees. To collect young tamarins for the pet trade, hunters, who are often children, use slingshots to bean an adult tamarin to the ground and take the baby from its back. To discourage this practice, Proyecto Titi has partnered with Fundacion Colombia, an organization aiding disadvantaged youths, to offer locally made plush tamarin toys in exchange for slingshots.

“When you keep them as pets you end up doing a real injustice to the species,” says Savage. Although breeding programs for the primate exist in zoos, these tamarins would have difficulty surviving outside of captivity. Cotton-tops were declared endangered in 1973 after about 30,000 were exported for biomedical research. Now, only a few thousand titis remain in the wild.

And that wild habitat is only getting smaller, which is why The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is negotiating with the regional environmental authority and other local stakeholders to purchase and protect 2,500 acres within the cotton-top tamarin’s range.

“Proyecto Titi has done a lot of research to help us identify patches of habitat for the titi,” says Aurelio Ramos, director of TNC’s Northern Tropical Andes program. By the end of next year, Ramos hopes to work with the area’s cattle ranchers on a conservation plan for 12,000 acres of tropical dry forest. “They do good local work with a couple of the communities,” says Ramos, “with these bags that they are selling.”

While the biggest market for the bags so far has been for giveaway tote bags at business conferences, eco-mochilas are becoming more popular with tourists. Last November, local artisans from Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica came to Colombia to learn to crochet trash. Now Caribbean women take plastic bags from their beachside communities, cut them into strips, and weave them into bags. But they do it for turtles, which often eat or suffocate within the discarded plastic floating in the ocean.

"For conservation to be effective it's not going to be me," Savage says. "It's not going to be my team. It's going to be everyone." 

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Great story! It's wonderful when disadvantaged people are able to take power in their own hands to make a difference for themselves and their environment.

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