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The MayaBags® Journey

By Judy Bergsma

5-1_judy-story_09_judy-revisedI always give credit to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), specifically its Long Island (NY) chapter, for my discovery of Belize and the first steps in this journey of a thousand miles that turned into MayaBags.

This is a story that starts with shared bird habitats and saving fish, reveals a surprise encounter with a beautiful embroidered butterfly, and today is the story of a real business for Belize families that thanks to our MayaBags customers is still growing.

From saving fish to saving artisanal Maya skills

In the late 1990’s I was heading up a TNC committee to identify and establish an international partner in the Caribbean or Central America. Working with the TNC team we identified Belize as an attractive partner location—because Long Island shares with Belize 49 species of upland and shore birds and has many coastal and estuarine challenges that are similar in both locations.

5-1_judy-story_10_ospreyWe identified a potential conservation partner, The Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment (TIDE), in Southern Belize. I took the lead in meeting with them for the first time, and that was the beginning of this journey that would change my life in a wonderful way.

Tidal area in the Port of Handuras, Belize
Tidal area in the Port of Handuras, Belize

The gill netting gamble: Swapping nets for schooling

5-1_judy-story_12_fish-glyph__joe-please shrink-to-layout-thanksOne of the first things I learned from TIDE in Belize was about the huge damage being done by gill netting—a highly destructive fishing method being used in the Port of Honduras. This port, on the Belize coast, is one of the major fish spawning grounds for all of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Gill netting was sweeping up virtually every form of sea life and threatening not only Belize fishermen’s livelihoods but depleting fish from the oceans.

5-1_judy-story_13-and-14Around the same time I learned that schooling in Belize is only free up to sixth grade. Belize high school is not compulsory, so after sixth grade the families have to pay tuition, books, uniforms, and transportation. This is a huge amount for them. It is unaffordable for almost all, certainly unaffordable for most fishing families. But the families valued education—although they nearly always put the boys first.

So I had the idea for a swap, an education fund that would be used as leverage to stop gill netting. We would set up a fund that would provide high school scholarships to children of gill netters—in exchange for them giving up their gill nets.

I remember begging the TNC Belize country manager to let me try this approach, but he kept saying “no” because he felt that providing scholarships would be outside the mission of TNC.

But I didn’t give up. I hounded him with arguments until he finally said, “Okay, but you have to create and run the program.” So, with the help of some wonderful people, we raised over $50,000 to fund these scholarships. TIDE ran the program and screened students and I would travel back to Belize frequently to check up on the kids, to make sure the gill netters were not gill netting any longer, and to report back to our donors.”

Gill netting scholarships
Gill netting scholarships

The deal worked!

The program worked better than anyone could have imagined, and gill netting has become a thing of the past in the Port of Honduras. Even better, this approach to changing detrimental environmental practices has been duplicated throughout Mexico and Central America. The program won the Equatorial Initiative Award from the United Nations Development Program for its innovative and effective approach to stop gill netting in the Port of Honduras.

A short leap to textiles and the “good fortune butterfly”

Along with protecting nature and loving the rainforest, I had also long held a passion for textiles—the kind that had either been hand-embroidered or hand-loomed by indigenous artists around the world. I had a bit of a collection going already.

Then, on one of those gill net trips to Belize, good fortune came my way. I was invited to spend the weekend with a Belize Maya family with whom I had become friends. During my stay in their village, I was helping my Maya friend Brigita organize her small canned goods store, and through conversation with her and others, I came to a new understanding. I realized that Maya women suffer from low self-esteem, and that virtually no girls attended high school because of the cost. Tragedies both, with negative consequences for all involved.

The Maya strongly believe in education and many will try to send their sons to school. But they simply could not afford high school for their girls, given that even very basic necessities like enough food are often beyond their reach.

5-1_judy-story_16-and-17-butterfliesThen, at the end of my stay in the village, Brigita’s sister Jovita Sho presented me with a gifta simple but quality piece of embroidery, one that quite accurately depicted a beautiful butterfly.

The quality of the butterfly embroidery impressed me. I was quite surprised, as I had seen no evidence of this level of skill any place I had traveled in the Maya area of Belize. For me, it was truly an ah ha moment.”

The first Maya bags: Holiday “packaging”

5-1_judy-story_18_angelThinking about that beautiful butterfly, I returned to my New York home just before the holiday season with a new hope. An idea was beginning, but I recognized that I had better think it through really well before jumping in. Drawing on my background in visual design and film making for the fashion industry, I started thinking about what we might do with the embroidery skills I had seen in Jovita’s embroidered butterfly gift-skills I had subsequently learned existed throughout the village where I had visited.

5-1_judy-story_19_dingbat-boy-with-pipeWith the holidays coming on, I happened to think about how much I dislike wrapping paperbecause it is useful for about a week and then thrown out, filling up our landfills with yet more waste. And I thought how much time it takes to wrap presents, especially with an already too-busy holiday season.

Those thoughts came together in a first step plan. I made a design for hand-embroidered holiday gift bags that could be used year after year. Beautiful bags you could put a present into, tie closed and, at the end of the season, smooth out and store in a thin, flat box to reuse or re-gift next year.

5-1_judy-story_20-and-21_christmas-set-bags
Then the cottage industry took off

In early January of 1999, I 5-1_judy-story_22_dingbat-christmas-treeflew back to Belize with $1500 and put together a small cottage industry with six women who hand-embroidered sets of Christmas bags that I brought back to the U.S. to sell. Raising $4000 from the sale of the bags, I returned to Punta Gorda in Belize, rented a small office, hired a manager, and boom, MayaBags began in earnest.

A new model idea: Building a business, not a non-profit NGO

5-1_judy-story_23_judy-with-patternsThe driving motivation behind this business was a desire to save and in fact enhance the quickly vanishing Maya handwork skills, and in doing so empower Maya women as income producers in their households. To encourage them to send their girls to high school along with their boys, to preserve their traditional hand skills, and to build a business—not just a charity.

I was hoping for a business 5-1_judy-story_24_dingbat-dovethat could serve as a model for an entrepreneurial way to make income—as opposed to current widespread damaging environmental practices, like slash and burn farming and harvesting non-sustainable rainforest materials like rosewood.

Successful Maya artists are now shareholders with bank accounts

5-1_judy-story_25_judy-artisan-sewing-sample-revFrom its roots in 1999 to the present, the MayaBags business has grown from six cottage industry artisans to over 90, and the demand is growing from Maya women and men who would like to participate. Thus, as we grow our revenues, so does our impact! And each active member of the MayaBags team has now become a shareholder. The artisans‘ lives have changed dramatically. Almost all the MayaBags workers have bank accounts now. In the past, I couldn’t get a Maya woman to walk into a bank with me. They felt excluded from the system.

And the children—including girls—are going to school

5-1_judy-story_30_writing-glyph_joe-please shrink-to-layout-thanksMost of the artisans’ children are now attending school through high school. It just took encouragement to let their daughters go to school and enough income to be able to pay for school uniforms, books, test fees, and bus fares.

Making beautiful things and changing lives, including Judy’s

So the “good fortune” butterfly gave rise to the MayaBags idea that keeps on growing. Beautiful MayaBags accessories have found homes in our customers’ houses and closets. Many Belize Maya have jobs and better lives than before. And certainly my life has not been the same since spotting that butterfly.

We have many MayaBags plans for the future and lots more artisanal creativity in the works.5-1_judy-story_31_the-butterfly-silhouette