In Laos, a 'Beautiful Side of Globalization'

In the northern Lao village of Pakor, where 100 people live along a few hundred feet of land near the river, where the only shop sells shampoo and sticky rice behind the village elder's hut, 20-year-old Silay does something that nobody else in the world can do.

Every day, she cuts the vines off the trees, and she twists and ties and rolls them with her knife and her fingers, creating bags and fishing nets for the rest of the village.

This week, a version of Silay's bag will be showcased in meetings in midtown Manhattan by American Carol Cassidy, who has spent her adult life combining indigenous Asian talent with her own designs. In so doing, she has created industries in India, Cambodia and Laos that sell exquisite local textile traditions to customers from Hong Kong to Rome to New York.

"I build on indigenous culture and skill to create an international product of a high standard," she told ABC News recently in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where she has lived for the past 19 years. "The goal is to enable these rural producers to benefit. We're the beautiful side of globalization."

The women of Pakor have been creating the bags and the nets for as long as anyone can remember, and they've been doing it because they have to. The village is populated entirely by subsistence farmers, members of the minority khummu tribe who make less than the equivalent of $1 a day.

The vine, they say, can last 100 years. They call it "khua piad," or jungle vine, and it's strong enough to catch the food that the people need to eat, strong enough to carry the tools they use to farm and to survive.

"This jungle vine grows in a particular location, it's processed by a people with a tradition, and all their essentials are made out of this," Cassidy said after visiting Pakor. "We don't leave any footprint on the earth when we create these bags. There's no downside. It's something that celebrates nature, the environment, skill, craft and tradition — and does it beautifully."

Cassidy has no intention to mass market the bag — at least not yet — but she does want to give the villagers of Pakor a way to profit from a skill that is as rare as their bags are sturdy.

"It's a cool bag. It's hip, it's something you want to take to the supermarket," she said in earnest. "My goal is to keep as many people as possible in their own village, to give rural people access to globalization."

Ibiza. 55-year-old Chanthorn Sithornkeochampa working at Lao Textiles in Vientiane. "If I didn't work with Carol, I would be at home," she says. Sithornkeochampa has worked for Cassidy in Vientiane for 16 years, specializing in the tie-dying of silk. "I'm really proud of Carol because she's a foreigner who came to Lao and helped improve Lao's own tradition. And she's given us all jobs."

Finding Alternatives to Stop Opium Production

One day late last year representatives from the United Nations offices who work on drugs and industrial development walked into the village, part of a three-year project to rehabilitate farmers in northern Laos who usually survive by growing opium.

In 1998, Laos produced 27,000 hectares of opium, more than any country outside Afghanistan and Myanmar, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Half of their product was consumed by locals, making the country one of the most addicted on the planet.

But in 2004 the government declared northern Laos opium free. "There are still some people growing it," Eija Hietala, who works for the U.N.'s industrial development arm in Laos, told ABC News. "The fear of the provincial government is that the farmers will revert back to it — it's the easiest way of making money."

And so Hietala and the U.N. staff try to give the people of Pakor and the rest of northern Laos tools to survive without poppy.

The team has helped the villagers create "productivity groups" centered on four items that grow nearby: grass, which can be used to create brooms; sesame seeds. They, in turn, can be pressed to make oil; mulberry trees and bamboo to make paper; jungle vine to make bags.

"We are providing them with simple technology — really simple technology — like a pulper and a press," Hietala said. "We would like them to become entrepreneurs, that they would actually in the future, when the U.N. project is over, sell their own products. And that is where Carol comes in."

Cassidy met Hietala and saw a version of the bag last year in a trade fair in Vientiane, Laos' capital and a few hundred miles from Pakor.

Hietala said, "Vientiane is a small town. Everyone knows Carol. Everyone knows Lao Textiles. It's a very big thing. It's the most famous thing here."

Lao Textiles: First American Business in Laos

Laos, which is about the size of Utah, was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War when the U.S. military tried to cut off supply lines to communists in neighboring Vietnam. In both countries, the U.S. departed, allowing communist governments to take power. The same government controls Laos today.

Lao Textiles, which Cassidy officially opened in 1990, was the first American business in Lao. She was a pioneer when the government began to slowly liberalize foreign investment laws in the mid 1980s. Despite the leadership's reputation, Cassidy said, "It's been easy." The government first granted her a 15-year visa, then gave her a 20-year extension and has allowed her to send her profits back to the Untied States.

She runs her shop, Lao Textiles, out of a graceful, refurbished French colonial mansion in downtown Vientiane. Inside, high-priced scarves and tapestries hang from the wall, studio lights highlighting the local colors that fill her designs.

Cassidy employs 50 weavers and a small legion of farmers who work from their own villages. Some of the farmers help weave the material they grow, and some simply deliver the silk.

"Weaving is a global woman's language," she said. "When I arrived, Lao weaving was alive and well. It wasn't dead. I was just continuing a tradition."

Cassidy had seen weavers in Mexico when she was 12, then studied weaving at the Art Academy in Norway. She worked for the United Nations in Africa before arriving in Laos in 1989.

"I'm not really a typical American," Cassidy said, smiling, sipping a drink at one of Vientiane's few hotels. Her textiles hang in the hotel's hallway.

She hasn't lived in the United States since 1975, and described her son's ordeal in applying to college.

"'You didn't tell me what the SATs were!'" Cassidy recalled him saying. She shruggred her shoulders. "We lived in Laos. We didn't pay attention to these things."

She won't reveal how much money she makes, but said she's profitable — and that she has her share of famous, rich clients, whom she won't name for the record.

"We like black cards," she said with a laugh, referring to a type of American Express credit card that reportedly requires that clients spend more than $250,000 per year. "But we take platinum — if we have to."

Looking Out for Workers' Rights

Despite her success, Cassidy has spent her life working with the poor. In India's Assam, one of the more impoverished parts of the country that has suffered from an insurgency for 15 years, she works with weavers from the Naga tribe. In Cambodia, she works with women who have been maimed by land mines, who make up just a handful of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

She has introduced medical and pension benefits for her workers, in addition to paid vacation and twice-a-year bonuses. She trains the weavers herself.

"The emphasis is on quality and creativity," Cassidy said. "It's highly original. People will see that and ask, 'Oh my God! Where did you get that?'"

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When she traveled to Pakor in June, she was impressed by the ingenuity of the women who made the jungle vine bags. "To be so close to utilizing your environment in a sustainable way to make a useful product … They are a wealth of traditional skill. It was wonderful to see so much experience."

Cassidy saw how they made the bag and "made a new design on the spot. I don't like to change what they do themselves too much, so I just suggested incremental changes."

She drew five prototypes that the villagers will produce, and they gave her a handful of prototypes based on her earlier requests. She suggested changes in the width of the fiber and the design. But the material remained the same, as did the design. One woman quickly weaved her a jungle vine cell phone bag.

Cassidy will measure the level of interest in New York, and slowly begin producing more if she believes she can sell them to her customers.

"I love my life," she said. "I get to weave these beautiful things for people who appreciate beautiful things."

And her customers are increasingly worried about the origins of the products they buy.

"There's a growing sense in the industrial world that it's important where the product comes from, who made the product, how it is made," Cassidy said. "The challenge will be not just for the khammu people, but for all of us, to come into the future in a sustainable way."

Additional reporting by Clark Bentson.