Who would have thought that 200 years ago, the German tale of Rumpelstiltskin would come true – in the form of indigenous people living in the remote village of Jalapao, Brazil? Ok, they don’t spin straw into gold. But they do spin the gold grass that only grows in their region into jewelry. And it’s helping their community become self-sufficient.
They call the jewelry Braziliant or Golden Grass. It’s made of a grass called Capim Dourado – a native plant that only grows on the Cerrado or plains in Jalapao. The practice dates back to artisans descended from African slaves, who learned the craft from local indigenous communities, and in turn passed the techniques on to the next generations. They’ve been weaving the gold grass for over 400 years and only five years ago began making it into jewelry for people across the world.
Jalapao has a population of less than 250 people. Crafted by the women in the village, the jewelry is made from the gold-color grass leafless flower stalk called Syngonanthus nitens. It’s harvested once a year, all by hand, and only during the flowering season, in order to protect and sustain future crops.
After harvest, the stalks are dried in the shade, and then sewn tightly together with strips of young leaves from palm trees. The entire process uses no chemicals or dyes, and the grass is never sprayed with insecticides. What looks like gold is in fact simply grass.
“My mom told me about the jewelry. I was living in the US, but had worked as an intern with a microenterprise organization called Sabrae in Brazil. On my next trip back to my hometown of Matogrosso, Brazil, I travelled the five hours by truck to see the work the artisans did with my own eyes. I was amazed. The children, even teenage boys working on the jewelry in order to help their families, particularly impressed me. I decided to take some of their jewelry back to the US with me, and try to help them sell it,” says Rosely Pacheco, a student currently working toward her MBA in “Green” Environmental Studies.
Prior to the jewelry, the grass was used to make more practical utensils like baskets. But five years ago, in conjunction with the Brazilian government, the Sabrae folks offered the Jalapao artisans micro-loans for jewelry making tools, education in design, and the skills to sell their jewelry—implementing a support system for the artisans to sustain themselves long term.
The village had been primarily surviving on farming and construction—all jobs held by the men. Leaving the women at home, with no income or way of helping to contribute. The jewelry can be worked on at home allowing the women financial independence and the ability to care for children.
The women have taken to selling their wares at markets throughout the region and through online sites. To support the jewelry makers, the Brazilian government doesn’t charge the artisan’s taxes on their earnings nor does it charge them postage fees for their exports—all in an effort to support them and reduce their reliance on government assistance.
"The people living in this region were making less than $250 a month farming. Selling this jewelry is an opportunity for them to have more economic independence and rely less on the government,” Pacheco said. “I help them because they're my people."
Rebekah Sager is a nationally published lifestyle and culture writer. She's a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow Rebekah on Twitter @Rebekah_Sager.