Did you know that lacquer actually comes from a tree?

 
 

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Today, we colloquially call lacquer anything shiny, while in reality lacquer is the processed sap of a tree (Gluta laccifera, Gluta usitata). It has been used for eons in the parts of the world where it’s endemic for a variety of uses. From coating baskets to water proofing them to creating works of arts, lacquer has helped Asian civilizations thrive for millennia, and today it helps connect the world as insulant in electronics.

In Cambodia, lacquer has been used for centuries, and is a key ingredient in the making of traditional crafts such as betel boxes, religious offering trays and ceremonial boxes. Many of those crafts, however, are on the decline and at risk of disappearing forever.

Due to its extraordinary properties such as extreme heat resistance and unparalleled electrical insulation, Cambodia used to export over 50 tons of lacquer to France for in a variety of industrial applications.

But today, with no plantations remaining and only a few trees having survived deforestation, the craft of lacquer is nearly extinct in Cambodia, and only a few changemakers are fighting to keep it alive.

Lacquer trees are primarily found in Kampong Thom Province, southeast of the temples of Angkor. The villages there used to thrive with lacquer-works, from the harvesting process to the crafting the objects to be lacquered.  But with no intermediary connecting the villagers with the relevant markets (such as high end art work), and with the destruction of plantations (during the time of the Khmer Rouge?), villagers no longer enjoy the benefits of large scale lacquer works. .

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A few weeks ago, the Community First team set out to investigate what had happened to the most important player in the value chain of lacquer: the tree bleeder. Tree bleeders would make incisions in the tree, allowing for the sap to flow, and then harvest it i

n handmade bamboo canisters. On that occasion, we met with Ta Ly who is the only bleeder left in his village practicing this ancient craft. He explained to us that while he had no buyer, he would rather be out and about practicing his craft rather than staying home or seeking labor far away from his village. It is important to note that the tree does not die in the harvesting process, and is given time to regenerate between collections.

Today, Community First is teaming up with Lacquer Master Eric Stocker of Angkor Artworks in Siem Reap to help the villagers make a living from this craft. In what has become a landmark deal for the villagers, we were able to guarantee the purchase of 440 pounds of lacquer on a yearly basis, which will provide families with a stable source of income for the first time in decades! Mr. Eric Stocker is a world renowned Lacquer Master who has been working in Cambodia to revive this ancient craft since 1998.

He was also one of the founding experts brought in by the European Commission to develop the highly successful Artisans d’Angkor, an arts & crafts training program that has now become a profitable company. Watch his video to see him in action.

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