by Laurent Jean Pierre
“What is it that one has in one’s dwelling place, that until you dance with it, it does not work for you?”
“The broom.” —Traditional St. Lucian Tim Tim riddle
Latanyé brooms (brooms made from the indigenous palm Coccothrinax barbadensis, locally known as Latanyé) have been around in St. Lucia for a long time. Their origin is shrouded in legend, which situates their invention in ancient times. The ancestors would use their hands, or at best sticks and branches, to clean their dwellings and surrounding areas—until women started bunching twigs together and discovered that it worked better, and finally one of them dreamed of using the Latanyé palm, which would be far more durable and efficient.
Through continued experimentation, people began to add vertical sticks to the Latanyé brooms so that one could sweep standing. They developed a special sweeping motion that evolved into a unique “sweeping dance,” which was practiced as a form of “entertainment exercise” during housework and was transmitted across generations.
The sweeping dance occurs out of necessity to get the job done. Your willing partner (the broom) may inspire you to move in a brisk rhythmic or energetic motion.
The sweeping dance occurs out of necessity to get the job done. Your willing partner (the broom) may inspire you to move in a brisk rhythmic or energetic motion, and your alignment with it will determine the pace and the harmony of your movements. Your dance can be swift and enjoyable if your partner is light and can shuffle well around the corners, or it can be slow and painstaking if it’s heavy and ungainly and your steps are hard to negotiate. Your dance may involve multilateral movements while negotiating the corners or resemble a fusion of motions similar to those deployed in the game of curling. On the other hand, it also includes swirling, spiraling, and dwindling while stroking into several directions at diverse angles sweeping out dirt and dust above and beneath.
Broom-making itself evolved into a specialized craft and industry in St. Lucia, providing brooms for domestic use and beyond. The art of weaving the Latanyé palm, with or without a broomstick, is as practical as it is artsy and personal. There are two main ways of weaving the palm leaves: one is to fasten them to a stick or handle, and the other is to create handles for hand-held brooms without sticks. Broom handles give one a firmer grip and better control during the sweeping exercise and/or dance. With the stick attached, on the other hand, the user does not have to stoop during sweeping and has a longer reach to make sweeping easier. The weaving can be simple, but with time it evolved into a special artistic display. Each broom maker can trace their own work by the weaving design, in a way similar to a personal signature. The weaving art is unique in that it gives the broom maker a chance to display their specific or peculiar creative designs. Some have of late incorporated colorful ropes to enhance the brooms’ appearance and appeal.
The Latanyé palm is found in the wild, only in specific areas (dry coastal cliffs) of difficult access. Initially, sustainable harvesting methods were practiced. With a booming growth of the industry, however, spurred by a rising demand for the brooms and the prospect of significant profits to be made, harvesting of the palm in the wild, without replanting, became unsustainable.
In 1990, the Latanyé palm was declared a “vulnerable species,” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria. Indiscriminate harvesting continued, nevertheless, and led to increasing scarcity of the resource and serious endangerment of the palm species and to a “boom and bust” cycle in the industry. Imported brooms, including synthetic ones, began to be introduced, but they were inferior in quality and “didn’t find the corners,” while they also damaged the furniture because of the coarse material they were made of. Furthermore, the remains of these non-biodegradable brooms began to litter the environment, supplanting the compostable leaf litter from discarded Latanyé brooms.
Meanwhile, those brooms that were still made locally from Latanyé palm leaves also became inferior, as they were made from immature palm fronds taken from a shrinking wild supply of those palms, and therefore, they disintegrated easily. This unsustainable phase of the sweeping dance continued until people began to develop environmental consciousness and became concerned that the Latanyé species might disappear altogether. They felt that the loss would be not only ecological, but also economic, as an important local craft and industry would disappear. It stands to reason that, whenever the raw material is lost, the art is most likely to disappear too.
People realized that their traditional Latanyé sweeping dance, although superior, was waning and began to look into their heritage for ways to revitalize it. The old saying “New brooms sweep clean, but old brooms know the corners” began to take on new meaning: not only that the traditional Latanyé brooms get suppler as they age and thus better at “finding the corners,” but also that the traditional brooms are better than the new imported ones—ecologically, economically, and in every other way.
Traditional Latanyé brooms get suppler as they age and thus better at ‘finding the corners’ and are better than the new imported ones—ecologically, economically, and in every other way.
The St. Lucia National Trust, a local environmental organization, called attention to the plight of the Latanyé palm by recommending that it be included in a local “endangered trees” series of stamps meant to raise environmental awareness among the population. An assessment of the status of the Latanyé palm species in the wild conducted by the Forestry Department confirmed my research and revealed the extent of the problem.
Overharvesting and unsustainable harvesting regimes were pushing the wild stocks farther and farther away from human habitation, making it quite a time-consuming undertaking to go harvest the raw material. Therefore, harvesting was no longer done by artisans themselves but by other gatherers, who did not necessarily practice proper conservation techniques as established by the traditional folk. In recent times, indiscriminate Latanyé palm harvesting had even become a way for a new breed of drug users to make the quick cash they needed to sustain their habit. As a result of these harvesting pressures, the Latanyé was in serious trouble. The conclusion was that the imported brooms had overstayed their welcome and that, according to tradition, people should upend the traditional brooms in a corner of the house to suggest to the overstaying “guests” that it was time to leave!
To promote the need to go local again—to both grow local and buy local—researchers and activists disseminated information about the cultural values and economic and ecological advantages of the local brooms.
To promote the need to go local again—to both grow local and buy local—researchers and activists disseminated information about the cultural values and economic and ecological advantages of the local brooms and expressed the urgent need for conservation, including replanting the palms and enhancing the overall sustainability of the industry.
Then, in 2001, St. Lucia experienced the worst drought in twenty-seven years, which led to the loss of several wild stocks of Latanyé palm that had already been weakened by overharvesting and unsustainable harvesting practices. The Forestry Division and the local community responded to the emergency by establishing trial plots of Latanyé in several areas on the island. That involved collecting and propagating seedlings from wild stock to reforest the depleted wild stock and introducing the plant to new sites, including private and crown lands to make harvesting easier. They successfully embarked on a replanting drive, combined with promotion of proper harvesting techniques that dovetailed traditional sustainable methods with contemporary scientific methods.
Farther afield, that same year the plight of the Latanyé was highlighted at the International Congress of Ethnobiology, held at the University of Kent in Canterbury. That included the display of a Latanyé-themed collage artwork by Heather Butcher. Also, I was inspired to embark on an ambitious research project to ascertain the status of local broom-making industries worldwide. In the process, I collected a number of brooms from several countries, which are now housed at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, USA, in a collection named the Laurent Jean Pierre Broom Collection.
As a result of these efforts, although imported brooms are still in circulation and sold at our markets, the Latanyé broom has regained its rightful place as the dominant product. Latanyé palm is now cultivated by many, especially the broom makers themselves. Traditional harvesting regimes have been revived, resulting in better quality brooms and a revitalized industry.
Traditional harvesting regimes have been revived, resulting in better quality brooms and a revitalized industry.
The palm is now seen growing along roadsides as well as in house gardens, with a dual purpose as both an ornamental and an economic plant. Local observers have indicated that the birds are now active participants in the reforestation process. Thus, the growth of the local broom industry is currently strong. Long live the dream!
Laurent Jean Pierre has worked with local communities on the island of St. Lucia and in the wider Caribbean for over two decades. He helps them address such issues as food security, plant identification and taxonomy, and traditional knowledge documentation. An ethnobotanist by training, he is also a farmer in the St. Lucian community of Bexon.
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