Washing rattan
Villagers wash rattan, strand by strand, in the river. (Photos by David Hall)

The rattan facts

 Rattan furniture
Rattan furniture

So what is rattan? To put it simply, think of most of the furniture that you thought was made from bamboo. In reality, if it is bent into a curve, then it will be rattan. Even if it isn’t bent, it’s probably rattan! And if it’s rattan, it’s likely to originate from Indonesia; the country accounts for around 80% of the world’s raw rattan products.

Raw rattan grows in the rain forest. Its favorite location is in what forestry guys tend to call secondary forest, where the trees are fairly young and a lot of light penetrates to the forest floor. Primary forest tends to have much bigger, taller trees, and the ambient light levels on the forest floor tend to be lower. For rattan at least, these are the major differences. Unlike bamboo, which grows almost like a tree, rattan is a creeping plant that closely resembles the stem of a rose. It grows from the forest floor, using the trees to climb upward, and is typically harvested by the rattan farmers when it is years old.

Rattan in the forest
Rattan grows in a forest "garden."
Rattan is great for a sustainable development project because the local farmers actually plant rattan in “gardens,” and the rattan needs trees to grow. These gardens are between 2 and 5 hectares in size (5 to 12 acres) and typically yield around 1.3 metric tons of rattan every couple of years. Because the trees are left standing when rattan is harvested, the raw material can be classified as a non-forest product, and can therefore be exempt from forestry product tariffs and restrictions – at least in theory. In practice, local NGOs are having to lobby the Indonesian government for a reclassification of rattan, which currently is classified as a forest product and not a cultivated plant.

 Harvesting rattan
Harvesting rattan, one machete chop at a time.
The first step in the rattan product development process is harvesting. This is labor-intensive and is typically carried out by teams of villagers, who take turns harvesting their gardens with other local farmers helping out. To watch the farmers cut and strip the rattan of its thorny outer layer is pretty amazing. These guys climb the trees, get out their machetes and then start hacking away – only its not really hacking. It requires great skill to first cut the rattan and then, with a secondary blow, split off the outer layer and peel out the core rattan.

Once the rattan has been harvested from the garden, it has to be prepared before it can be used in weaving, furniture making or any other rattan-based craft. The first step is to wash the rattan in the river to remove any stains and clean the product, stripping away the layer of silica that tends to coat the core rattan.

Rattan smoker
A rattan smoker, loaded with raw material.
The next step is to cure the rattan, turning its color from a pale green into the yellow that most people are familiar with by smoking it in sulphur fumes. The raw, washed rattan is loaded into what looks like a wood-framed tent that has its floor about a foot off the ground. Many “bushels” of raw rattan are piled on top of one another until the wooden frame is full. The frame is then covered with tarpaulin, which is secured to the ground using stone weights. The sulphur is ignited and placed under the tent, and the smoking process begins. It usually takes about a day or so to complete this curing and smoking process.

 Drying rattan
Rattan is spread on outdoor racks to dry in the blistering sun.
After curing, the rattan has to be dried to remove excess moisture and make the product suitable for use. This is done outside under the hot equatorial sun, and takes perhaps another two or three days to complete.

After drying, the rattan is ready for use. It can further be processed into peel for weaving, or core products that are flexible and used for binding and craft materials. Around 60% of the rattan goes into the furniture business, the majority of which is located in Java, but some is used by local people for making crafts.