Sisal (Agave sisalana)
Sisal fiber drying. Sisal is used for rope, carpets, and agricultural sacks and ties.
© Cyril Ruoso, www.ruoso-grundman.com
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Sisal plants grow for three to four years before the first leaves are cut. They are pruned for three more years before they bolt a stalk like a green telephone pole. After this the stems are burned and the field re-used. Men cut the leaves; women tie them in bundles for transport to the factory. At the factory a conveyor belt takes them to a simple crushing machine. Then the fibers are dried in the sun, sorted, combed, and eventually baled for export.
In its heyday from 1950-1975 Berenty sisal employed some 2000 people, as did each of the other four plantations of the Mandrare Valley. By 2005 there were only 600 employees, many of them families of the original workers.
Many tourists who have not seen Tandroy villages are dismayed by living conditions in the factory village. This is a question of what you are compare them to: European standards, elite or shanty dwellers in Malagasy towns, or the much poorer rural Tandroy who do not have salaries from sisal. Many people in the villages around depend on each Berenty salary. Our view of wealth is also deceptive: Tandroy villages have tiny wooden houses which are usually burned after a death. Wealth is the cattle herds, spent on grandiose concrete tombs.
The real question is whether the schoolchildren of Berenty will retain the lifestyle of their ancestors.
Sisal cutting has never been successfully mechanized, as a look at the plant may tell you. The processing also is done by hand, by hundreds of laborers in low-paid jobs, but which can employ many families. Trucks bring the cut leaves to primitive crushers. The fibers are carried to the field, dried over wires, then brought back to be sorted by quality, currycombed, and baled.