Henna losing its allure as Tunisia’s ‘red gold’

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A bride shows her Henna painted hands, the day before her wedding in Gabes town, in southeastern Tunisia on July 14, 2018 In and around the Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, henna has long been a key driver of the economy -- so much so that the plant is known as "red gold". (AFP)
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A bride shows her Henna painted hands, the day before her wedding in Gabes town, in southeastern Tunisia on July 13, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 26 July 2018
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Henna losing its allure as Tunisia’s ‘red gold’

  • Water crisis and changing consumer habits are making farmers think twice about planting henna shrubs
  • Only 645 tons of the plant were harvested in the Gabes region in 2016/17 — down 20 percent from the previous season

GABES, Tunisia: In and around the Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, henna has long been a key driver of the economy — so much so that the plant is known as “red gold.”
But a water crisis and changing consumer habits are making farmers think twice about planting henna shrubs, despite their coveted leaves that have for centuries been ground down to paint nails, tint hair and ink temporary tattoos, especially for weddings.
“Gabes is dying because of the lack of water,” says farmer Houcine Akrout, as he digs intricate channels around his green plants to maximize water flow in the early morning sunlight.
Akrout is hard at work, because the local water supply will today run from a canal onto his land — a rare thing nowadays, due to government rationing.
Urbanization and rapidly rising demand for water from industry and agriculture have put immense pressure on Tunisia’s water reserves, according to the World Bank.
And a 2016 study of Tunisia’s water services funded by Sweden’s government found that losses from the irrigation network reach 40 to 50 percent.
For farmers like Akrout, that means waiting 15 to 20 days for access to the water supply.
“It’s very long for the henna plant which needs lots of water,” he tells AFP.
The situation is so bad he has uprooted most of his henna shrubs and replaced them with pomegranate trees — a much less thirsty species.
“Henna does not make me any money,” he says. “It isn’t profitable any more and I need to live and support my family.”
When it comes, the water supply costs 2.8 dinars ($1.10, 0.93 euros) per hour.
In mid-summer, the wait can reach up to 40 days, admits Amel Ghiloufi, head of the region’s plants department at the agriculture ministry.
And pollution of the water supply from a chemical plant has seen farmers abandon land in the oasis on the Mediterranean coast in recent decades.

The water crisis is having a dramatic impact on henna output.
Only 645 tons of the plant were harvested in the Gabes region in 2016/17 — down 20 percent from the previous season, Ghiloufi says.
But other factors, including a labor shortage, are also driving the long-term decline.
And it’s not only supply side pressures that undermine the market — demand for local henna is also falling, as people opt for foreign alternatives.
Over the centuries, henna leaves have been dried and reduced to a fine powder before being mixed with water, to create the paste coveted by people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The paste is used to color hair, palms of hands, arms and feet with simple patterns that last for a month or so.
But the process can be messy and people don’t always want to keep the art work for that long.
So imports of a treated version of henna from Sudan, Yemen and India are increasingly popular, with added chemicals limiting penetration of the skin and making it easy to wash from hands.
Ahead of weddings, the ready-to-use dye is handed out in decorated boxes to guests at bachelorette parties.
The processed imported versions are taking over from the local product.
And while once popular as a grandmother’s remedy for anything from migraines to skin problems, younger people are more skeptical of henna’s healing powers.
But for Ghiloufi the only way “to revive the sector is to break new ground,” by promoting henna’s natural benefits and diversifying into new markets.
In the capital Tunis, shampoos based on the plant have begun to find their way into health stores.
Only a few entrepreneurs sell Tunisian henna abroad — and they do so without state support — so exports are minimal, despite the “good quality” produced by Gabe’s farmers, says Ghiloufi.

In Jara, the main tourist market in the center of Gabes, huge stalls overflow with henna and incense — but the streets are empty.
Traders complain that the trickle of tourists is not enough to compensate for locals’ disinterest.
“Henna is sold all the year round. Our market was always full of clients who come from all over Tunisia!” says 85-year-old Hassen Mrabet, who has been growing and selling henna for half a century.
“Now sales are limited to the wedding season in July and August,” he adds.
Another trader bemoans the rising popularity of other beauty products and treatments, as lifestyles change.
New forms of “dye and manicures have replaced henna today,” according to 49-year-old Ismail.
“Tunisians have changed their habits and turned their backs on their traditions; henna is out of fashion.”


Fashion capital New York considers banning sale of fur

Updated 17 April 2019
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Fashion capital New York considers banning sale of fur

  • Lawmakers are pushing a measure that would ban the sale of all new fur products in the city
  • “Cruelty should not be confused with economic development,” a sponsor of the legislation said

NEW YORK: A burgeoning movement to outlaw fur is seeking to make its biggest statement yet in the fashion mecca of New York City.
Lawmakers are pushing a measure that would ban the sale of all new fur products in the city where such garments were once common and style-setters including Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Joe Namath and Sean “Diddy” Combs have all rocked furs over the years.
A similar measure in the state Capitol in Albany would impose a statewide ban on the sale of any items made with farmed fur and ban the manufacture of products made from trapped fur.
Whether this is good or bad depends on which side of the pelt you’re on. Members of the fur industry say such bans could put 1,100 people out of a job in the city alone. Supporters dismiss that and emphasize that the wearing of fur is barbaric and inhumane.
“Cruelty should not be confused with economic development,” said state Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan, who is sponsoring the state legislation. “Fur relies on violence to innocent animals. That should be no one’s business.”
The fate of the proposals could be decided in the coming months, though supporters acknowledge New York City’s measure has a better chance of passage than the state legislation.
The fur trade is considered so important to New York’s development that two beavers adorn the city’s official seal, a reference to early Dutch and English settlers who traded in beaver pelts.
At the height of the fur business in the last century, New York City manufactured 80% of the fur coats made in the U.S, according to FUR NYC, a group representing 130 retailers and manufacturers in the city. The group says New York City remains the largest market for fur products in the country, with real fur still frequently used as trim on coats, jackets and other items.
If passed, New York would become the third major American city with such a ban, following San Francisco, where a ban takes effect this year, and Los Angeles, where a ban passed this year will take effect in 2021.
Elsewhere, Sao Paulo, Brazil, began its ban on the import and sale of fur in 2015. Fur farming was banned in the United Kingdom nearly 20 years ago, and last year London fashion week became the first major fashion event to go entirely fur-free.
Fur industry leaders warn that if the ban passes in New York, emboldened animal rights activists will want more.
“Everyone is watching this,” said Nancy Daigneault, vice president at the International Fur Federation, an industry group based in London. “If it starts here with fur, it’s going to go to wool, to leather, to meat.”
When asked what a fur ban would mean for him, Nick Pologeorgis was blunt: “I’m out of business.”
Pologeorgis’ father, who emigrated from Greece, started the fur design and sales business in the city’s “Fur District” nearly 60 years ago.
“My employees are nervous,” he said. “If you’re 55 or 50 and all you’ve trained to do is be a fur worker, what are you going to do?“
Supporters of the ban contend those employees could find jobs that don’t involve animal fur, noting that an increasing number of fashion designers and retailers now refuse to sell animal fur and that synthetic substitutes are every bit as convincing as the real thing.
They also argue that fur retailers and manufacturers represent just a small fraction of an estimated 180,000 people who work in the city’s fashion industry and that their skills can readily be transferred.
“There is a lot of room for job growth developing ethically and environmentally friendly materials,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who introduced the city measure.
New Yorkers asked about the ban this week came down on both sides, with some questioning if a law was really needed.
“It is a matter of personal choice. I don’t think it’s something that needs to be legislated,” said 44-year-old Janet Thompson. “There are lots of people wearing leather and suede and other animal hides out there. To pick on fur seems a little one-sided.”
Joshua Katcher, a Manhattan designer and author who has taught at the Parsons School of Design, says he believes the proposed bans reflect an increased desire to know where our products come from and for them to be ethical and sustainable.
“Fur is a relic,” he said.