Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Our Mission: Background Philosophy The Amazon rainforest has the largest concentration of animal and plant life in the world. It is also home to hundreds of indigenous groups and tens of thousands of other people who make their living in the forest. The biggest challenge and opportunity for the Amazon is to transform the vision of development that impacts its water, land, plants, animals and people. The current model promotes the production of mass commodities. The new model needs to focus on sustaining diverse human and other biological communities. One important path to creating a sustainable future for the Amazon is to strengthen its traditional communities. People who have strong c...
Jul 14, 2015

Making a difference in the forest

Orchid bee males at copal resin lump
Orchid bee males at copal resin lump

Thank you very much for your support for our project 'Grow Amazon artisan income & Peru rainforest trees' through GlobalGiving.  I am very proud of the work that our project manager Yully does with our partner communities in Peru every month, but sometimes a short-time volunteer can make a big difference as well.  This past spring we welcomed Tracy to work with us as an Amazon Field Volunteer for ten days.  While approaching her 34th birthday, she decided to take a year off from her career path in marketing and communication to do community service with 34 non-profit organizations around the world in a project called ThirtyFortunate (https://www.facebook.com/34tunate).  I am very grateful that Tracy helped me tag and catalogue hundreds of handicrafts in Iquitos for several days.  She made an extra special contribution to our efforts, however, when she took the 12 hour trip by lancha (300 person ferry boat) from Iquitos to the town of Jenaro Herrera to help our copal research project. 

We have been studying the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal's aromatic tree resin for the past nine years.  The resin exudes onto the trunk when previously unknown species of bark-boring weevils chew into the inner bark to feed. This resin repels most insects, but these weevil larvae shape the resin into a protective chamber for themselves as they mature. Many types of bees collect this resin to build and defend their nests. While Amazon people usually harvest these lumps to caulk their wooden boats or make crude incense, we are distilling this resin to produce essential oil that native and campesino communities can sell to make money without cutting or burning the forest.  To try and develop methods for sustainably harvesting this resin, we have periodically harvested some lumps and then track how long it takes for the weevils and the resin lumps to recover.

Our copal project manager who has a degree in agronomy is now analyzing thousands of digital photos taken during the first phase of the study so we can publish our initial results and use them to guide our community-based copal projects in the Ampiyacu and other areas.  Since we want these local enterprises to be viable for many years, we have called on our long-time field assistant who I will call Alanzo to continue monitoring the recovery and growth of the resin lumps with low cost and low tech tools – i.e. a pen and paper.

Like many people who grow up in rural forest communities, Alanzo only completed 8th grade in school.  He was an excellent woodsman, but instead of becoming a full-time farmer or fisherman, he wanted to support his family by assisting researchers who came through the government research station at Jenaro Herrera.  During the years he worked with us, he was a keen observer of nature, creative and meticulous with physical tasks, and reliably recorded numerical data.  What I only learned recently, however, was that he was almost illiterate.  We are trying to help him fill this gap, but we needed to find a way for him to do his job well in the short-term.

Our volunteer Tracy found a simple and creative solution to Alonzo's need.  While the data collection sheet that I designed for Alonzo had words on it, Tracy added simple illustrations to signify the different options he would need to write.  For resin condition, there is a 1 next to a drawing of a white lump (meaning it is fresh and sticky), a 2 next to a lump that is partially grey, and a 3 next to a lump that is black (meaning it is old and dry).  The same system is used to indicate different stages of tree reproduction (whether it has flowers or fruits) and other variables.  She then spent two days walking with him in the forest to make sure he was confident and competent using these tools to record his observations.  At the end of her visit, Alonzo said, "I was embarassed that my difficulty reading made some things so hard for me.  I am happy that I can do this job well now my own."  

We sometimes work with student interns from the local university to help us with certain tasks, but I feel it is very important to empower the people who live in the forest to be directly involved with these studies since they are the ones who will ultimately decide its fate. 

Thank you very much for your support that makes this project possible. Donations made to our project at www.AmazonAlive.net early on Wednesday, July 15 (GlobalGiving Bonus Day) will receive a 50% matching donation from other sponsors.

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden
Executive Director
Center for Amazon Community Ecology
Checking copal resin lump status
Checking copal resin lump status
Tracy and Alonzo at Jenaro Herrera field site
Tracy and Alonzo at Jenaro Herrera field site
Copal tree phenology code sheet with pictures
Copal tree phenology code sheet with pictures
May 12, 2015

A herd of armadillos and the challenges of filming

Woven armadillo ornaments. Photo: C. Plowden/CACE
Woven armadillo ornaments. Photo: C. Plowden/CACE

Earlier this year, our project manager Yully Rojas organized two workshops to teach artisans from our partner villages in the Ampiyacu to make some of our best-selling handicrafts.  The first was a three-day gathering in the Bora village of Brillo Nuevo where veteran artisans showed sixty fellow artisans from six villages how they made popular models of hot pads and snake pattern belts.  The results were very good with the exception of a group that worked with a last-minute substitute teacher who didn’t know her model as well as expected.

I attended a two-day training in the thatched roof maloca (meeting house) in Puca Urquillo Huitoto where four artisan teachers taught their peers from five villages how to make another batch of special crafts.  Many women and children gathered around Siena on a large plastic sheet on the dirt floor to practice weaving an armadillo ornament.  Others gathered around Ania and Angelina to begin making the more complicated shushupe and naca naca models of guitar straps.  Many women said they learned a lot and acknowledged it was going to take a lot of practice to weave a high-quality strap.  We were pleased that Luz Elena, an artisan from Neuvo Peru joined the workshop for the first time.  She said, “I used to only know how to make bags and hammocks – now I can make a new kind of craft.”  It was disappointing that no artisans came from two nearby Yagua villages.  We have been trying to engage artisans from these communities in the project for a few years now, but we are learning that initial enthusiasm to get involved doesn’t always translate into long-term commitment. 

There was a cluster of men sitting on a side bench of the maloca using crude awls to etch a paiche (a giant Amazon fish) and other wildlife figures onto dark brown calabash tree pods.  When filled with beads, they become attractive hand rattles and Christmas tree ornaments.  Guillermo from Puca Urquillo had been trying to sell his ornaments to Yully without success for over a year.  He said, “I learned to make crafts 25 years ago when I was a teenager.  This workshop was very important, though, because it gave me a chance to compare, practice and improve my work with others.” Guillermo was very pleased that we bought almost all of the ornaments he made during the workshop.

At the conclusion of the workshop, each of the artisan groups expressed their thanks to CACE, GlobalGiving and other foundations for their support of artisan skill sharing.

While workshops are a potent way to promote artisan learning, we are also producing a DVD compilation of veteran artisans showing and explaining step-by-step how they make a variety of handicrafts for CACE.  Videographer Tulio Davila has now recorded more than 20 sessions with artisans from Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo making a variety of woven belts, guitar straps, hot pads, hair barrettes, hat bands and water bottle carriers.  He accomplished a lot during his recent three week stint in the field, but the factors that slowed him down were a potent reminder that many things are beyond our control.  

Tulio could not shoot some craft models with black because high floods prevented artisan access to the fruit that is normally used to dye chambira this dark color.  He couldn’t work with a few key artisans who were understandably distracted when the husband of one failed to return from a hunting trip in the forest, and the husband of another was accused of killing him.  Fortunately the missing fellow wandered back to the village after three days – very hungry – but otherwise in good shape.  Oscar initially agreed to be filmed explaining how he weaves the popular “anaconda” model belts and guitar straps, but backed out when he was worried that his creation might be shared with artisans outside the region.

We are having to carefully and repeatedly explain to our partners that we will only be able to sell a few of their crafts if we can’t offer them in larger numbers with consistent high quality.  Since none of them would be able to fill an order from a wholesale buyer by themselves, they have to be willing to share their knowledge with each other if they want to increase their income from making and selling crafts.  Our promise to them is that these detailed training materials will not be shared with artisans beyond the 15 communities in the Ampiyacu federation.  Tulio is now busy editing the completed instructional videos into final form.  We need to raise more funds to complete the process of documenting all of the most popular models once the river water level returns to normal.

Thank you for your support for this project – particularly on Bonus Days when your contribution will be partially matched by other donors on GlobalGiving.

These key dates are:

Wednesday, May 13 (match amount will depending on total amount given to all projects)

Wednesday, July 15 (50% match given to donations made before matching funds run out)

Wednesday Sept. 16 (30% match given to donations made before matching funds run out)

We would appreciate your feedback and questions about our work.  Please contact me at cplowden@amazonecology.org.

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden

Project Leader/Executive Director

Artisan starting woven hotpad. Photo: Davila/CACE
Artisan starting woven hotpad. Photo: Davila/CACE
Shushupe guitar strap group. Photo: Plowden/CACE
Shushupe guitar strap group. Photo: Plowden/CACE
Weaving naca naca guitar strap. Photo: Plowden/CAC
Weaving naca naca guitar strap. Photo: Plowden/CAC
Artisan with sun wheel hotpad. Photo:Davila/CACE
Artisan with sun wheel hotpad. Photo:Davila/CACE
Artisan with armadillo ornament.Photo:Plowden/CACE
Artisan with armadillo ornament.Photo:Plowden/CACE
Artisan with doll ornaments. Photo:Davila/CACE
Artisan with doll ornaments. Photo:Davila/CACE
Shushupe group thanking GlobalGiving.Plowden photo
Shushupe group thanking GlobalGiving.Plowden photo
Calabash pod carving group.  Photo by Plowden
Calabash pod carving group. Photo by Plowden
Ornament thank you for GlobalGiving.  Photo CACE
Ornament thank you for GlobalGiving. Photo CACE
Artisan with calabash ornaments.Plowden/CACE photo
Artisan with calabash ornaments.Plowden/CACE photo
Artisan with water bottle holder. Photo:Plowden
Artisan with water bottle holder. Photo:Plowden
Mar 17, 2015

Exploring a partnership with Maijuna communities

Returning from copal harvest with Maijuna
Returning from copal harvest with Maijuna

I just returned to Iquitos after a successful four day visit to the Maijuna native community of Nueva Vida in the Napo River region of the northern Peruvian Amazon.  The main purpose of the trip was to meet their artisans and see if they wanted to work with CACE to develop and market several new models of handicrafts.  I also wanted to explore the potential for harvesting copal resin with them and distilling it into fragrant essential oil as a new source of sustainable income for the village.  

My journey began with a speedboat ride at dawn from Iquitos to the Amazon River town of Mazan with my CACE videographer companion Tulio.  After stocking up on supplies, we eventually met up with our Maijuna guides Everest and his father “Shebaco”.  Thanks to an introduction from long-time Maijuna friend (and CACE board member) Michael Gilmore, we had met at a Maijuna federation congress in 2009, and he hosted me last summer in Sucusari when we conducted a quick search for copal trees near his village.  I much appreciate that he gave me the name “Baiyiri” - the Maijuna word for copal.

Our original host for this visit was going to be Walter from Nueva Vida, but on two days’ notice he had flown to Lima with two other Maijuna to meet with the Peruvian President.  This was a critical meeting that marked the final hurdle to winning government approval for a regional protected area that would encompass the four main Maijuna villages in the Napo and Putumayo River region and the forest in between.  This struggle to gain legal recognition for their traditional lands coincided with a multi-year battle against a road project that would go through the heart of it.  I wished Walter well on his mission and was happy to have Shebaco with me again for mine.

Like many native groups, the Maijuna are striving to improve their standard of living and standing in modern Peruvian society and maintain certain aspects of their culture that give them pride and sustenance.  The Maijuna were once called by the derogatory term “orejones” (big ears) because they had the custom of placing increasingly larger disks into their ear lobes.  They gave up this practice a generation ago, but they embraced a program led by linguists from U.C. Berkeley that has reinvigorated the teaching and use of the Maijuna language by all generations.

Half a dozen women from Nueva Vida learned how to make decorative baskets from chambira palm fiber that were similar to ones made by campesino artisans from the Tahuayo River, but their skills languished for several years because the workshop’s sponsors did not provide follow-up support to market any baskets they made.  Since there was a new spark to this enterprise, Michael thought that this would be a propitious time to connect with these budding artisans.

Due to our late start from Mazan, we didn’t get into Nueva Vida in Shebaco’s peque-peque (motor canoe) until well after dark.  After setting up our tents in our host’s main room and a quick supper of tuna fish and crackers, we went to sleep.  My visit began in earnest the next morning by meeting almost the whole community.  I spoke no Maijuna beyond my nickname, but showing and discussing a video of our handicraft project with other artisans quickly established a common language dealing with chambira palm fiber and other plants used in making woven crafts.  There was no doubt they could make the kind of baskets we wanted, but it took a patient dialogue to sort through which dye plants they had available to make certain colors and which colors we should avoid using in our initial designs unless we wanted to provide artificial dyes from the city.  Our discussion about pricing for the baskets was uncomfortable for a time because their scale was different than other villages we have bought similar products from.

While the Maijuna were all familiar with the basic uses of copal resin – burning it for light or boiling it to caulk their canoes, they were fascinated to see and hear the stories about the intimate relationships that copal resin exuding from the trees has with various weevils, flies, ants and bees.  For two days I accompanied Shebaco and rotating four-man teams from Nueva Vida to search for copal.  We had most luck finding large fresh lumps on trees on or near the tops of little hills and spent the other half of our time slogging through swampy low lying areas.  Harvesting a lump was sometimes as simple as cutting it off with a machete at chest height.  A team member lashed his machete to a pole and thrust the blade under lumps that were attached to the trunk ten to twenty feet from the ground.  In a few cases, a spry Maijuna wrangled his way up a nearby small tree or vine to get at some lumps that were twice as high.  Two men tried to catch the dislodged lumps below (in Tulio’s long-sleeve shirt the first day and an old cassava carrying bag on the second) while trying to keep dry resin bits from falling in their eyes.

The teams quickly adopted our protocol of not harvesting small fresh resin lumps so the weevils inside them could mature and stimulate more resin lumps in the future.  They also understood that while they could take old black lumps back to their homes to stoke cooking fires, the dry odorless lumps were not worth distilling because they had lost most of their essential oil.  We collected GPS points at all of the trees to aid in finding these trees again in five or six years and combine them with satellite landscape data to help identify other good sites for finding copal trees in more distant Maijuna forest areas. 

Other highlights of my time in Nueva Vida included fishing with Shebaco and Everest and meeting Elena, an artisan who had woven a beautiful river dolphin as a sample keychain.  After Tulio talked with her, I commissioned her on the spot to make fifteen more as Christmas tree ornaments.  I was impressed that Tulio was able to sincerely engage with people who are understandably often very shy in this situation to become comfortable enough to share something about their craft making and other aspects of their lives.  In the final hours of light, I was very happy to reach an agreement with the president of the artisan association about making an initial batch of baskets for us. 

Our Nueva Vida hosts were accepting if circumspect in sharing their evaluation of our visit with us.  Every community in this region has had multiple experiences with visitors from various groups coming in to pitch one project or another – many of which lack follow-up or don’t go well for other reasons so I understand why they temper their enthusiasm for a new venture until it proves worthwhile.  I already felt a bond with Shebaco, but I was encouraged that several people from Nueva Vida asked me one and only one simple question: “When are you coming back?”  So the dance has begun.  I hope to see thirty beautiful baskets in three weeks as the next step.

Back in Iquitos, our project manager Yully set herself to the task right away of distilling the resin collected at Nueva Vida.  It was great to learn that it shared the highest yield of essential oil we have produced so far from any region.  Analyzing a sample of it will help determine its composition and commercial potential.  If these aspects prove positive as well, the next step will be to formulate a management plan to guide the development of this local enterprise in the years to come.

Campbell Plowden and Shebaco at Maijuna festival
Campbell Plowden and Shebaco at Maijuna festival
Michael Gilmore examining Maijuna resource map
Michael Gilmore examining Maijuna resource map
Maijuna artisans of Nueva Vida
Maijuna artisans of Nueva Vida
Maijuna leader at FECONAMAI congress in 2009
Maijuna leader at FECONAMAI congress in 2009
Statue of traditional Maijuna with earlobe disks
Statue of traditional Maijuna with earlobe disks
Maijuna shaman sleeping by copal resin flame
Maijuna shaman sleeping by copal resin flame
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin at Nueva Vida
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin at Nueva Vida
Maijuna boy tossing copal resin down from trunk
Maijuna boy tossing copal resin down from trunk
Maijuna harvesting resin with machete on pole
Maijuna harvesting resin with machete on pole
Yully Rojas measuring copal tree with Maijuna team
Yully Rojas measuring copal tree with Maijuna team
Shebaco collecting copal oil from distilled resin
Shebaco collecting copal oil from distilled resin
Maijuna artisan Elena and river dolphin ornament
Maijuna artisan Elena and river dolphin ornament
Discussing basket design with Maijuna artisan
Discussing basket design with Maijuna artisan
Maijuna design chambira basket
Maijuna design chambira basket
Maijuna boy in boat
Maijuna boy in boat

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