Grow Amazon artisan income & Peru rainforest trees

 
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Oct 9, 2014

Learning to work together in the right way

Most effective artisan group at Brillo Nuevo 2014
Most effective artisan group at Brillo Nuevo 2014

Dear Friend of the Amazon,

When I sit down to write an update about our project, I normally tell our supporters a brief story about a person or a topic that highlights some recent success.  GlobalGiving has inspired me, however, to enter its Fail Forward contest with a story about a few big challenges and failures we have faced working with our native artisan partners in Peru.

I visited Bora, Huitoto and Ocaina native villages along the Ampiyacu River in northern Peru for the first time in June 2008 to see if they would like to work with my new organization to develop and sell handicrafts and other value-added non-timber products from the rainforest.   After traveling down the Amazon River for a full day by boat, I arrived in Puca Urquillo for a meeting set to form an association to promote handicraft sales from artisans in the 14 communities in the region.   The representative of the NGO that organized the gathering enthusiastically told the artisans that getting better organized and improving the quality of their crafts could greatly increase their sales and income.  I followed up with a pitch about the modest success that CACE had had selling woven crafts and jewelry made by campesino artisans from the Ucayali River.  Without further discussion, the moderator called for nominations from the floor for the group’s first officers.  He then asked the artisans to come up to a dirty white board one at a time and put a mark by the name of their preferred candidate.  In this open style of democracy, four popular artisans from the largest villages were duly elected.

When I returned to the Ampiyacu the next year to begin our project, the artisans from Brillo Nuevo complained that the association president from Puca Urquillo had not helped them, visited them or even convened a meeting.  I was a bit disappointed but not surprised that the venture was stillborn since it was launched more by an energetic consultant than the artisans and lacked follow-up.  While I thought the regional association was premature, I was sure CACE could help the Brillo Nuevo artisans build a strong village level association.

In late 2009, we got enough funding to hire a very capable project manager, Yully Rojas, to visit this Bora community way up the Yaguasyacu River once a month.  Artisans were initially enthusiastic about working with us because we encouraged their creativity and bought most of the new types of crafts they produced.  For the first year we worked very well with Felicita, the young “leader” of the Brillo Nuevo artisans who was talented, articulate, and respected enough by her peers to pull them together for a meeting or informal skill-sharing session at her house.   

We were able to sell some snake-pattern belts designed by the artisans in the second year of the project, but this initial success stalled when we asked them to make more of the most popular models.  The women were used to making bags and hammocks one at a time to sell to tourist shops in the city.  The artisans who had made beautiful prototypes couldn’t replicate them because they had forgotten the original design or changed the colors because they didn’t have the same dye plants around.  Less experienced artisans who made belts with dirty chambira, faded colors, and uneven edges got mad when we told them we couldn’t pay them for poor quality crafts that we couldn’t sell.

Later that year I spent some time with the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme in the Philippines and found that many of the artisan groups they worked with in south and southeast Asia had successfully established quality-control committees to enhance their enterprises.  Committee members were helping their fellow artisans improve their skills and building strong reputations with their buyers by inspecting crafts made by their members and only shipping items that met design specifications.

This system seemed like a great way to empower Ampiyacu artisans to improve the consistency and quality of their crafts for the export market.  I presented the idea to the artisans from Brillo Nuevo in 2011, and they elected three veteran weavers to form a quality control committee as part of their village artisan association.  They also liked CACE’s proposal to give certificates and prizes to the most productive artisans as an additional incentive to improve their quality.

A year later it seemed that all of these ideas had failed because I had assumed that the artisans enjoyed a high level of trust between each other.  The artisan Felicita who had inspired her colleagues to work together had left the village with her husband.  Her aunt Monica had offered her fellow artisans what she thought were helpful suggestions about ways they could improve their weaving techniques but resigned from the quality control committee after being harshly told by an artisan in a different family to mind her own business.   When we gave out the certificates and prizes for the first time, the evening was marked by awkward silence and no supportive cheers.  The only thing we did that improved the mood was passing around large bottles of bubblegum flavor soda.  After the gathering, one top-honored artisan told me that she and her sisters were going to stop making crafts for us because their success had generated way too many hurtful expressions of jealousy.

It finally became apparent that the lines of tension between the artisans reflected similar divisions of families that attended two churches and routinely argued in community assemblies.  Encounters between one woman who was almost always laughing and another who was steadfastly calm could erupt into intense verbal clashes if they started discussing differences over land rights in their adjoining fields going back a generation.   I met with several artisan leaders from “both sides” including Ines and Angelina and feared for a time that both groups would stop working with us.  I then met with most of the artisans again the day before I left the village and apologized that our initiatives seemed to be causing more harm than good.  The artisans agreed that the quality control committee hadn’t worked, but I was surprised that they really wanted to keep receiving the certificates and prizes – we would only award prizes in the future, though, for achievements that we could document like craft sales.  Asking the artisans to choose a prize for a more subjective honor like “the artisan who has been the most supportive” would only accentuate their factionalism.  Gisela added, “I don’t like it when Sra. Yully doesn’t accept one of my crafts that I have worked hard on, but getting this feedback has really helped me improve my craftmaking.”  Most of the artisans nodded in agreement.  They then asked me if CACE could provide refreshments for their Christmas party.  I said that we would do this if they showed that they could get along with each other.

The next year we were able to buy a greater variety of handicrafts from the artisans in Brillo Nuevo and formed partnerships with artisans from four new native communities along the Ampiyacu.  We knew we could sell even more crafts to benefit artisan families if we could expand our sales beyond friendly church craft fairs.  The artisans were getting along better, but they still didn’t work together effectively enough to fill wholesale orders for businesses.

We were planning to organize skill-sharing workshops in partner villages last year to help artisans better make specific types of crafts.  The Field Museum of Chicago, however, invited us to help them develop and lead a series of interactive workshops in Puca Urquillo and Brillo Nuevo focused on process instead of products.  The three part “tool-kit” was designed to help artisans improve their skills with communication, leadership, organization, planning and sustainability.  They played games, role-played dealing with buyers, and drew pictures of chambira palm trees they would plant to replenish their fiber for woven crafts.  They formed mock companies that competed to make as many woven bracelets of the same design as they could in five minutes.  They examined their results, talked about how to do it better, and went again.  They worked hard, laughed hard, and enjoyed being together.  We saw that these artisans had both a deep desire and capacity to learn new skills.  They wanted to sell more crafts to better support their families, and they wanted to gain the confidence and pride of creating quality work.

The other critical lesson we learned during these workshops was that these women were best prepared to learn, cooperate and have fun when they took on challenges with the same small group of close friends and family members they shared their daily lives with.  After the workshops, we began dividing up orders for crafts between these natural small groups or mini-associations.  One group for example might be responsible for weaving ten hot pads of the same model in one month and organizing work parties to plant chambira palms in each other’s fields.   A few artisans are still intent on working solo, but most are embracing or are at least trying to share their skills and be mutually accountable to the people they care for the most.  My favorite part of this summer’s artisan award ceremony was giving some fishing line and hooks, a notebook, pens and a cap to Casilda, Dalila, Dolores, Lidaberna  and Ortensia whose group completed the total number of quality crafts requested on time for three months in a row.

The artisans of Brillo Nuevo or other villages may eventually want to form functional associations to represent their community and maybe join together in a regional one, but I trust that they will know when the time is right.  Our job is to respect and support their organic process, culture and vision.              

Thank you very much for your support for our project.  Visit our page on GlobalGiving at www.AmazonAlive.net to get more information or make a donation.  Please remember that Wednesday, October 15 is the last Bonus Day of the year.  Any online contributions made early enough in the day will receive a 30% match from GlobalGiving.   

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden
Project Leader and Executive Director
Center for Amazon Community Ecology 
Bora artisan with woven chambira fiber placemats
Bora artisan with woven chambira fiber placemats
Artisans drawing chambira palms at workshop.
Artisans drawing chambira palms at workshop.
Weaving a chambira anaconda style guitar strap
Weaving a chambira anaconda style guitar strap
Artisan with woven chambira water bottle carrier
Artisan with woven chambira water bottle carrier
Artisan "train" at leadership workshop
Artisan "train" at leadership workshop
Most effective artisan group in Brillo Nuevo 2014
Most effective artisan group in Brillo Nuevo 2014

Links:

Sep 15, 2014

The art of weaving chambira palm fiber in the Peruvian Amazon and CACE's approach to innovation

Bora artisan drying chambira (1) Plowden/CACE
Bora artisan drying chambira (1) Plowden/CACE

Tourists visiting Iquitos, the gateway city to the northern Peruvian Amazon, buy a fair amount of bags and hammocks woven from the fiber of the chambira palm tree.  The women artisans who harvest its long spear-like leaves covered with long sharp spines to weave these items get paid relatively little for their painstaking labor because there are so many others in remote villages doing the same thing.

CACE’s basic goal in working with native villages along the Ampiyacu and other forest-based communities in the region is to help its people improve their livelihoods by creating and selling value-added forest products including innovative handicrafts and essential oils.  We need to advance this work along three paths in step-wise fashion.   1. Support artisans to make interesting and quality crafts, 2. Help artisans market these crafts, 3. Support artisans to harvest the plants used to make the crafts in a sustainable way.  As craft sales grow, we need to help train more artisans and increase the supply of plants to meet anticipated demand.

The new kinds of crafts that our partner artisans have made from chambira fiber and other local plants in past years has included: belts, guitar straps, hat bands, bracelets, hair barrettes, bags, coin purses, cell phone carriers, holiday tree ornaments, and hot pads.  We have been selling most of these crafts at presentations, craft fairs, conferences with a growing amount also being sold online and through retail shops.  As opportunities to sell more crafts increases, we have facilitated skill-sharing between artisans and worked with them to assess the abundance of chambira in their fields.

This summer, our Peruvian interns Cindy and Jill accompanied several artisans including Dolores, Lucila, and Casilda through every stage of the craft-making process so we could document and better understand how much time and materials were involved in harvesting the plants and making different types of finished handicrafts.  An artisan (or sometimes her husband) begins this process by walking from her home to one of her “purmas” (fallow farm-field) where chambira palms have either grown through natural regeneration or were intentionally planted.  She first cuts a medium age “cogollo” (a spiny medium age leaf that looks like a spear) with a machete or pruning saw (provided by CACE to reduce damage to non-target leaves).  The artisan vigorously shakes the spear to unfurl the dozens of leaflets and then pulls them off of the central stem.  She will tie these in a bundle and then harvest more cogollos from other trees if she has a big project.

In the village, I marveled at the foot dexterity of Dolores as she secured the base of one leaflet at a time between two toes and then used her fingers to snap the top of the leaflet and then peel the fibers away from it.  The remainder includes the stiff core and the “bagassa” (waste part).  It can easily take several hours to remove the fibers from a big batch.  Dolores next boiled the fibers in her house and then cleaned and washed it from her dugout canoe in the river and finally draped the strands of over a clothes line to dry for two days.  She came by a couple of times during this time to comb out the stray fluffy pieces.  When the chambira is sun dry, artisans collect other plants to dye the fiber into as many colors as needed for the craft they plan to make.  These parts may include the leaves, fruits, roots, seeds, or bark of a dozen plants that may be available during different times of the year.  The dye plant parts are usually mashed or grinded and then put into a pot with a batch of chambira to boil for five to ten minutes.  The colored chambira is then hung in her house in the shade to dry.  Sometimes the chambira is then soaked again in river mud to deepen and perhaps fix the color (acting like a natural mordant).   Twining comes next.  There are no spinning wheels here so the artisans take one or more fine strands of chambira fiber and rub them up and down their thigh to twist them into long strong threads of the proper thickness.   (Warning to curious researchers and tourists – this is painful for people who have hair on their legs to attempt).  The final stage is to weave the fibers into whatever craft the artisan wishes to make.  It can take anywhere from half a day to a full week to complete one item.

When we compared the weights and prices of a wide variety of crafts, we made some important discoveries.  The artisans were making about $5.18 per cogollo of chambira harvested and processed for making and selling a typical bag and only $1.48 per cogollo for an average hammock sold to a tourist shop in Iquitos (not including their cost of travel to and from the city).  In contrast, they were making $11.85 per cogollo for making a hot pad and $13.33 per cogollo for making a guitar strap they sold to CACE in their village.  The implications of these data for the forest and the artisans were already becoming clear.  Since it takes 5 to 10 cogollos to make one hammock, artisans have spent lots of time making a product that offers little compensation and making lots of hammocks leads to harvesting chambira at a faster rate than it takes to grow back.  These results also make our mission equally clear.  Training more artisans to make the higher-value products will generate more income for the artisans and use the chambira resource much more sparingly.

Dolores summed up her feelings about this situation in simpler terms – “I like making hot pads for CACE because it’s more profitable than making a hammock and uses a lot less chambira.  It’s a much easier way for me to help take care of my family.”

Thank you very much for your support for our project.  We would particularly welcome contributions on the upcoming GlobalGiving Bonus Day on October 15 when donations made early in the day will receive a 30% match.  Visit our GlobalGiving page at: www.AmazonAlive.net.

Artisan stripping chambira leaflets. Plowden/CACE
Artisan stripping chambira leaflets. Plowden/CACE
Artisan removing chambira fiber. Plowden/CACE
Artisan removing chambira fiber. Plowden/CACE
Artisan washing chambira fiber. Plowden/CACE
Artisan washing chambira fiber. Plowden/CACE
Artisan drying chambira fiber. Plowden/CACE
Artisan drying chambira fiber. Plowden/CACE
Artisan grating fruit pod dye. Plowden/CACE
Artisan grating fruit pod dye. Plowden/CACE
Artisan weaving guitar strap. Plowden/CACE
Artisan weaving guitar strap. Plowden/CACE
Bora Artisan weaving hammock. Plowden/CACE
Bora Artisan weaving hammock. Plowden/CACE
Artisan with woven chambira hot pad. Plowden/CACE
Artisan with woven chambira hot pad. Plowden/CACE

Links:

Jun 13, 2014

A vision for rosewood oil & rare tree recovery

Robin van Loon and Bora rosewood planting team
Robin van Loon and Bora rosewood planting team

Dear Friend of the Amazon,

I'd like to begin this report with a story about a man named Oscar Flores who we have worked with since the beginning of our project in the Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo in Peru.  Oscar was a young boy when his father brought his family and half a dozen rosewood tree seedlings from the jungle up the Putamayo River near Colombia to a growing Bora native settlement on the Yaguasyacu River in Peru.  Oscar fondly remembers growing up with the pleasant aroma of those trees that his dad planted in front of their new house.   Sixty years later one lone rosewood tree had grown to maturity in the patch of forest that grew back after Oscar moved his own family several miles downriver to the community of Brillo Nuevo. 

In the summer of 2012, Oscar led a CACE team back to this rosewood tree to collect some leaves and branches we could distill to make a trial batch of essential oil.  While it now lay in the domain of a neighboring village, tradition allowed Oscar free rights to use it.  The fragrance of those first oil samples was wonderful, but climbing one tall tree to get branches was cumbersome and it would not produce enough seedlings to create even a small essential oil enterprise in a reasonable amount of time.

We asked all of our partner communities if any of them had rosewood we could collect seeds from, but only one fellow said he knew about one tree in the forest of a friend.  We soon learned that this variety of rosewood was not only uncommon in the Ampiyacu - it had been virtually eradicated throughout the Amazon because generations of harvesters had cut down thousands of trees to make oil from their entire trunks or make fine furniture from its timber.  We knew we could make good quality oil by harvesting a modest amount of leaves and branches; with help we could help reestablish the endangered rosewood tree in the Amazon.        

With support from the Marjorie Grant Whiting Center, CACE collaborated with fellow GlobalGiving organization Camino Verde to bring 900 rosewood seedlings raised in a government nursery to Brillo Nuevo in early 2013.  Five families were selected in a village lottery to plant a share of these in a forest plot under the guidance of CV’s director and reforestation expert Robin van Loon.  Since then CACE has used part of its project funds provided by GlobalGiving donors to monitor the progress of these seedlings every three months with local Bora men.  They have witnessed the challenges that the young trees have faced getting established including intense heat, hungry grasshoppers and an unknown whitish fungus.  This monitoring is now done by the five plot owners so they can receive some compensation for their time weeding and tending the young trees until the survivors grow large enough to sustain a modest harvest of leaves and branches.

Most of these owners including Oscar have been diligent stewards of their young rosewoods.  One fellow whose plot was getting overgrown during long absences from the village has now turned over control of his share to his nephew who has been enthusiastic about the venture from the start. One owner commented to our project manager Yully – “I am excited that these rosewood trees may generate some income for my family in a couple of years.  It’s great that I can now try to enrich the forest around here with these beautiful trees that will be valuable for my life and the lives of my children.”

We have recently bought a stainless steel distiller and Patriot shredder to process copal oil and leaves of other aromatic plants like rosewood.  The still was hand-made by Heart Magic in Oregon and after some bumps along the way, the equipment finally got to Iquitos.  Dealing with the shipper, airline, customs, and customs broker gave us a crash course in the art and frustrations related to international shipping, but these lessons will help us advance from conducting experimental level harvesting and distillations to taking the first steps of creating a small essential oil enterprise with our Ampiyacu native partners and other villages in the region.

I have just arrived in Peru and look forward to getting a lot done in the next seven weeks.  We will set up the distiller in a house in Iquitos that we now share with Project Amazonas – another partner NGO that supports health care and conservation with native and campesino communities in the region.  Robin van Loon from Camino Verde will return to Brillo Nuevo with us to check on the young rosewood trees first hand with the plot owners.  This summer, we hope to begin collecting and processing batches of copal resin from several current and new partner villages.

We also plan to return to the town of Tamshiyacu to partner with a forest farmer to collect and process some leaves and branches from rosewood trees on their land.   These trees were planted twelve years ago in a government project, but they stopped maintaining them for easy leaf harvest when the project was aborted before it reached the commercial stage.  We hope that working with this community will teach us a lot about growing and pruning rosewood trees as well as making and selling its oil abroad.   We will then have solid experience to apply to do similar work with our partners in Brillo Nuevo families once their young rosewood trees reach harvestable size.  The vision beyond that is not to create acres and acres of rosewood plantations.  It is to integrate rosewood trees into the natural flow of traditional Bora agroforestry and in so doing help promote the recovery of this magnificent Amazon native from near extinction.

Thank you for your interest and support for this project.  To donate to it on GlobalGiving, please visit: www.AmazonAlive.net.

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden

Executive Director - CACE

Separating rosewood oil during distillation
Separating rosewood oil during distillation
New distiller and shredder in Iquitos, Peru
New distiller and shredder in Iquitos, Peru
Carrying rosewood seedlings in canoe to field
Carrying rosewood seedlings in canoe to field
Oscar and Bora team collecting rosewood leaves
Oscar and Bora team collecting rosewood leaves
Measuring rosewood seedling growth at Brillo Nuevo
Measuring rosewood seedling growth at Brillo Nuevo

Links:

Mar 26, 2014

Strengthening artisan skills and cooperation with Ampiyacu native communities (Report #6)

Artisan teambuilding exercise at Pucaurquillo
Artisan teambuilding exercise at Pucaurquillo

Dear GlobalGiving donor,

Thank you very much for your support of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology project to create sustainable livelihoods and conserve rainforests in the northern Peruvian Amazon.  We have our special ways of helping native artisans develop innovative handicrafts and produce fragrant oils from aromatic rainforest trees, but our success also depends on forming partnerships with other groups who share our overall goals of promoting forest conservation and creating sustainable livelihoods in native and campesino communities.

CACE began working early this year with the Science and Education department of The Field Museum of Chicago to implement “Quality of Life Plans” with native communities in the Ampiyacu River region.  The core of this collaboration is co-leading a three-part series of workshops with artisans in Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo.  These experiential sessions will help them develop their personal skills and ability to work together to improve their natural resource management, craft-making and craft selling.  TFM and CACE will also co-produce resource materials for the artisans and lead follow-up activities to implement goals that emerge from the workshops. 

These workshops are off to a good start.  CACE Project Manager Yully Rojas and TFM staff have completed the first and second modules in Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo and will finish module 3 by the end of next month.  Below are the main topics in each workshop.

Module 1: Leadership, Organization and Planning.  This workshop includes team play, identifying how artisans plant and process chambira palm for making handicrafts, and drafting plans for small groups to work together to meet craft production goals. 

Module 2:  Trust, Communication and Control. The workshop goal is to build trust among artisans in the group to promote clear communication so they can improve the management and supply of natural resources used in making crafts, create their own mechanisms to control the quality of crafts, and establish transparency in financial management.

Module 3: Decision Making and Sustainability. The goal of this workshop is to encourage artisans to consider trade-offs and consequences of decisions they make regarding the harvest of chambira and dye plants.  They will elaborate different strategies to create a sustainable supply of these raw materials needed to make and sell handicrafts.

The topics are serious, but the mood of the 15 to 20 women who have participated in each session has been focused and lively.  We’ve often seen our Bora and Murui friends like Camila and Alejandrina engaged in daily chores like weeding their gardens, cooking fish, and weaving bags.  During the workshops, it was great to see them having fun and engaged with each other doing a trust lift, coloring distinct patterns on paper cut-outs of fish, and translating their intimate knowledge of chambira harvesting and weaving into a collective plan to meet an order for handicrafts.

Milda from Puca Urquillo summed up her experience of the workshops.  “I didn’t realize how much I already know about many of these things.  My mother and I have sold candies, meals and crafts from our home for a few years now.  I think our group can get better organized to make better and sell more crafts.

The workshop prompted another artisan, Rosa, to comment, “I’ve been buying most of the chambira fiber I use to weave bags from other villages since we don’t have many of these trees left in my family’s “purma” (fallow farm field). It’s expensive, and the “cogollos” sometimes have little dark blotches on them.   I now think we should replant these here so we can harvest and prepare the “cogollos” (unopened leaf spears) carefully ourselves when we need them.”  

When the workshops are over, CACE and our partner will continue to work with our artisan partners and communities to help them implement the chambira management and cooperative craft production plans they have drawn up in the modules.  One big lesson from these workshops for us has been realizing that our earlier attempt to work with all of the artisans from a large community together was going against the cultural grain.  We hope that mutual trust will grow within the whole group over time, but it’s important for us to recognize that most artisans are most comfortable planting, harvesting, and weaving within their extended family groups.  They are more likely to accept help and feedback from a relative and confidant than someone they may still view as a competitor.       

Please check out our newest video Supporting native artisans of the Peruvian Amazon and photo essays about two important craft plants: Achiote – a dye plant for fiber, food and faces and Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) plants and chambira fiber dyeing. 

Coming up in next report
New essential oil distiller arrives in Peru

Thank you for your past and continued support.  A few more donations to our project will help us graduate from Leader to Superstar status in the GlobalGiving network.  This will give us more opportunities for strategic partnerships and matching funds to assist our partners in Peru.

Campbell Plowden
Executive Director and Project Leader
Center for Amazon Community Ecology 
Craft design exercise at Puca Urquillo workshop
Craft design exercise at Puca Urquillo workshop
Perfecting skill for twisting chambira palm fiber
Perfecting skill for twisting chambira palm fiber
Trust lift exercise at Puca Urquillo
Trust lift exercise at Puca Urquillo
Identifying stages of craft making and marketing
Identifying stages of craft making and marketing
Cooperative craft making exercise
Cooperative craft making exercise

Links:

Dec 26, 2013

Copal - the ecology of an aromatic Amazon resin and novel essential oil. CACE Report #5

Copal resin montage. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE
Copal resin montage. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Dear GlobalGiving donor,

Thank you very much for your support for our project on GlobalGiving.  The main goal of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology is to help people in Amazon native and campesino communities to improve their livelihoods, conserve their forests and enrich their cultural traditions.  We help native artisans develop and sell innovative handicrafts and planted 900 rosewood seedlings to produce fragrant oil from this endangered species in a few years.  CACE’s longest standing effort, however, has been to develop a novel oil from the aromatic resin of copal trees.    

Copal is the common name for more than 40 species of trees in the family Burseraceae in the Amazon and other parts of Latin America.  The best known members of this family are frankincense and myrrh, but New World societies going back to the Mayans also burned copal resin for incense. 

People in Central America make cuts into copal trunks to collect the resin that drips from the wounds.  Forest peoples in the Amazon, however, collect resin lumps from trees that have been attacked by bark-boring weevils and use the sticky material to caulk their wooden boats.  CACE is one of the first groups to explore distilling the resin into fragrant essential oil as a more valuable non-timber forest product that could be a more sustainable source of income than activities like unregulated logging, hunting game animals and cash-crop agriculture that burns forests.          

We began studying the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal in 2006 at Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River by measuring how much resin could be collected from 30 species.  Since then we have been monitoring resin recovery and learning how different insects are connected to this little copal resin ecosystem.  (See our video: Use and insect ecology of copal resin in the Peruvian Amazon).

Every few months project manager Angel Raygada and field assistant Italo Melendez visit several hundred study trees in the government run field station and take digital photos of every resin lump.  These observations have given us a rich glimpse into the lives of these fascinating weevils.  Their life cycle begins when a pair mates on a copal tree, and the female places her eggs into tiny holes in the bark.  When a larva hatches and chews into the inner bark to feed, it also cuts through canals carrying resin up and down the trunk.  This resin usually repels attackers, these highly-specialized beetles manipulate the exuding resin into a lump with a chamber that protects them as they mature.

Italo has made and refined a series of traps with wire mesh, old soda bottles and inner tubes to catch adult weevils emerging from their lumps so we can better understand the animals responsible for stimulating resin flow.  Checking these traps three times a week during successive rainy and dry seasons has shown us that it takes two to three years for a resin weevil to fully develop.  As Angel has analyzed thousands of photos, we have learned that different weevils make distinct forms of resin lumps including irregular moonscape blobs, grapefruit size hemispheres, and golf-ball size lumps containing a resin honeycomb.  This work is also letting us know how many years the trees (and weevils) need to rest before resin lumps could be harvested again.

Our study has also shown us that many other insects use copal resin.  Italo spends one day a month observing bees on copal trees to learn how important copal is to these major rainforest pollinators.  He has seen black and striped stingless bees collecting resin to build nests for their colonies in hollow trees, iridescent green and gold orchid bees harvesting copal to make their solitary nests, and bumble-bee sized male “ronsapas” courting females perched on resin lumps.  Syrphid fly larvae sometimes burrow through gooey resin lumps where they feed on microbial spores.  We have also found diverse ants, spiders, millipedes, and scorpions roaming through dry resin lump chambers in search of food or a place to raise their young.  Italo came to us with a savvy knowledge of the forest; working with us has taught him how to record detailed measurements in ways he never learned in his schooling that ended after 8th grade.  

We extended our copal surveys to the village of Brillo Nuevo in 2009.  Since we’ve learned from our studies at Jenaro Herrera that it takes at least five years for resin lumps to recover after all of them are removed, we limited our experimental harvest in the Ampiyacu region to half of the lumps on any tree.  We have now begun our second year of monitoring copal study tree and are pleased to see a good number of new and growing resin lumps on them.  With support for this project through GlobalGiving, many young Bora native men are learning to study their own forest resources with techniques and tools including climbing trees with a harness, collecting leaves with a pole pruner, orienteering with a compass, mapping with a GPS, measuring trees with a diameter tape, and weighing resin lumps with a digital balance.  (See our video: Sustainable harvest and marketing of copal resin in the Peruvian Amazon).

We have distilled samples of resin from both Jenaro Herrera and the Ampiaycu to try and transform copal from a local resource that’s good for caulking boats into an aromatic oil that native communities can sell as a value-added product.  Essential oil buyers have told us that samples from some species have promise in fine fragrances while others may be more attractive in aromatherapy.  This year we plan to analyze resin composition and resin weevil DNA to learn which species of copal and weevils produce the most and best resin and develop a management plan with the community to harvest it commercially.

Our five gallon copper alembique pot has been good for our experimental distillations of small batches of copal resin and rosewood leaves.  We now need to buy a larger stainless steel distiller to process more plant material and increase oil yield with our community level project. We also need to purchase a grinder to chip branches into little pieces that can be efficiently distilled.  Thanks again for supporting this project through GlobalGiving.  Every donation will help us develop a novel and viable new sustainable enterprise for our partners.

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden

Executive Director and Project Leader
Center for Amazon Community Ecology 
Copal resin lump in sustainability study.  CACE
Copal resin lump in sustainability study. CACE
Collecting copal resin lump from tall tree.  CACE
Collecting copal resin lump from tall tree. CACE
Two weevils and copal resin lumps.  Plowden/CACE
Two weevils and copal resin lumps. Plowden/CACE
Orchid bee collecting copal resin.  Plowden/CACE
Orchid bee collecting copal resin. Plowden/CACE
CACE GPS training with Bora natives. Plowden/CACE
CACE GPS training with Bora natives. Plowden/CACE
Copper alembique distiller. C. Plowden/CACE
Copper alembique distiller. C. Plowden/CACE
Distilling rosewood essential oil. C. Plowden/CACE
Distilling rosewood essential oil. C. Plowden/CACE
Stainless steel distillation unit. Heart Magic
Stainless steel distillation unit. Heart Magic

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Organization

Center for Amazon Community Ecology

State College, Pennsylvania, United States
http://www.amazonecology.org

Project Leader

Campbell Plowden

Dr.
State College, PA United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Grow Amazon artisan income & Peru rainforest trees