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...
Nov 28, 2016

Artisan leaders gather in Nauta to share info, ideas, and fun

Banner photo for Report #20
Banner photo for Report #20

We have organized skill-sharing workshops with native artisans from communities along the Ampiyacu River for seven years to help them learn how to make new crafts from each other.  We have also been working with artisans from other communities in the region, but had avoided mixing these activities so each artisan group could keep control of its unique designs.  After consulting with our partners, though, it seemed they all wanted to learn more about craft making and selling from and with each other.  Meeting the NGO Minga Peru that trains community organizers and supports sustainable economic projects with dozens of communities in Loreto provided the catalyst to launch the Artisan Leadership Program.  The goal of this program is to strengthen the ability of artisan groups to function more effectively through the exchange of information, ideas, and experiences.

We held the first ALP session from Oct. 21-23 at the Minga Peru training center near Nauta – a town that is about two hours from Iquitos on the only road that leaves this city.  The participants included 27 artisans from 13 communities along the Ampiyacu, Marañon, Sucusari, Tahuayo, and Ucayali Rivers.  When I arrived at the center on the eve of the workshop in an intense rainstorm, most of the artisans were settled in their dormitory room.  Even though they had come from distant watersheds, they easily fell into a natural rhythm of sitting of twining chambira fiber on their thighs while a few babies slept nearby.  Yully, Tulio and I stayed up late getting the agenda ready for the next morning.

The first day of the workshop focused on leadership, building trust and improving communication.  We drew heavily from workshops that CACE did two years ago in the Ampiyacu with the Field Museum and activities that I have learned facilitating workshops with the Alternatives to Violence Project.  While many artisans at first didn’t think of themselves as strong leaders if they didn’t feel confident directing others, they quickly began to appreciate that each of them had the potential to use the talents they had to help other artisans or people in their community improve their lives.  Zoraida said, “One time I showed a group of tourists how I use a special leaf to dye chambira fiber a dark red.  Other artisans then decided to show them how they use roots and fruits to make other colors.  We now do this demonstration with all our visitors.”

The artisans learned that the most important way to improve communication is being a good listener.  In an exercise called “hassle lines,” they practiced having a role play-type dialogue with a partner about three potential conflicts: one artisan thought another artisan had taken chambira from her field without asking, one artisan seemed reluctant to teach another artisan how to make a new type of craft, and one artisan felt that another artisan had done a poor job organizing a craft fair.  Angelica commented, “These situations really happen.  I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been involved with one of these where another artisan and I were just yelling at each other.  It was amazing to realize in this exercise that just trying to hear the other person’s point of view helped both of us find a good solution.”

One game that was fun and designed to build trust was called “cars and drivers.”  It started simply when one artisan (the “driver”) put their hands on the shoulders of another artisan (the “car”) and moved them around with the goal of avoiding collisions with other pairs.  This is a real enough scenario in the city of Iquitos where hundreds of motorcars (motorcycle taxis) zip around the streets with only a vague sense of staying in traffic lanes.  The challenge was upped when the “cars” were asked to close their eyes and trust their drivers to keep them safe.  Lety said, “It was a bit scary walking around without being able to see.  I put my arms out in front of me just in case, but we didn’t bump into anything.  I know that the other artisans in my village and I need to be able to count on each other.  This is going to take some time since we are so used to do everything by ourselves.”

Just after sunrise on the second day, I wandered out to the vista beyond the "tambo" (open conical meeting house with thatched roof) to enjoy seeing the mist hanging over the Maranon River.  Two artisans from Puca Urquillo sat on a bench twining chambira.  Alejandrina commented, “This is really pretty here.  I’ve never been this far from home.”

The theme of the day was product development and quality control.  The session began by asking an artisan from each community to briefly share the history of craft making in their area.  We had allocated half an hour, but it took a full two hours to complete the “short” versions around the circle.  In the case of Chino, a key starting point was forming a relationship with the owner of an eco-tourism lodge who wanted to be able to bring her clients to the nearby village to get an authentic feeling for the lives of Amazonian rural people and buy some locally made handicrafts.  In a few places, CACE figured prominently into the narrative.  Nora, then, Mily, then Doilith all made a reference to me saying something like “it’s very nice, but I’m not going to buy it” coupled with a statement that insisting they improve their quality was often frustrating but valuable.  In the two most remote communities in the Marañon where CACE had not yet visited, Melodia y Maria lamented, “we’ve been making crafts for a few years now, but we don’t sell much. We haven’t had the benefit of anyone coming here to teach us or give constructive feedback.”

Normally artisans put out their crafts on tables to sell to tourists.  This fair (“feria”), however, was done just for artisans to share their work with each other.  Jheny from Amazonas asked Ania from Brillo Nuevo how she tightly wove the coral snake pattern guitar strap. Dora and Doilith from Jenaro Herrera closely examined a woven ornament made by Luz from San Francisco trying to figure out how she had fashioned the life-size figure of a songbird.  You could almost see light bulbs going off above Liz’s head as she held the multi-colored baskets made by Madita and Estelita from Chino.

After the feria we had an open discussion about the inspiration for new products and patterns for handicrafts and how different buyers have different needs and preferred styles.  Sources included animals from nature, native culture, ideas from customers, and adaptations of practical items.  We next brainstormed a list of ways that artisans learned their crafts.  The traditional way was learning from a mother, but not all artisans had had this opportunity so they had to learn from other artisans one way or another.  Attending a CACE workshop had been important for artisans in the Ampiyacu, and all artisans appreciated seeing draft pages from our resource manual that provided a detailed description of the craft and videos where an experienced artisan explained step by step how she made a particular model.

The exercises that followed were challenging. Working in small groups, the artisans first needed to design a new model of handicraft.  This included preparing a life-size drawing that showed the dimensions, pattern and colors of the craft, and presenting it to a potential buyer.  Two groups designed nice looking simple bags while one group did a round hot pad.  After a break for a game called “Crocodiles and frogs,” another set of small groups had to prepare paper replicas of a woven cell-phone holder whose dimensions, pattern and colors were written on a white board.    We asked each group to do its own evaluation of its products before showing them to the “buyer.”  We awarded 20 points for each item that met the specifications and took 10 points off for each item submitted whose quality fell short.  At the end of the first round, only one group had a positive score while the other two had either zero or a negative score.  What we observed was that the “groups” did not function at all as groups since individuals struggled on their own to complete the task.   Jasmina summed up what seemed to be true for many of them.  She admitted, “I didn’t know how to use the tape measure well, but I was too shy to ask for help from anyone else.”  In the second round, the groups did better.  One or two people in each group either took responsibility for doing all of the measurements while others colored or the knowledgeable ones helped others in their group learn how to use the tape measure better.

This theme was carried over to the third and final day which focused on working together in teams.  First, a small group was asked to prepare a work plan for how to comply with an order for several types of crafts.  This included estimating how much raw material (ie chambira palm fiber) they would need to harvest and process to make the crafts, how much and what sort of dye plants they would need to make the colored fibers, which people in their group would make each of the crafts according to their knowledge of those models and what dates they would set for their internal quality control and delivery to the buyer.

This planning exercise was expanded into a multi-stage project called “Build a giant heron.”  Materials including different lengths of PVC tubes, tube joints, electrical tape, colored string, and balloons.  These were available for “sale” in a store.  Each group asked to design and build a large heron with supplies they purchased from the store with a certain amount of “money.” At the end of the time, each bird would be offered at auction to three high-end “buyers” so their goal was to maximize their profit by building the most attractive bird.  It was wonderful to watch the creative dynamic that followed as each group built, tested, and rebuilt (as birds kept falling over) their structures and added colorful touches to enhance their aesthetic appeal.  Mariela said, “When we started this activity, I didn’t think it was possible.  It seemed ridiculous to try building a five-foot-tall heron from some bits of plastic and tape.  When we finished, I felt so proud of what the other women and I had created.  It was beautiful!  I now feel confident that my group back home can create many new kinds of crafts that we never imagined before.”

One of the final activities of the day was brainstorming topics for future workshops.  They included marketing techniques, forming and managing artisan associations, basic accounting, conflict resolution, and natural resource management.  All participants were enthusiastic about coming back to share more with their new friends.  We now need to raise the funds to make this happen.

Thank you all for your support of this project.  We would especially appreciate donations on Tuesday, November 29 when contributions up to $1000 per person made online will be eligible to receive a 50% match thanks to a $500,000 grant to GlobalGiving from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The matching funds will be awarded on a first-come first-serve basis starting at 12:01 am on Nov. 29.  The matching period will close at 11:50 pm that night, but please make your contribution as early in the morning as possible since they frequently get awarded rather quickly. 

Artisans twining chambira fiber at CACE workshop
Artisans twining chambira fiber at CACE workshop
Car and driver trust game at CACE workshop
Car and driver trust game at CACE workshop
Artisans in front of "tambo minga" training center
Artisans in front of "tambo minga" training center
Artisan craft sharing fair: woven guitar straps
Artisan craft sharing fair: woven guitar straps
Artisan craft sharing fair: ornaments & baskets
Artisan craft sharing fair: ornaments & baskets
Crocodiles and frogs game
Crocodiles and frogs game
Group designing new model of woven hot pad
Group designing new model of woven hot pad
Quality control exercise at CACE workshop
Quality control exercise at CACE workshop
Artisan group making giant heron at CACE workshop
Artisan group making giant heron at CACE workshop

Links:

Sep 12, 2016

Exploring egrets and new partners on the Maranon River

Montage of egret ornaments and artisans
Montage of egret ornaments and artisans

Earlier this year I learned about a group with a kindred spirit called Minga Peru that also works with native communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon.  It began by hosting a radio program to educate people in rural areas about health issues.  It then expanded its work to include training women to be “promotoras” (advocates) who can share information and promote better health, education and economic activities in their communities.  Minga Peru has provided some support for a few food production and forestry projects with several partners in the Maranon River region that borders the reknown Pacaya-Samiria conservation area.  It has also worked with the Lindblad tour company to bring groups of tourists to visit four of these communities on a rotating basis.  These visits could generate significant income for artisans in these villages, but Minga Peru co-director Luiz G. readily admitted, “We don’t have the expertise to help these artisans – perhaps you can work with us to do this.”

After meeting with Minga Peru’s director of operations in Loreto, I took an early morning van from Iquitos to Nauta – the only stretch of paved highway that emanates from Peru’s principal Amazonian city.  MP local coordinator Edwin A. then took us by boat to Amazonas – a Cucama native village with about 100 families where we met the local “promotora” Zoraida.  One of her duties included taking care of the short-wave radio and public address system in her house so residents could be given important news, called to a meeting or communicate with someone outside the village.  After giving us a quick tour of the fish pond, she escorted us to an open wall structure where a dozen women from the Palosangre artisan association were busy mashing, slicing and scraping fruits, roots, leaves and bark.  They added these bits into pots of boiling water with hanks of chambira palm fiber to dye them a wide range of earth tone and other colors.

The artisans seemed used to showing these activities to visitors who would wander around while they continued to chat among themselves.  As I asked them about the names and uses and mixtures of plants with citrus juice and mud, and commented how these compared to ones used by artisans from other parts of the region, their attentiveness seemed to increase.  The association leader Francisca told me, “some years ago we used the artificial dye powders to color our woven crafts because it was easy, but an American visitor strongly encouraged us to use the plant dyes again because he said that tourists would appreciate the natural colors and traditional arts much better.  He was right – you’ll see our decorative weaving soon.  We’re now also collecting roots of two types of vines to weave stronger baskets to carry things.”

After the demonstration, the women put their dye plants away and reconvened under a thatched roof dome where the artisans all laid out their crafts to sell.  I had made it clear that I was primarily there to get a feeling for what they had, not to buy things like a tourist, but as I walked around the circle, I still felt the familiar heavy expectation of artisans who make very little money hoping I would buy something from them.  I made the rounds two times – the first quickly and the second slowly.  I was pleased to see that there were a few pieces that were well-made and both new and interesting to me.  The hard part was realizing that 95% of the crafts did not meet these criteria.

I took a deep breath and asked Francisca, “Would you like some feedback on the crafts from my point of view?” She immediately responded, “Yes, please.  We work hard to make these crafts to try to make some money to help our families.  So, we get very frustrated that well-dressed tourists come here, look around, but they often don’t buy anything.”  The suggestions I offered were that they work hard to improve the quality of their crafts.  They know the difference between well-made and poorly made crafts so they need to help each other make them better and only put out the best ones to show to the tourists.  Next, they could focus on making crafts that are unique – not make the same ones being made by hundreds of other artisans found in every craft stall in the city.  I pointed out and bought examples of a few crafts that I found special that included some woven animal figures and woven plates with different patterns.  I showed them a video of our work with artisans from the Ampiyacu and passed around samples of a few of the Christmas tree ornaments they have been making in the past few years.

My visit to the town of San Francisco another half an hour up river followed a similar but abbreviated pattern.  Minga Peru had trained two “promotoras” in this campesino community with almost 500 people.  While the artisans were not prepared for my visit, Doris, who was leader of the artisan association Las Achiras (named for one of the principle seeds used in craft making) quickly gathered almost 20 women and some of their husbands in an empty school room to display their crafts and have a chat.  We didn’t have the same degree of warm-up, but it was easy to get down to business.  Most of the crafts were still typical designs with average quality, but it was exciting to find that more than half a dozen of these artisans had woven some awesome egrets, a beguiling owl and other clever animals with brightly colored chambira fiber.  Liria said, “we’ve got some wonderful birds that live by our river that are fun to make.” Lesly added, “I’m always experimenting making new animals from our forest.  Some look kind of funny, but some turn out really well.”

I picked out even more unusual samples this time and said that I would show these to buyers in the US.  After the shopping, Doris and her colleagues gathered around my laptop to watch the Ampiyacu video.  She said, “it’s great to see the creativity and knowledge of nature that those artisans have put into their crafts.  We’d love to work with you to encourage that process with us.”

 I am happy to report that people who visited our booth at craft fairs and music festivals this summer loved the Maranon artisan critter crafts. Of the 42 craft samples I bought during our first one-day visit, only one was left by the end of the season.  Someone even bought the woven frog with a lot of attitude.  Our project manager Yully is visiting Amazonas and San Francisco right now to review and pick up our first order of crafts from their artisans.  I expect they will be very popular during the upcoming Christmas season and create a new source of income for their families and support for their communities.

Thank you very much for your support for our project. We would welcome any donation on the next GlobalGiving Bonus Day on Sept. 21 when contributions can receive matching funds.

Artisan from San Francisco with woven purple egret
Artisan from San Francisco with woven purple egret
Artisan Letty with woven owl. Photo by Plowden
Artisan Letty with woven owl. Photo by Plowden
Artisan Liria with woven fish ornament
Artisan Liria with woven fish ornament
Cucama artisan Juana with woven chambira plate
Cucama artisan Juana with woven chambira plate
Artisan Lesly with two woven birds
Artisan Lesly with two woven birds
Artisan with carved balsa wood coati
Artisan with carved balsa wood coati
Artisan with woven chambira snail
Artisan with woven chambira snail
Cooking dye plants for chambira
Cooking dye plants for chambira
Scraping huacamayo caspi bark for chambira dye
Scraping huacamayo caspi bark for chambira dye
Campbell with artisans at San Francisco
Campbell with artisans at San Francisco
Cooking green dye plant
Cooking green dye plant

Links:

Jun 15, 2016

Butterflies and Dora's family group of artisans

Amazon butterflies and Dora group woven ornaments
Amazon butterflies and Dora group woven ornaments

In the summer of 2007, the Center for Amazon Community Ecology began its second summer of field work researching the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin at a research station on the outskirts of Jenaro Herrera – a town of 5,000 people reached by a 12-hour ferry ride up the Ucayali River from Iquitos.  On one trip to town, I met Dora and her “family” of artisans and bought an assortment of their shicras (shoulder bags that were loosely woven with chambira palm fiber) and seed jewelry to bring back to the U.S.  Their handicrafts were similar to ones made by many other artisans in the region so I asked them how they thought they might make their crafts more distinctive.  Dora volunteered, “I could sew a satiny lining into a chambira bag – what about red?” Great, let’s try it!  My 17-year old daughter Marissa who was with me on that trip suggested the idea of making a chambira choker decorated with achira seeds.  Dora’s “aunt” Hilda said, “I could make that.”   We then walked out to their fields to watch them collect oblong-shaped pashaco seeds to accent some longer necklaces.  Several weeks later we got some well-made examples of the standard crafts and some examples of the new ones.

Our sales of earrings made by other artisans from Jenaro Herrera did well, but the new woven crafts made by Dora and her relatives hadn’t yet struck a chord.  After some Christmas tree ornaments made by artisans from the Ampiyacu region began to sell well, I brought the challenge to Dora and her group.  We brainstormed different ideas, and they decided to try making colorful miniature versions of the woven baskets and plates that were usually 8 to 12 inches across.  Doilith who was a younger relative that had recently joined the group made chambira stars with black and red seeds in the five points and center.

It was encouraging to see that people liked many of these ornaments, but the spark of success came the following summer when Dora modestly told me, “My daughter Rosa has woven some critters that I think you will like.”  It was a wonderful understatement.  Arriving at her house, I marveled at the first examples of a butterfly, bee and dragonfly that she had woven from chambira.  The normally shy teenager beamed when I asked her if I could take her picture displaying her creative efforts.

Over the next few years, we experimented with different colors, models and sizes of these unique insect ornaments.  It didn’t take long to figure out that people buying one for their Christmas tree or a gift much preferred ones with bright colors like yellow and orange to dark ones and generally liked small to medium sized-ones more than giants.  We gradually improved, but Dora and friends produced some batches that still mostly sit in boxes because I failed to understand that certain Spanish words for colors are different from their English equivalents and their meanings may vary from region to region. 

I appreciated that in spite of these glitches in communication, the Association of Chambira Artisans as they now called themselves worked very diligently to comply with any craft order and were always ready to discuss and try new ideas. They in turn appreciated that while CACE was their only regular craft buyer once or twice a year, these sales were making a difference in their lives. When I got to Jenaro Herrera in the summer of 2014, I noticed that Dora’s house was completely new.  She said, “thanks to making these ornaments, Eliazar and I were able to buy enough wood and palm thatch to put up new walls and a roof.”

While the Dora group will continue using their imagination to make new crafts, we are now trying to develop some chambira ornaments based on actual species of Amazon insects. They have made good-looking models of the blue morpho butterfly, scarlet peacock butterfly, (day-time flying) uranid moth, and the Amazon darner dragonfly.  Attempts to make a bright green orchid bee and yellow and red tailed “ronsapa” bee that are important pollinators and collectors of copal resin are still in progress.   Since Rosa left town, Doilith has become the master weaver of these new critters.  She said, “I love the challenge of trying to figure out how to make the details of these beautiful little animals that live in our forests.  Before we started making insects ornaments, I wasn’t really aware that they have six legs instead of four.  My goal now is to bring them to life as best as I can so people can have a better understanding of our art, culture, and nature in the Peruvian Amazon.  Making crafts is already helping my family meet its needs, and (placing her hand gently on her tummy) I’ve got another baby on the way." Dora added, "We also feel proud that part of the sales of our crafts have helped support our local school and health clinic. We now look forward to working with CACE to plant more chambira trees to support our craft making for the future."

Thank you very much for your support that makes this work possible.  One other great opportunity to support our work will be Wednesday, June 15 - Partner Bonus Day on GlobalGiving.  Beginning at 9:00 am, donations made online to our project (up to $1000) will receive a 50% match from other generous donors until matching funds run out.  This is the single largest chance to multiply a gift this year.  Thanks for sharing this opportunity to support our work with your friends and family through social media or an old-fashioned phone call.

Campbell & Dora group artisans from Jenaro Herrera
Campbell & Dora group artisans from Jenaro Herrera
Dora group looking at photos of Amazon insects
Dora group looking at photos of Amazon insects
Doilith weaving chambira butterfly ornament
Doilith weaving chambira butterfly ornament
Scarlet peacock butterfly and chambira ornament
Scarlet peacock butterfly and chambira ornament
Amazon darner dragonfly and chambira ornament
Amazon darner dragonfly and chambira ornament
Hilda making morpho butterfly ornament
Hilda making morpho butterfly ornament

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