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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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Dec 15, 2014

The evolution of Amazon Christmas tree ornaments

Paiche fish ornament montage. C. Plowden/CACE
Paiche fish ornament montage. C. Plowden/CACE

The idea for creating Christmas tree ornaments with our artisan partners along the Ampiyacu River came by observing that some made a knick-knack holder by weaving chambira palm fiber around a grapefruit-sized calabash tree pod – locally called a “tutuma.”  They made the first ornaments by adapting the technique to an egg-shaped pod and attaching a chord to it.  Other artisans had etched figures of wildlife and geometric patterns onto walnut-colored tutuma maracas so ornaments could be made on smaller pods without a handle.  Both types could double as hand rattles by adding achira seeds to cleaned pods before sealing them.   

We encouraged both Bora and Huitoto artisans in Puca Urquillo to try making ornaments in 2011 as a new line of crafts distinct from woven items being made by our original partners in Brillo Nuevo.  After one Christmas season, the results were clear.  We had quickly sold all of the tutuma rattle ornaments etched with jaguars, toucans, and other jungle critters.  The woven chambira ornaments were well made, but would not add as interesting a touch to a holiday tree.

When I next met with the women artisans in Puca Urquillo, I expected they would be happy to hear that one of our first products was very successful and that we wanted to order a lot more etched tutuma ornaments for the following Christmas.  I was not prepared for a prolonged awkward silence.  Elsa finally spoke up – “we know how to weave, but only a few men know how to carve the tutumas.  My husband made all of the ones you got from me last year.” 

Over the next year, about eight Huitoto women tried to make the more popular tutuma ornaments.  When I returned to their village, they gathered in a circle in the group leader’s home with a pile of their first efforts in front of them.  I sat in the center and inspected every ornament from every artisan in turn.  A few tutumas were good, but many had a crudely etched figure of a bird with the background scraped away.  Some made great hand rattles, but many contained too few seeds inside to make a good sound when shaked.  I praised all of the artisans for their efforts, bought the best ones, asked them to fix ones that could be improved, and explained why some were not good enough to sell.

Giving this honest feedback can be agonizing.  Some artisans got discouraged and gave up right away.  Fortunately others kept trying and made better and better looking critters.  There is no doubt, though, that the Bora artisan Rider Velasquez is still the master tutuma maker.  Each one of his tutumas portrays a realistic or creative vision of rainforest life – a jaguar stalking a paca, a hummingbird poking its bill into  a tubular flower, or a giant paiche fish against a stylized sunset.  Our challenge is figuring out how to facilitate him sharing some of his artistry with the other artisans.       

In the past few years, we have also worked with artisans in other communities in northern Peru to design their own ornaments.  Dora and her family from Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River wove multi-colored chambira fiber into miniature plates, pots, stars, dragonflies, butterflies and bees.  Lesli from the Maijuna village of Sucusari wove a beautiful rainbow colored snail. Yermeth from the campesino village of Chino on the Tahuayo River wove frog ornaments whose huayruru seed eyes imbued each one with personality.  These frogs became so popular that a dozen other artisans from her cooperative are now making them as well.  

Sharing the success of these novel ornaments with the Ampiyacu artisans has inspired them to come up with their own clever designs.  Cherly from Pucu Urquillo wove an armadillo, squirrel and monkey.  Deusebio from Santa Lucia de Pro wove a black caiman and pink river dolphin. Lucia and her ten-year old son José have carved balsa wood into agoutis and pacas (two medium-size Amazon rodents) and used a fire-heated wire to add expressive facial features and stripes.  They carved turtle and armadillo bodies from balsa wood and attached shells made from small curved pieces of calabash pod.  Teenager Kiary carved and painted balsa wood into parrot, anteater and tapir figures.  This past summer, we commissioned this young carver to make prototypes of basset hound ornaments for a small business in State College, PA that sells puppies of this friendly breed.  Not surprisingly, his parents Lucio and Ania are also talented artisans.  Lucio makes great etched tutumas and wove contrasting babaca and bonbojaje around a balsa core to make a miniature rainstick.  Ania told us, “I am very happy that our family can make more money selling handicrafts to CACE.  We can now pay for Kiary to go a better school, and he is learning a good skill to earn income for himself.”

In the past two years, we have sold just over 400 ornaments – mostly at craft fairs and one local Christmas tree farm that displays our ornaments in their gift shop.  We are on pace to sell several hundred more this year with one new Christmas tree seller alone buying 98 ornaments for his shop.  It seems very fitting that more people are buying ornaments made by native families from the Amazon that truly reflect the spirit of the holiday.  We would welcome receiving any ideas or contacts you have that could help us expand this market.

Thank you very much for your support for our project with best wishes for your holiday and the New Year.

Campbell Plowden

Executive Director and Project Leader

Chino artisan with frog ornament. Plowden/CACE
Chino artisan with frog ornament. Plowden/CACE
Humingbird and paiche fish tutuma ornaments.
Humingbird and paiche fish tutuma ornaments.
Chambira palm fiber dragonfly. Plowden/CACE
Chambira palm fiber dragonfly. Plowden/CACE
Maijuna artisan with snail ornament. Plowden/CACE
Maijuna artisan with snail ornament. Plowden/CACE
Huitoto doll ornaments. Plowden/CACE
Huitoto doll ornaments. Plowden/CACE
Bora artisan and anteater ornament. Plowden/CACE
Bora artisan and anteater ornament. Plowden/CACE
Basset hound balsa wood ornament. Plowden/CACE
Basset hound balsa wood ornament. Plowden/CACE
Chambira and seed ornament. Plowden/CACE
Chambira and seed ornament. Plowden/CACE
Woven pot ornament. Plowden/CACE
Woven pot ornament. Plowden/CACE

Links:

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

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