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Sep 24, 2018

Amazing Volunteers in the Amazon

Dear friend of the Amazon,

I’d like to thank you very much for your donations to CACE’s project that has provided vital support to our project to empower forest communities in Peru since 2012. In this report, I’d like to tell you a little bit about some people who have supported us through in a different way through our Amazon Field Volunteers program. We created this special program in response to queries from people that usually sound something like this – “I’ve always wanted to visit the Amazon, but I don’t want to go as a tourist. I want to get a first-hand experience of the people who live there and somehow make a positive difference. I’ve checked out a few volunteer and service programs, but they can cost a lot of money to join, and the times they have trips don’t fit the times I can go. I’ve read about your group’s work in Peru and like what you are doing. Is there a way I can help you there?”

Since 2006, I have answered “yes” to this question to ten people who have joined us in the field for one to six weeks. Saying “yes” began with a process of first asking interested people to tell us something about their background, why they want to join us, and what skills they could share that would support our work or the lives of our partners. If it seems like we are a potentially good fit, I go on to explain in great detail what it’s like to work in the field in the Amazon and visit rainforest communities. This includes a full discussion of the risks and realities of insect and snake bites, eating all kinds of food, using gross outhouses, riding in boats of all sizes for many hours, and proper and improper ways to behave with forest people. Volunteers are generally expected to pay all of their own expenses, assume responsibility for their health, and make whatever donation they can to CACE to support our work. They also need to speak at least enough Spanish to communicate directly with our partners at a basic level. While some prospective volunteers seem great on paper, I ultimately have to decide three basic questions before feeling good about inviting someone to join us. 1) Can I see spending almost 24 hours a day with this person for the duration of their time with us in the field? 2) Will this person be able to handle and learn from whatever challenges they face? and 3) Will this person make a substantial contribution to our work or our partners while they are with us or afterwards?

Here are brief stories about the people who have joined us so far.

2006 and 2007: Marissa P. CACE’s first Amazon Field Volunteer was my daughter who joined me for my first two summers in Peru just before and just after her senior year in high school. We lived both times at the field station run by the Peruvian Amazon research institute outside the town of Jenaro Herrera. I spent most of my time going into the forest to conduct research on the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin and later began working with a few artisans who lived in town. Marissa was no stranger to the rainforest having lived with our family in a native village in the Brazilian Amazon when she was seven years old, but she found great satisfaction volunteering at the local health clinic in town. Ten years later, she completed a master’s degree in nursing and is now working at a hospital in Chicago. You can read three essays that she wrote about her experiences in Peru on her blog Marissa’s Amazon Memories.

2008: Greg H. Greg joined us just after graduating from Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University where he was studying videography. He brought his skills, professional camera and adventurous spirit with him to Peru where he documented everything we did on tape for six weeks. This included our first visits to the communities along the Ampiyacu and Tahuayo Rivers.  Before and after the trip, he also edited and co-produced several videos on our YouTube AmazonEcology channel. His essay I need this shot recounts one of his fun memories unexpectedly going downriver on a ferry when he was trying to shoot a water buffalo being loaded on board. Since then, Greg has continued to travel around the world making a wide variety of shows about people and the environment.

2009: Natalya S. Natalya was a Penn State student in journalism when she joined us in the summer of 2009. She was an easy volunteer to bring with us since she had previously ridden her bike all the way across Canada and spoke decent Spanish. Natalya focused her service with us interviewing many artisans in the communities where we were just starting our handicraft development program. We’ve incorporated many of her profiles in social media posts, videos and GlobalGiving reports. Check out her essay What it takes to be a journalist. I especially love this passage below.

  “Elvira had introduced me to this silence. I had arrived at her doorstep exhausted from folding and flipping my tongue in mangled Spanish for three hours with the other village artisans. Instead of asking the usual questions, I watched her weave a handbag out of chambira, a local palm tree. Her 16-year-old daughter, Lisbet, watched me, and I watched Elvira, and Elvira watched her hands. We listened to the rain on the thatched roof. By my United States cultural standards, the silence should have been awkward, but it wasn't.”

You can read more pieces by her in: Report from the Field: Natalya’s Log.

2013: Luke P. and Amrit M. Luke is my son and was just finishing high school when he spent the summer with me in Peru along with fellow Quaker Amrit Moore who was studying for a master’s degree in Museum Studies at the     in New Orleans. As we traveled from village to village, Luke first shared a few lessons about climate change and the environment with young students and later found it more fun and satisfying to lead interactive classes in English. Amrit is a talented artist who devoted most of her time to preparing illustrations of the plants that artisans use to weave and dye fibers in their handicrafts. She also gave some artisans a basic lesson in drawing so they could do their own illustrations. Luke came away from the trip with a deep appreciation for the way that forest people pursue their lives with a positive attitude in spite of the harsh environment that can vex new comers to distraction. You can read five essays that Amrit wrote about her experiences in Artist in the Amazon.

2015: Tracy S. As Tracy approached her 34th birthday, she embarked on a remarkable journey to take part in at least 34 acts of service with different non-profit organizations around the world. I feel very fortunate that we were able to host her in Iquitos for several days where she helped us with the mundane but important task of classifying handicrafts and then sent her off to Jenaro Herrera for a week where she worked with our field assistant Italo to help him develop a better graphic way to collect data on resin lumps and the fruiting status of trees. The blog and Facebook page she created to report on her travels called 34tunate has now been converted to the timeless Be4tunate. Tracy epitomizes and has inspired many others to become “giving adventurers.”

2017: Donna and Chris M. Donna is a photographer who spent much of her career analyzing landscape photos taken from government overflights in international cooperative agreements and after retirement started using her skills to take quality pictures of pets seeking adoption at animal shelters. We first connected online via an announcement in VolunteerMatch.org. Two weeks after we met with the modest intention of discussing how she might help us edit some photos of handicrafts, she and her husband Chris arrived in Iquitos to join us for two weeks. During their stint, Donna took great pictures of our visits to several partner communities and trained our Peruvian media guy Tulio how to take great photos of crafts for our online store in a table-top studio. Chris applied his wizardry with equipment to clean and upgrade the grinder and distiller we were using to extract rosewood and copal oil. When they left, we gratefully accepted their gift of a Nikon SLR camera. Donna is now producing a range of lavender oil products and still edits photos for us from time to time.

2018: Alvaro M. and Natusha C. Alvaro is a Spanish graphic designer and visual researcher who contacted us while traveling through South America with his partner performance artist and video production assistant Natusha from Aruba. After numerous exchanges via Facebook Messenger, we met up in Iquitos during my last trip to Peru. Their energy, skills, and the timing was right to invite them to join Robin Van Loon and me on our trip to the Ampiyacu where we delivered hundreds of rosewood tree seedlings to families in Brillo Nuevo and Ancon Colonia. They recorded hours of video and sound of those activities and interviews with our partners which they are now turning into high quality videos to share what it means to these people to receive and care for these trees that connect them to their past and give them opportunities for the future. Stay tuned for links to their work.

Thank you again for your support that makes our work possible. Please contact us if you would like to learn more about the Amazon Field Volunteer program.

Marissa and co-workers at local health clinic
Marissa and co-workers at local health clinic
Greg and video camera in the rain with friends
Greg and video camera in the rain with friends
Natalya chatting with Bora artisan at Brillo Nuevo
Natalya chatting with Bora artisan at Brillo Nuevo
Luke measuring tree seedling with Bora woodsman
Luke measuring tree seedling with Bora woodsman
Amrit drawing with girl from Chino
Amrit drawing with girl from Chino
Thirty4tunate Tracy and Italo
Thirty4tunate Tracy and Italo
Donna with artisan Doris and animal friends
Donna with artisan Doris and animal friends
Chris adjusting shredder with CACE coordinator
Chris adjusting shredder with CACE coordinator

Links:

Jun 26, 2018

Life along the Ampiyacu River

This past February and March, I made two trips to visit several of our partner communities in the Ampiyacu River area – once to help with a workshop where artisans learned how to make three types of woven bird ornaments (see Report #27) and the second time to deliver a new batch of rosewood tree seedlings. While spending time in Amazon villages is second nature to me, I wanted to focus this report on sharing some images and related stores that may help you appreciate the different way of life of the people who live in communities along these smaller tributaries of the Amazon.

1 & 2. Our trip to the Ampiyacu usually begins by taking a large boat from Iquitos to the town of Pebas. The gas stations located on floating houses near the port provide fuel for all locals and travelers who need fuel for their smaller boats or motorcars. I liked the image of a cat feeding on something at the entrance to one of these houses. As I got closer, it seemed to be some kind of salamander. When the cat became aware of me, the meaning of his/her look couldn’t have been any clearer.

3 & 4. Even in the small town of Pebas, the evidence of campaigning and the pitfalls of local politics are highly visual. Many houses become full-size murals for people running for mayor. I often stay in a hospedaje (small hotel) owned by a former mayor who is constantly visiting the festivals of neighboring villages to animate his base for his next run. Municipal and/or regional government funds were used with great fanfare to build a narrow paved path from Pebas to the large Bora village of Puca Urquillo so people could travel the few miles in a motorcar in 10 minutes instead of making a 30 minute trip by river. One of the bridges needed to cross streams going into the Ampiyacu collapsed within months of completion and remain unrepaired for over a year.

5, 6, & 7. One daily activity for people (almost always seemingly women and girls) who live in these communities is washing clothes in the river. For families with a lot of kids, this also means spending time hanging wet clothes out to dry. This can take a while in the rainy season since they often need to brought inside. Almost all of the wooden houses take on a familiar grey weathered look, but every now and then, someone has added a creative flare to brighten the look of their home.

8, 9 & 10. Where there are no roads, much of life along the river depends on using small boats. Most families use a peque-peque (a dug-out canoe with a small motor) to get around, but it’s also common for one man to go out in a smaller craft to fish near the village. The fellow in this photo first ignored us, then scowled at us, then gave us a big smile when I waved while passing by. While boats can last for several years, their duration depends a lot on what kind of wood they are made from Eventually, they get beaten up to the point where it’s not worth it to repair them and they get waterlogged. At least their degradation does not present the eyesore and troublesome waste products left in the wake of our dead cars.

11 & 12. Where income is low and there are no markets nearby, people who live by the river and forest depend on wild animals to satisfy an important part of their diet. Men may dedicate a night or several days to hunting trips, but they are alert to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. While going up the Yaguasyacu River from Pebas to Brillo Nuevo, we spotted an agouti swimming across the river in our direction. When it detected us, it quickly changed course and swam in the opposite direction. Our driver Oscar followed it back to the bank, jumped out of the boat, chased it through the brush (it wasn’t able to climb up the steep hill), grabbed it and dispatched it. I was admittedly silently routing for the agouti to escape, but I completely understand how this event helped Oscar provide several days of meat for his family with a minimal investment of time and no money spent on ammunition.

13 through 17. When we arrived in Brillo Nuevo, Yully asked our artisan friends to come by our house with any crafts they had finished from the previous order. A group led by Casilda has proven to be the best organized since they finished their group’s hot pads and hair barrettes on time even if some of them are more comfortable having their picture taken than others. They are now learning to do their own quality control before delivery their crafts to us. Ena and others use a lighter to burn off bits of the loose chambira fiber hanging off of their hot pads.

18. Some years ago Brillo Nuevo used a good chunk of the funds we provided in our “social rebate” program (from a percentage of our craft sales from their village) to build a little house which they intended to a be “community pharmacy” – a place where one of their own residents could sell common medicines to members of the community in a way that would be more convenient than getting some from the government health post that was frequently closed or didn’t have medicines available. The project worked well in the first cycle, but unfortunately when the person in charge of the pharmacy went to the city to buy new medicines, she simply left town and never returned to the village. The experience left them sour on the concept since they didn’t feel like they could trust anyone else to do this job better. The house was later converted to a sort of village communications center since it now houses the solar powered ham radio (mostly used to communicate with other villages) and public telephone. One person does have the job of answering any incoming calls and using a loud speaker to call the person to the phone or go track them down at their house. They get no salary for this duty but customarily receives a tip from anyone who has been alerted to a call. No telemarketers need bother calling.

19, 20 & 21. Ancon Colonia is the village that is farthest up the Yaguasyacu tributary. I don’t go there often, but I am always amazed with the diversity of animal pets I find in this small community surrounded by forest. This time, I saw a boy and his sister share their affectionate embrace with a pet armadillo. When they released it to the ground, it immediately went into action scouring the ground for any worms, beetles or other tasty invertebrates. Dogs are also common pets, but I thought it was unusual to see one pooch enjoying a cushy shady spot on a tangle of fishing net under a house.

Thank you very much for your support of our project.

1. Cat at Pebas dock
1. Cat at Pebas dock
2. Cat in Pebas with salamander
2. Cat in Pebas with salamander
3. Mayor candidate mural on houseboat in Pebas
3. Mayor candidate mural on houseboat in Pebas
4. Broken bridge on path to Puca Urquillo
4. Broken bridge on path to Puca Urquillo
5. Women washing closes in the river
5. Women washing closes in the river
6. Children and clothes at Ampiyacu river house
6. Children and clothes at Ampiyacu river house
7. Pink house near Pebas
7. Pink house near Pebas
8. Family in peque-peque en route to village
8. Family in peque-peque en route to village
9. Smiling man fishing from dugout canoe
9. Smiling man fishing from dugout canoe
10. Sunken boat in Ampiyacu River
10. Sunken boat in Ampiyacu River
12. Agouti swimming across Yaguasyacu River
12. Agouti swimming across Yaguasyacu River
12. Oscar and agouti
12. Oscar and agouti
13. Casilda measuring chambira fiber hot pad
13. Casilda measuring chambira fiber hot pad
14. Ena burning hot pad "champoso" (loose fibers)
14. Ena burning hot pad "champoso" (loose fibers)
15. Casilda artisan group from Brillo Nuevo
15. Casilda artisan group from Brillo Nuevo
16. Casilda with three models of hair barrettes
16. Casilda with three models of hair barrettes
18. Public phone in Brillo Nuevo
18. Public phone in Brillo Nuevo
19. Boy with armadillo pet in Ancon Colonia
19. Boy with armadillo pet in Ancon Colonia
20. Pet armadillo in Ancon Colonia
20. Pet armadillo in Ancon Colonia
21. Dog in fishing net in Ancon Colonia
21. Dog in fishing net in Ancon Colonia

Links:

Apr 2, 2018

Ampiyacu and Chino artisans learn to make Amazon birds

I loved attending two workshops that CACE organized last month for top-level artisans from the Marañon River to teach fellow artisans from the Tahuayo and Ampiyacu River how to weave bird ornaments with chambira palm fiber. In the first workshop, brothers Kleiber and Jamner from the village of San Francisco spent two days teaching 24 artisans from Chino how to make the channel-billed toucan, tropical screech owl, purple gallinule and wire-tailed manakin. The group included men and women from sixteen to sixty years old. I had been buying bird ornaments from Marañon artisans for two years, but this was the first time that I and artisans from these other regions saw how they were made from scratch.

Surrounded a dozen eager artisans in one half of the artisan meeting house, Kleiber asked everyone in his group to first form a ball with chambira by wrapping a strand around and around its center until it reached the size of a large cherry to form the core of the body. They next formed a second smaller ball for the head, connected the two with a three-inch long piece of wire and then wrapped fiber around this to form the neck.  In the following hours, they progressively attached other bits of wire which they wrapped with different colors of fiber to form the wings, tail, beak, legs and feet. As the first day came to a close, everyone in Kleiber’s group had a bird that resembled a toucan while the members of Jamner’s group each produced an owl. We placed all of the ornaments on a bench and asked the group to point out features that they thought were well made and which ones could be improved. The details and expression of one of the artisan’s toucan were even better than the one made by her teacher. Norma said, “I’ve seen this bird in the forest around here all my life, but now I know I can bring it to life for others through my art.”

Kleiber told me, “It was incredible to me to see how fast these artisans learned how to make this complicated bird. I really appreciate how seriously they got involved with this process. It’s harder to get people from my village to focus on this kind of thing for this long.”

Romelia and her husband Jorge both learned how to make an owl and gallinule from Jamner. Jorge said, “I’ve been a carver for years and can weave a basic chambira bag, but I never thought I could make a little bird as beautiful as this.” Estelita who is the president of the Chino artisan association called Manos Amazonicas (“Amazon hands”) said, “This workshop was valuable for all of us. We can now design and make new kinds of crafts to sell to CACE and tourists. I know these visitors will want to buy crafts representing some of the birds they can see in our forest and by our river. This workshop also attracted new people who haven’t been part of our association before. It would be great to increase our group with more dedicated artisans.”

Two weeks later, we convened another skill-sharing workshop in Puca Urquillo – the dual Bora and Huitoto village near the town of Pebas on the Ampiyacu River. We recruited Pablo, another artisan from San Francisco to join Kleiber and Jamner as teachers since we had invited artisans from all of our partner villages in the region. About 40 artisans joined us for breakfast, and this number swelled to 66 as people arrived from more distant villages. Our artisan teachers had their hands full so many participants so we scaled-back the pace and had each one teach the 20-23 people in their group how to make one bird well in two-days. The featured birds were the Amazon kingfisher, lineated woodpecker and rufescent tiger heron. There was a lot of energy in the “locale” (community meeting room) as dogs and wandered around and participants swapped bits of chambira of different colors, but they soon settled into a focused flow of watching their teacher demonstrate each step in the process, try it themselves and then refine it with feedback from their teacher. Some artisan moms breastfed their babies while they weaved, but kids who were three years or older played non-stop on the stage or ran around outside.

This was the first time that these artisans had made a bird, and they were not making easy models. The tiger heron (which they called the “puma garza” – mountain lion egret) required sewing multi-colored loops onto the chest and then carefully cutting them to resemble the bird’s ruffled feathers. The woodpecker had a bright red crest on its head (like Woody Woodpecker) which needed shaping and combing to look just right.   Kori said, “I feel like I’m learning to be a hair-stylist for birds.”

As Tulio interviewed artisans outside the workshop, most offered two similar comments. The first was that it was hard at first to make their bird, but the teachers explained the process well and they were confident they would get better with practice. The second was that they all wanted to have another workshop to learn how to make different types of birds. Maria Elena said with a smile, “I’m proud of the kingfisher I made; now I want to learn how to make a macaw.”

A week later, I had a farewell dinner with Kleiber and Jamner at a restaurant in Nauta where we discussed workshop highlights and ways they could engage their student artisans even better. They were excited about teaching more workshops and wanted to keep making new models of birds themselves. They were anxious to try and raise their bird craft-making another level by making more birds in flight so I gave them a dozen photos of various species with their wings out. The day before I left Iquitos for home, I received a box with new prototypes made by the pair in the past ten days. I was astounded by the life-like shape, colors and fine touches on their flying hoatzin, roseate spoonbill, purple gallinule and black-collared hawk. It’s great to know that we can support a few top artisans to keep pushing the boundaries of their creativity while enlisting their support to welcome other artisans to this journey of weaving beautiful birds of the Amazon.

Jamner showing Romelia how to weave owl in Chino
Jamner showing Romelia how to weave owl in Chino
Artisan feet holding chambira palm fiber
Artisan feet holding chambira palm fiber
Sarita weaving bird with baby in Chino workshop
Sarita weaving bird with baby in Chino workshop
Artisan weaving wire-tailed manakin bird ornament
Artisan weaving wire-tailed manakin bird ornament
Jorge and Romelia with purple gallinules and owls
Jorge and Romelia with purple gallinules and owls
Rosa and three daughters from Chino with birds
Rosa and three daughters from Chino with birds
Purple gallinule and tropical screech owl ornament
Purple gallinule and tropical screech owl ornament
Channel-billed toucan and purple gallinule models
Channel-billed toucan and purple gallinule models
Kleiber showing Liz how to make tiger heron model
Kleiber showing Liz how to make tiger heron model
Artisan daughter and tiger heron ornament
Artisan daughter and tiger heron ornament
Artisan sewing eye onto tiger heron ornament
Artisan sewing eye onto tiger heron ornament
Artisan sewing wing onto tiger heron ornament
Artisan sewing wing onto tiger heron ornament
One artisan weaving; one artisan nursing
One artisan weaving; one artisan nursing
Pablo shows artisan how to cut wire with pliers
Pablo shows artisan how to cut wire with pliers
Bora artisan making lineated woodpecker
Bora artisan making lineated woodpecker
Jamner artisan group making kingfisher ornaments
Jamner artisan group making kingfisher ornaments
Cutting achira seeds to make eyes for woodpeckers
Cutting achira seeds to make eyes for woodpeckers
Bora artisan Kori with woodpecker ornament
Bora artisan Kori with woodpecker ornament
Young Huitoto artisan with kingfisher ornament
Young Huitoto artisan with kingfisher ornament
Flying hoatzin ornament
Flying hoatzin ornament
Flying roseate spoonbill ornament
Flying roseate spoonbill ornament

Links:

 
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