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Jul 9, 2020

Confronting COVID in Iquitos and our partner communities

It’s very hard to describe the challenges we have faced in the last three and a half months and where we stand today.

I will start by introducing myself.  My name is Tulio, and I work for the Center for Amazon Community Ecology - better known here by its Spanish acronym CECAMA. I was born in Peru and am 37 years old.  I'm not very tall nor very skinny.... in short, I'm an average guy in an abnormal situation, like millions of others around the world now.

Back in early March, CACE was following its work plan for the year. We were hosting artisan training workshops and buying more handicrafts.  We were excited about developing a new store in Iquitos and traveling to Cusco in early April to learn how a fellow NGO works with Andean artisans, volunteers, and sells woolen products to tourists and gift shops.

On March 16, the Peruvian government established a nationwide quarantine to halt the spread of the novel corona virus, and we were thrust into a new reality which we are still trying to figure out. In Iquitos, we lost many of our basic rights overnight.  Soldiers and police were on the streets trying to enforce ever changing regulations that governed who, when, where, why, and how people could move about. We quickly learned we should mostly stay in our homes. Losing our freedom of mobility seemed like our biggest problem for a while because we could not imagine what was going to happen next. On that first day of the quarantine, there was not a single case of COVID-19 in the city. The disease was being reported in other parts of the country. People were dying in other places, but not where my family and I lived. On March 17, the government confirmed the first COVID case in Iquitos. 

Even after this news, though, people in Iquitos still felt and acted like the disease was happening somewhere else. People kept trying to lead a normal life and did not obey the new rules. They ignored the quarantine restrictions and continued to meet in public when they should have stayed home.

Over the next few days, new cases of COVID-19 appeared in the city. People weren’t dying yet, but more people who needed care began arriving at the hospitals that were already stressed attending a record number of patients suffering from dengue fever. Then the first death from the virus was confirmed, quickly followed by the second, then the third, and the mood changed.

The disease had finally become real.  The number of deaths was rising, and hospitals were overwhelmed.  We didn't realize how bad it had become until we were in the middle of this nightmare.  Deaths due to the virus rose to twenty, then to fifty, then to seventy people per day. Medicines became scarce, and the ones that people wanted the most were ten times their normal price. Seriously ill people needed oxygen, but how could they get it? Hospitals had no oxygen to give patients so sick people and their relatives got it however they could. An inhumanely expensive black market developed for the precious oxygen that was available until the supply just ran out.

Iquitos was dying.

The fear was building and going out was scary. We did not want to catch the virus nor spread it to our loved ones.  We had family members or friends who were old or vulnerable due to some poor health condition. Almost all of us knew at least one person who died from the virus. We mourned the death of so many, and it seemed that nothing could be done to prevent it.

A few actions lifted our spiritsin in early May. Two Catholic priests organized a fundraising campaign that will remain in the history of the city because it raised three times its goal in one day. They used the funds to bring oxygen contcentrating machines to Iquitos and make bottled oxygen more available.  Our city was suffocating, and this response gave us a breath of hope. We endured because we had to. We had to take care of ourselves and the people we loved. We endured because we believed that at some point this nightmare would end.

Two months into the pandemic, I got infected. The people I loved were infected, and many other friends, acquaintances and co-workers from CACE including Yully, Nando and Jackmen also contracted the virus. 

We were afraid and experienced a fear we will never forget.  I worried about my elderly parents, and I feared for myself because the disease made my chest hurt and I had frequent headaches. I was afraid for Yully, and she feared for her family and for herself.  We were all scared, and we had to try very hard not to break down when we talked on the phone. We felt intense pain when one relative after another died. When our friends lost their relatives, it hurt as much as if they were our own.  We held on because we had to.

Finally, the number of deaths in Iquitos started decreasing, and some new sources of oxygen arrived to treat more people who were ailing. The number of COVID patients in hospitals and clinics began to decline. Three months after the quarantine began, it seemed like the nightmare in Iquitos was coming to an end.

We couldn’t be sure if we were totally safe, but we had survived for now. We had to reassume our responsibility to our partners in the field because the worst was just beginning for them.

When the quarantine began in Peru, most of the communities tried to insulate themselves. At first, they did not let anyone in and avoided contact with other people.  As the weeks went by, however, they had to buy things for cooking, cleaning, and other day-to-day needs. They needed money to buy these things, but they couldn't sell crafts because there was no one to buy them. They had to focus on hunting and fishing to sell something in the big towns to earn some income. They had to leave their villages, and this forced them to be exposed to the virus. This more intensive hunting has also probably taken a serious toll on local wildlife.

The virus then started appearing in the towns near the communities. It seemed lucky that while the number of cases continued to rise, there were no deaths at first. We had been through this process in Iquitos, however, so we knew it could and would probably get worse.  It just seemed a matter of time before COVID would reach them, and they were not even vaguely prepared.  There are no medical facilities in many communities.  Even in normal times, medicines are in short supply in the few places that have a small health post.

CACE didn't have many resources, but we knew we had to do what we could to help.

As soon as Yully, Jackmen and me were healthy enough to function, we sent some medicine, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to three communities with help from a donation from the Sisters of Mercy – thanks to our friend Carmen who is a nun in this progressive order and fellow Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator.  We know that what we have sent so far, however, is much less than what is needed so we consulted with our partners as best as we could and prepared a plan to send up to nine types of medicine and basic supplies to serve almost six hundred people in 13 partner communities.

The situation in Amazon communities has steadily declined since late June. A young artist named Darwin who is a leader of the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo recently told me: “When I was named President of the community, I never imagined that I would have to deal with something like this.  After the news reported that a virus spreading around the world had reached Peru, I immediately had to think about what was best for my people. When the quarantine began in the country, I decreed that no one could enter the community. We decided that only a few people should go to the town of Pebas to get some basic supplies for everybody. We managed to get some masks and minimized contact with other people as much as possible.  We had very little time to figure out how to act properly since everything happened so fast.”

Darwin’s mother Angelina is an artisan that CACE has worked with for ten years. She came to Iquitos in late June to seek treatment for a debilitating bout with the virus.  She told me outside a hospital, “the coronavirus started out like a fever. We soon learned, however, that it was worse than other fevers we knew. Our natural medicines helped some, but not enough.  This illness made your chest hurt, and it was hard to breathe. There are no medical centers in many places. If there is no medicine, where can you go? There are old people in my village who are suffering. These health problems add to our economic problems since there is no one to buy our crafts. We feel abandoned.” Angelina finished sharing her comments in tears.

People in the communities have started dying from COVID within the past week.  These victims include a few elders we have known for a decade. This suffering really hurts us because the families in these villages are our friends and partners. It hurts us because we went through hell in Iquitos, and we don’t want these communities to go through the same thing. This suffering affects us as fellow human beings, and the lack of oxygen and medicines makes everything much more difficult.

We rarely end these reports with a direct request for support, but I am doing so today. Please help us send more medicines and basic supplies to our community partners with any donation you can afford.  Larger donations will get a partial match on the next Bonus Day on July 15. Our project is normally geared toward empowering artisans and their communities. Today, our goal is to help our partners survive so they can weave another day.  

Thank you very much for your support.

Brillo Nuevo President Darwin in Iquitos
Brillo Nuevo President Darwin in Iquitos
Bora artisan Angela in Iquitos seeking treatment
Bora artisan Angela in Iquitos seeking treatment
Medicines donated to health post in Puca Urquillo
Medicines donated to health post in Puca Urquillo
Donated medical supplies and health post team
Donated medical supplies and health post team
Tulio - CACE Communications Coordinator
Tulio - CACE Communications Coordinator
Yully - CACE Program Coordinator
Yully - CACE Program Coordinator
Health post technician treating COVID patient
Health post technician treating COVID patient
Paquita - artisan from Amazonas with woven birds
Paquita - artisan from Amazonas with woven birds
Game meat vendors at public market in Pebas
Game meat vendors at public market in Pebas

Links:

Mar 26, 2020

The blossoming of Berta Bondadosa

I arrived in Peru on my most recent trip on Feb. 19, and things went more or less according to plan for the first month. We first revamped the layout of our new store in Iquitos with the creative guidance of Kieran, our newest CACE board member who is the director of the Ten Thousand Villages store in State College, PA. Over the following month, we held one full Basic level Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop, two Artisan Organization workshops, and an Artisan Facilitator workshop. We were stopped in our tracks when the Peruvian government announced it was going to shut down all flights and impose other travel restrictions to stem the spread of the corona virus in the country. I will return to this topic at the end of this report, but I would first like to share a story about the ways our work has made a big difference to one of our artisan partners, her husband and others in her community.

Berta and her husband Brito attended the first Basic AVP workshop that we held in the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo in the fall of 2018 and also participated in the Advanced level and Training for Facilitators workshops in 2019. Following AVP tradition, they chose the positive adjective names Berta Bondadosa (Generous Bertha) and Brito Bueno (Good Brito) for themselves. When we began the cycle again this February, we invited both of them to join us as apprentice facilitators in the Basic workshop in Brillo Nuevo. They did really well and appreciated the chance to increase their confidence leading exercises and cooperative games and exchanging affirmations and constructive feedback with their fellow teammates.

Berta commented on her experience with AVP so far. “My earlier life was very violent. I was a very bitter woman, and I had no compassion. I had no patience with anyone, not even my husband. I didn’t want him to tell me anything because I was ready to burst, and we quickly started to fight. I am so thankful this program came into my life because now I feel very calm. I can walk through the village happy, smiling, and laughing arm in arm with my husband because the life I was leading has ended.”

“As a facilitator, I’ve learned to be patient with my friends and anyone who approaches me. I feel confident and try to treat people with understanding and consideration for their feelings. This growth hasn’t been easy, but I now have a strong sense of how I can reach out to others and help them. I know we can learn to live peacefully with our family, neighbors, and people from other communities.”

On the morning we left Brillo Nuevo, we met with the artisans to discuss several topics including the Artisan Facilitator workshop we were hosting the following week in Nauta. We described how we were building our team of artisans who were talented, had a strong desire to share their skills and build the self-esteem of their fellow artisans. After an animated conversation in Bora, the group unanimously chose Berta to represent them at this gathering and an artisan organization workshop that would follow. One artisan candidly remarked, “Berta used to quarrel al lot with her husband and others. She has dramatically changed in the past year.  She is now kind and patient.”

At the Artisan Facilitator workshop held at the Tambo Minga center in Nauta, Berta joined her peers from five other villages who spent three days making two types of bird ornaments (the goldfinch and cardinal) with chambira palm fiber. Beyond learning to make these crafts, Berta took her turn as an apprentice artisan facilitator one morning where she went from artisan to artisan to check on their progress.

Berta commented, “In this workshop I learned how to approach someone, talk with them, and teach them whatever I could. I got over my fear of saying, “I don’t know how to do this, can you show me?” because I had confidence in myself and respect for everyone else in our group.

Berta and others at this workshop learned that being a good artisan facilitator didn't mean being the most skilled artisan in the room. It meant being comfortable sharing what you knew, confident about asking questions, and sincerely affirming others for their efforts.

The Artisan Organization workshop followed immediately afterward in the same location with more artisans attending from communities in the Marañon River area. Berta was the only person from Brillo Nuevo at this gathering. During the first day of workshop, the artisans practiced describing the goals and leadership roles in an artisan association and standards for harvesting and planting chambira palm trees. The second day focused on ways their groups could better sell their crafts to tourists and wholesale buyers. The latter part included describing products for a catalogue and a short class on speaking to buyers in English.

Berta was enthusiastic about this gathering as well. “This workshop impacted me a lot because the artisans in my community have just begun to get organized.  It will be very important for us to set our short and long-term goals. I wish all of them could have been there because I liked it very much. We can now challenge ourselves to ask: “Why can’t we sell more of our products?” We will get to the point when our assoication is properly registered, organized and we know how to use marketing techniques. We still have a lot to learn, so it’s important we learn together. I hope CACE does a workshop like this in Brillo Nuevo very soon.”

On my second swing through the Ampiyacu this trip, we helped our fellow non-profit Camino Verde deliver over 5,000 tree seedlings to 47 families in Brillo Nuevo and Ancon Colonia. More on this in our next report.  The day before we left Brillo Nuevo, we met again with the artisans to discuss some new product ideas.

While waiting for the full group to arrive, I asked Berta to share a few highlights from the two workshops she recently attended in Nauta. There were only five women in the big meeting room when she began. I only got an inkling of whatever topic she was discussing when she sprinkled in Spanish words that didn't have equivalent expressions in Bora, but the impact of her animated manner was clear. She was very emotional discussing the kinship she felt with artisans from diverse communities at the Artisan Facilitator workshop and hoped that their group could develop this same level of mutual support and trust. By the time she wrapped up expressing how much it meant to her to work with others and plan for the future at the organization workshop, fifteen more artisans had joined us on the benches. A group this size normally had five conversations going on at once, but no one said a word until Berta had finished her compelling stories. Thieir silence and attentive listening almost moved me to tears since it reflected a depth of respect from her peers I had never seen expressed to any other artisan before. It seemed like they genuinely connected with her vision of a positve future for their artisan group if they could work together.

On a more somber note, we have also faced many challenges related to health this trip.  While I was out of commission for a few days with a typical traveler's bug, all four of our CACE team members in Iquitos had a family member that was hit with Dengue fever in the past month.  This mosquito borne illness that can cause high fever, severe head and body aches and more has been raging through the Iquitos area this rainy season.  On top of this regional affliction, the corona virus recently made it to Peru.

We had just finished the first day of an AVP workshop we were doing in the village of San José de Piri near the town of Pebas when we learned that the government was going to impose travel restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19. Two hours later I got on a ferry boat bound for Iquitos and spent the night in a hammock next to an artisan friend from Brillo Nuevo and her family. I arrived in the city the next morning with a plan to catch an afternoon flight to Lima and then connect with a flight back to the US the next morning. I didn’t take the flight to Lima, though, because the government cancelled all flights going in and out of the country after midnight. I will now stay at the CACE house in Iquitos until the quarantine is lifted or I am somehow able to get on one of the special evacuation flights being organized by the US Embassy in Lima to bring American citizens home.

While I do wish to get home, I feel secure in our house here for the time being and have access to all of the basics needed to stay here as long as I need to. I can work on my computer and do some tasks with our team. I don’t doubt that travel restrictions are needed to reduce the spread of the virus, but I am concerned that this situation is severely stressing our partners in the field and manyc others in the region. It was eerie to venture to the normally crowded main plaza a few days ago (in search of a way to recharge my cell phone to retain internet access) and only find a handful of military police on guard with machine guns and one man with a cart selling popsickles. The latter man exemplifies how hard these times are for people who only survive on the little income they make on a day to day basis. In the case of our artisan partners, they are also being shut out of any way to make money until the quarantine is lifted. The tourism trade is of course paralyzed for now and will no doubt take some time to recover even after the travel restrictions are relaxed. Our store in Iquitos is closed, and it seems likely that at least some of the music festivals we attend in the summer to sell our partners’ crafts will be cancelled.  We will, therefore, need to find other ways to compensate for this lost income.  

We can only be optimistic that things will get back to “normal” at some point, so we are starting to plan an ambitious schedule of workshops for the next 12 months to continue to help our artisan partners learn to make new types of crafts, plant more trees, form strong associations and create more harmonious communities. Berta has shown us that all of these things are possible. 

Many thanks for your support that makes our project possible.  Any donation (up to $50) that is made to our organization by this coming Friday (March 29) will receive a 100% match from GlobalGiving.  

Best wishes and please stay safe.

Campbell Plowden
Executive Director
Berta "Bondadosa"
Berta "Bondadosa"
Berta and others play "Armadillos & Holes" at AVP
Berta and others play "Armadillos & Holes" at AVP
Brito and friends play "Armadillos & Holes" at AVP
Brito and friends play "Armadillos & Holes" at AVP
Affirmation poster for Berta "Bondadosa" at AVP
Affirmation poster for Berta "Bondadosa" at AVP
Berta and Rosita at Artisan Facilitator workshop
Berta and Rosita at Artisan Facilitator workshop
Ketty and Berta at Artisan Facilitator workshop
Ketty and Berta at Artisan Facilitator workshop
Mirian making cardinal bird ornament at Nauta
Mirian making cardinal bird ornament at Nauta
Chambira palm fiber goldfinches made by artisans
Chambira palm fiber goldfinches made by artisans
Estelita and Deisa at Artisan Facilitator workshop
Estelita and Deisa at Artisan Facilitator workshop
Artisan Deisa with woven goldfinch and cardinal
Artisan Deisa with woven goldfinch and cardinal
Artisan Yoli from Amazonas with chambira basket
Artisan Yoli from Amazonas with chambira basket
San Francisco artisans discuss association goals
San Francisco artisans discuss association goals
Artisans describe multi-colored basket for catalog
Artisans describe multi-colored basket for catalog
Ball toss game at Artisan Organization workshop
Ball toss game at Artisan Organization workshop
Gisela and Antonio practice "Namaste" closing
Gisela and Antonio practice "Namaste" closing

Links:

Mar 2, 2020

The eagle lands at Sucusari

Traveling on rivers in the Amazon region is an exercise in patience. You need patience to wait for enough passengers to fill up a motor boat before it will leave. You need patience to travel in another boat for many hours in the sun and the rain to reach your destination.

This time our travels took us to two native Maijuna communities called along the Napo River to offer an initial round of Artisan Training workshops. These sessions were led by Edson and Pablo, two of our most experienced artisan facilitators, who came a long way from their village of San Francisco on the Marañon River to share their talents making bird ornaments with chambira palm fiber.

CACE had visited Sucusari, Nueva Vida and its close neighbor Puerto Huaman several times in the past to survey nearby forests for copal resin.  We had also bought baskets from artisans in a few communities, but these initial efforts didn't take off. We hoped this new initiative would provide a concrete way to work with these communities with our long-term partner Michael G. and his non-profit group OnePlanet that has successfully developed stingless bee projects with these groups.

Each of these artisan training workshops lasted three days in which the participants learned to weave two different kinds of birds. This time the featured birds were the ornate hawk eagle, blue and gold macaw, white-throated toucan, and the Amazon kingfisher. Pablo and Edson once again showed their skill and patience to teach other artisans in a way that no one felt left behind making this new type of craft – birds that seem to come alive.

That’s just what the participants had hoped for. Everest, the head of the Sucusari community, thought this was a very timely and important workshop for his village. He said, “We’ve had all kinds of workshops in our village, but never one like this. This is the first time that someone taught us to weave birds. We were nervous at first because it seemed so hard, but by the end, we learned it was possible. I’m sure that the men and women artisans in the community are proud of what they’ve made, and we very much appreciate that you came to show us.”

Loida, the woman who is the president of the artisan association in the more distant village of Nueva Vida commented, “It’s become harder and harder to sell handicrafts – perhaps because tourists don’t come here and it’s complicated to bring them to the city where there are many other artisans. It’s so important for us to learn to make new kinds of crafts so we have a better chance of competing with other sellers. Seeing these beautiful finished birds gives me confidence we can do this. I only hope that we can have more of these types of workshops in the future so our artisans can keep learning and improving.”

Traveling along the smaller rivers of the Amazon is an experience that requires patience and it offers so much gratitude. It includes gratitude for the way people share and receive every minute, gratitude for peoples’ effort and results, and appreciation for the sincerity of the hugs you receive when you say goodbye.

A CACE eagle has now landed in Maijuna land, and we hope it will find it a productive place to build a nest.

Maijuna artisan from Nueva Vida with kingfisher
Maijuna artisan from Nueva Vida with kingfisher
Maijuna artisans at workshop in Sucusari
Maijuna artisans at workshop in Sucusari
Maijuna artisan with ornate hawk eagle ornament
Maijuna artisan with ornate hawk eagle ornament
Maijuna artisan group at Sucusari workshop
Maijuna artisan group at Sucusari workshop
Maijuna artisan mother at Nueva Vida workshop
Maijuna artisan mother at Nueva Vida workshop
Loida - Artisan group leader at Nueva Vida
Loida - Artisan group leader at Nueva Vida
Edson teaching Maijuna artisan to make a macaw
Edson teaching Maijuna artisan to make a macaw
Maijuna artisan making body for bird ornament
Maijuna artisan making body for bird ornament

Links:

 
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