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Oct 27, 2017

Letting go of the idea we love the most

Copal story banner photos
Copal story banner photos

The hardest idea to let go of is the one that we have loved the most.  In my case, this idea was believing that harvesting resin from copal trees in the rainforest could produce a new and significant source of income for forest peoples in the northern Peruvian Amazon.

I first learned about this resin from a Tembé Indian while walking through a patch of the Brazilian Amazon in 1993.  I almost tripped over a downed tree that had greyish lumps of resin on it that one of my guides called “breu.”  He said they used this material to caulk their wooden boats and also burned it like incense or to create light like a candle.  I noticed this material again four years later while living in a different Tembé village studying non-timber forest products for my PhD dissertation.  Men often came back to the village with sacks full of the malleable white to grey resin which they had picked off the bark of live “breu” trees.  They laid the lumps out on the ground to dry in the sun before using it themselves or selling it to boatyard suppliers in the city.  I began to pay serious attention when someone told me they frequently found “tapurus” (some kind of larvae) in the resin.

I collected a few of these larvae, and an entomologist from the Goeldi Museum in Belém told me they were juveniles of some kind of beetle – probably a weevil.  I realized these little white blobs with hard reddish-brown caps were not just casual visitors to the resin - they were actually responsible for forming the lumps on the trees.  I began to study this relationship and estimate how much resin the Tembé could collect in their forests.  I picked apart so many lumps of gooey resin that I developed a surreal sense of when and where I would find young weevils and syrphid fly larvae that may have been feeding on fungal and bacterial spores in the resin.  I also saw many kinds of stingless bees collecting fresh “breu” – presumably to help build and defend their nests.  I ended up writing two chapters of my dissertation on these relationships which were later published in scientific journals. 

While my research established me as a bona-fide ecologist, the deterioration and eventual fracture of my relationship with my Tembé hosts left me hurt, confused, and unconfident for a time about my ability to work with rainforest communities.  What remained clear was my compelling desire to learn more about this resin and its diverse relationships with insects since they seemed to exemplify the essence, beauty, and complexity of tropical forest ecology.

I followed the resin trail up the Amazon exploring different field sites in Brazil and eventually made it to Peru in 2003 where I found a PhD student studying the taxonomy and ecology of resin-producing trees Burseraceae trees locally known as “copal.”  Paul directed me to various sites where I found an amazing diversity of trees and resin lump shapes I had not seen before.  In short, I was hooked on copal.

After making a few more exploratory trips to Peru, I took the plunge and formed CACE in 2006.  I spent the first two summers living at a research station studying which species of copal trees most often had resin lumps on them and started to understand how resin weevils interacted with their hosts.  It was soon apparent that the weevils developed very slowly so we did some studies to measure how much resin could be harvested by mildly wounding the trees to harvest the resin – the typical way that resin is harvested from copal and other resinous trees throughout the world.  While our studies showed that a harvester could gather as much resin by wounding a tree as collecting resin lumps provoked by the feeding of weevils, they would need to go out and wound the trees every few days to do so.  While the Mayans in Mexico and Central America gathered enough resin for their rituals by wounding certain copal trees, this did not appear to be a cost-effective strategy in Peru.

By 2008, we thought we knew enough about the copal system to extend our work into communities where they might be able to earn some money by sustainably harvesting the resin.  We launched this project in the Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo on the Ampiyacu River because they had access to large areas of intact forest and a lot of knowledge about their resources. 

My first forays into the forests there were exciting because my elder guides showed me various types of white copal that I was familiar with on tree trunks in the high forest and a whole other class of resin lumps I had never seen before on the branches of trees in areas that were periodically flooded.  While this discovery fascinated me, I decided to keep my focus on the first type since the second system involved a type of long-horned beetle that was attacking a whole other class of tree to produce yellow resin lumps that lacked any aromatic properties that seemed to hold the key to copal’s commercial promise.  My guides rewarded my curiosity in these trees by giving me the Bora name “ka’a nepa” which means resin in their language.  Copal was no longer just a product to me; it had literally become a part of my identity that connected me back to a native community in the Amazon.

Our first attempt to develop a commercial product from copal harvested near the village was a comical failure.  I had picked out what seemed to be a simple recipe for incense from the internet, but when we cooked up some resin and combined it with a bit of oil and ash, and tried to roll them into little cones, they looked like the worst rejects possible from a Hershey’s Kisses assembly line.  They didn’t burn well and offered no pleasing scent.  I was pleased that the women who indulged me with this experiment at least had a good time doing so even though all they had to show for their efforts were blackened hands that took days to clean.

I supposed that we could eventually learn how to do this process better, but fate fortunately quickly intervened via an email from Haley, the president of a specialty fragrance company who happened to be traveling through Peru meeting with various suppliers.  She agreed to make a quick trip to Iquitos to discuss the idea with us of distilling copal resin into essential oil which might become an ingredient in fine fragrances.

I brought down a small copper alembique pot on my next trip to Peru.  This is the classic vessel that artisanal essential oil makers have used for centuries to boil or steam aromatic plants.  The hot plant-water vapors pass from the top of the pot through a tube into a cool water bath where they are condensed and then separated into their pure forms.  We didn’t have any rye flour that is traditionally used to make a paste that can prevent steam leaks from the system.  We first tried using manioc flour, but this only succeeded in making bread while the stem burst out at will.  Our more effective solution was to apply a commercial two-part resin mix, but we had to quickly disassemble the hot pot and pipes after a distillation before they completely cooled or the resin would harden to the point where they couldn’t be separated.  I will never forget the sensorial bliss of our first distillation when I bathed with the warm copal scented water (hydrosol) that came off the distillation process.

While we gradually got the hang of distilling the resin in the copper pot and later graduated to a larger stainless-steel distillation unit, our inventories of copal trees and sample harvests were a lot less encouraging.  The notable asset of a tropical forest is its high diversity, but by simple math, this means that there usually only a few of any given species in one area.  We found a relatively decent number of copal trees in these forests, but only a few of them had resin lumps on them.  It seemed that the weevils were rather picky about their hosts.  We also learned that while there were a variety of weevils that infected copal trees, only a few types made lumps containing enough fresh resin to harvest and distill.  Others made small honeycomb style lumps that were biologically interesting but were worthless to human (and bee) harvesters.  We were initially excited to learn that many Bora had planted one type of copal tree in their “chacras” (forest fields first used for crops, later for trees), but unfortunately this variety which produces a very tasty small fruit was not favored by the resin weevils.

We knew that people in the region were gathering and using copal resin on a regular basis so decent amounts had to be out there somewhere, didn’t they?  One tantalizing event was my first visit to the small village of Ancon Colonia north of Brillo Nuevo when one man emptied out a large sack full of copal on his wooden slat floor to show us what he had recently collected. 

Meanwhile the research that we had begun at Jenaro Herrera was still moving forward with its own milestones of progress and frustrating challenges.  We had individually marked hundreds of trees to track the growth of many hundred individual resin lumps to learn how and how long it took for the immature weevils to become adults.  We also placed wire mesh traps over many lumps to capture and identify the adults when they emerged, but our early designs were not tight enough and some later ones put too many nail holes in the trees.  Traps wore out and needed to be regularly replaced until we figured out how to efficiently put traps only on very mature lumps.  While many insects have rather short life-cycles (some flies only live for three days), these resin weevils needed two to three years to become adults and many didn’t survive to that stage.  The implications for sustainably harvesting the resin lumps was stark.  While one is normally concerned about the impact of harvesting a plant product on the plant itself, resin harvesting needed to be done in a way that didn’t harshly impact the population of resin weevils.

In order to better understand the weevil’s development, we took digital photos of the resin lumps on a regular basis for many years.  The concept of the research method was simple and sound. We could use a computer program to draw a line around the perimeter of the resin lump and measure its area by comparing it to the known area of a reference object in the same photo.  We encountered many challenges, however, making this method work as precisely as we had hoped.  It was hard to keep track of lumps that came and went on hundreds of trees.  Our field assistants were very knowledgeable about the forest, but they made mistakes along the way that compromised some of the data.  Part way through the study, the original tags we had used to track the lumps became unavailable and we needed to switch to another tag whose size was only slightly different.  It was hard to consistently delineate the boundaries of resin lumps that dripped and morphed over time.  We spent a lot of time and resources analyzing this data, but we have not yet found a clear pattern of growth that we logically expected.

As our work with handicrafts continued to expand, we also conducted additional surveys of copal trees in the Ampiyacu, one campesino village in the upper Tahuayo River area, two Maijuna villages in the Napo River area, one Matses village in the Ucayali River area, and cursory explorations in others.  In each case, we initially found people who were knowledgeable about copal trees and its resin, regularly used it, and were interested to explore it as a value-added forest resource with us.  Our underlying justification for the work was that forests are routinely damaged or destroyed not because their resources are valuable, but because intact forests are not valued enough.  While essential oils made from agricultural commodities are sold for dozens of dollars per liter, high-value ones go for hundreds to thousands of dollars. We thought that if we could successfully develop a sustainable harvest of copal resin and develop a premium market for its oil, we could create one more tangible incentive to conserve primary forests. 

We collected samples of resin from all of these places and distilled them into small batches of oil.  We sent samples of these to our essential oil colleagues to evaluate and to labs to analyze.  Our yield of oil from fresh resin was good, but we again encountered mixed results.  The good news was that our specialty fragrance friend Haley really liked the aroma of one species she smelled.  The down side was that this scent came from one of the rarest species of copal while the aroma from the more common species did not seem promising as an ingredient in fine fragrance.  While pondering this, we learned that essential oils have a whole other group of people who use them for their healing properties more than their assets as an ingredient in a perfume.  Thanks to a budding connection with our fellow non-profit group Camino Verde, we met people who sold essential oils in this aromatherapy space.  So even if most copal oil wasn’t suitable in cologne, it might still be able to help someone relax, become energized, or direct positive energy to some other system of the body.  Indigenous people have used some of these resins as medicines, so this remained an enticing new market to explore.

Unfortunately, all of our forest surveys kept coming up with the same result. There just wasn’t as much resin out there as people believed there was or should be.  We wondered if copal abundance near villages was relatively low because scores of men regularly cruised around the forest hunting and opportunistically collecting copal and other forest products.

Last year, we thought we were finally going to get a chance to search for copal in a forest area far away from casual harvesting.  Our goal was to conduct a survey in the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area and create a pioneering management plan that would first allow people from Brillo Nuevo and later other communities to sustainably harvest copal in this large forest reserve.  We were ready to go, but our schedule kept changing in response to demands from the government agency responsible for oversight of the reserve.  When we finally were able to send our team off, they were not able to get as far above the Yaguasyacu River as they had hoped.  This limited their copal search to forest that was similar to the kind found near Brillo Nuevo in an area that was still frequented by hunters.  It was disappointing but not surprising that they didn’t find much resin.

Undaunted, we decided to try again this year, but we were again confronted with bureaucratic delays.  One unfortunate reality of working in Peru now is that government agencies dealing with the environment at the national and regional level have gone through numerous transitions and the people in charge at both the local level (reserve coordinators) and headquarters in Iquitos seem to change at least once a year.  Consequently, our efforts to explain our work to one person are short-lived.  One manager never seems to pass along their understanding of the situation to their successor so we have repeatedly had to start over again with each new person.  It is no wonder that communities generally view the government as an entity to work around rather than work with since there is rarely any consistent vision, support, or follow-up for any program.  The frequent shifts in personnel and lack of clarity about policies and procedures makes it particularly hard for communities to trust a government liaison.  In worse case scenarios, managers assigned to reserves adjoining indigenous area seem to lack a basic understanding and respectCampbell sorting resin lumps in Brazil in 1998

Campbell sorting resin lumps in Brazil in 1998
Copal tree with lychen patches in Peru
Copal tree with lychen patches in Peru
Weevil larva in copal resin lump
Weevil larva in copal resin lump
Campbell examining copal lumps in Jenaro Herrera
Campbell examining copal lumps in Jenaro Herrera
Manual harvest of copal resin in Jenaro Herrera
Manual harvest of copal resin in Jenaro Herrera
Stingless bee collecting copal resin
Stingless bee collecting copal resin
Cooking copal resin to caulk wooden boat
Cooking copal resin to caulk wooden boat
Bora man caulking canoe with copal resin
Bora man caulking canoe with copal resin
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin near Napo River
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin near Napo River
Bora women from Brillo Nuevo and copal incense
Bora women from Brillo Nuevo and copal incense
First distillation of copal resin in alembique pot
First distillation of copal resin in alembique pot
Man from Ancon Colonia with dry copal resin lumps
Man from Ancon Colonia with dry copal resin lumps
Campbell and Eli with yellow resin lumps
Campbell and Eli with yellow resin lumps
Copal oil in separatory flask
Copal oil in separatory flask
Fragrance maker Haley smelling copal
Fragrance maker Haley smelling copal
Burning copal resin to make fire and light
Burning copal resin to make fire and light

Links:

Oct 4, 2017

What does it really mean to practice fair trade?

What does it really mean to practice fair-trade?
What does it really mean to practice fair-trade?

As society has become more aware that businesses focused solely on profit can harm both people and the environment, many companies wish to convince their customers that they care about nature and the people who make and use their products.  It is easy to understand, however, why people concerned about human rights and the environment are skeptical about vague claims that certain products are “green” or “natural.”  The term “fair-trade” has also been loosely adopted by many vendors wishing to convey the impression they deal fairly with their suppliers.  We are honored that GlobalGiving has chosen Support native artisans and Rainforest in the Amazon to be one of six projects they are highlighting October, Fair Trade month, because they believe we truly embody this concept.  I hope this report will give you a deeper understanding of what Fair Trade really means and how we apply it to our work with our partners at home and in Peru.   

I launched CACE in 2006 with the goal of helping people living in the Amazon rainforest to improve their livelihoods and strengthen their communities by selling innovative products made from plant materials that were sustainably harvested from their forests.  This vision seemed to resonate with the aims of fair-trade enterprises, but it took ten years to build our group to the point where I felt ready to apply for membership in the Fair Trade Federation.  FTF is a non-profit association that represents both for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations who wish to support each other practicing nine specific fair-trade principles in their operations and promote these values in society as a whole.  

Below is a list of the nine fair-trade principles defined by FTF with condensed descriptions, our brief view on the topic and some comments from our artisan partners.  Be sure to see the photos at the bottom as well.  Thanks in advance for any additional support you can offer our project on the next GlobalGiving Bonus Day (Thursday, Oct. 5) and beyond.

1. CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR ECONOMICALLY AND SOCIALLY MARGINALIZED PRODUCERS

Fair Trade is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Members create social and economic opportunities through trading partnerships with marginalized producers.

CACE position: This first principle embodies CACE’s mission.  We aim to help our partners in forest-based communities develop and sell value-added products from sustainably harvested rainforest plants to improve their livelihoods, build stronger communities and promote a healthy environment.

Comment from Liz  – Native artisan from Puca Urquillo Bora and President of the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu (FECONA). See photo of Liz below.

“It is gratifying that our communities have the support of an NGO like CACE.  It provides a market alternative that otherwise we would not have. It coordinates with us to do things properly and conducts training workshops so artisans can improve their products.  Beyond the craft work, they have also supported reforestation and provided  medicine for health clinics in the communities.

2. DEVELOP TRANSPARENT AND ACCOUNTABLE RELATIONSHIPS

Fair Trade involves relationships that are open, fair, consistent, and respectful. Members show consideration for both customers and producers by sharing information about the entire trading chain through honest and proactive communication.

CACE position: We regularly discuss pricing in open meetings with our artisan partners so we can all agree on what prices should be paid for certain types of crafts.  This includes sharing the realities of our costs to market their products.  We also share information with our customers about what we pay the artisans for their work, our marketing costs and the amount we return to our partners to support basic needs in their communities.

Additional comment from Liz. – Native artisan and FECONA President

“CACE works in a serious way.  They coordinate their activities with our directors and share both what they have done and what they plan to do in the coming months in meetings with representatives from all 15 member communities.   CACE has not given our federation any reason to view its presence in our region in a bad way.

3. BUILD CAPACITY

Fair Trade is a means to develop producers’ independence. Members maintain long-term relationships based on solidarity, trust, and mutual respect, so that producers can improve their skills and their access to markets.

CACE position: Our core group of activities is building artisan capacity to make and sell new products with consistent quality from sustainably harvested local materials.  We do this primarily by holding skill-sharing workshops where experienced artisans from one region teach each other how to make new types of crafts.  We also host artisan leadership workshops where representatives from all partner communities gather to improve their ability to better organize their groups and assume more responsibility for product creation, quality control, marketing and natural resource management. Read more about these workshops in our GlobalGiving Reports: Artisan leaders gather in Nauta to share info, ideas and fun and Artisans gather in Santa Lucia de Pro for skill-sharing workshop. See photos of workshops below.

Comment from Angelina - Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo, Ampiyacu River

“We already knew how to make certain types of crafts when CACE first arrived, but it was quite a challenge when they asked us to make new ones.  For example, I remember spending days considering how I could make a belt look like a snake.  I was thinking and thinking, trying and trying until I found a way.  I liked that.  And when I shared my creation with others, they shared their creations with me and others. Over time, we all improved.”  Read more about Angelina in our GlobalGiving Report: Angelina and her family of Peruvian Amazon artisans. See photo of Angelina weaving with her family below.

Comment from Liria - Artisan from San Regis, Maranon River

“It was not easy working with CACE in the beginning when I was used to working a certain way.  It hurt at first when they said the details of my crafts were not good enough for them to buy.  I started to think, though, and realized that I must improve. I tried and little by little I did. When CACE came back to look at our crafts, they still rejected some of them, but they bought others.  Their purchases made me feel good because when I look at my work, I realize my crafts are well made, and recognizing this filled me with satisfaction.  It meant I was improving and have a greater chance to sell more crafts – not only to CACE but to anyone else who sees and likes them.” Read more about the early stages of our work with this area’s communities in our GlobalGiving report: Exploring egrets and new partners on the Maranon River.  See photos of Liria and other Maranon artisans below.

Comment from Zoraida. – Artisan and community organizar for Minga Peru in San Francisco, Maranon River.

“The workshops organized by CACE and Minga Peru have been very important. We’ve discussed different ways to strengthen our artisan associations and learned how to better present our thoughts to a group.  The interactive games are not only for fun, they can be a better way to convey ideas like working together in a team and building confidence.  If you can be a leader or facilitator whose goal is to get people to participate and not just to talk, you will get better results.” See photo of Zoraida below.

4. PROMOTE FAIR TRADE

Fair Trade encourages an understanding by all participants of their role in world trade. Members actively raise awareness about Fair Trade and the possibility of greater justice in the global economic system.

CACE position: Beyond our interactions with our artisan partners, CACE discusses the way we implement fair trade practices with everyone who attends a presentation, visits our website, buys a craft or donates to our organization.  We went through a rigorous screening process of joining the Fair Trade Federation so we could concretely demonstrate our commitment to these principles and learn from other fair-trade businesses how they have confronted the challenges of making a profit while still doing right by people and the environment.

5. PAY PROMPTLY AND FAIRLY

Fair Trade empowers producers to set prices within the framework of the true costs of labor, time, materials, sustainable growth, and related factors.

CACE position: CACE openly discusses and sets prices for the crafts we buy from our artisan partners with a full understanding of the time and natural resources that have gone into producing them based on studies we have done with them in their fields, forest and homes.  We pay promptly for finished crafts that meet our quality standards.

Comment from Dolores – Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo. See photo of Dolores below.

“Something that I think about more now when making handicrafts is the use of my time and resources.  CACE taught us that we can be more productive if we know how to manage these two things.  For example, I used to make hammocks that used a large number of chambira leaf spears, but I can now earn more money making other types of handicrafts that use much less fiber.  These things are also important to consider when valueing your own crafts.  We used to almost give away our work because we did not truly value our efforts.  With CACE we discuss prices and why certain crafts should receive a certain cost.  If I sell my handicrafts in the city now, I know very well what the price should be.”  Read more about the key role that Dolores played in our study of chambira productivity in our GlobalGiving report: The art of weaving chambira palm fiber in the Peruvian Amazon and CACE’s approach to innovation.

Comment from Mili – Bora artisan from Puca Urquillo.

“I particularly like the way CACE works. I have had experience with other buyers who pay you after a certain amount of time – sometimes in parts but never the whole amount.  On the other hand, CACE is serious in this respect.  When they place an order, you know with certainty they will pay you. The other artisans and I like that very much.” See photo of artisan signing receipt for craft payment below.

6. SUPPORT SAFE AND EMPOWERING WORKING CONDITIONS

Fair Trade means a safe and healthy working environment free of forced labor. Throughout the trading chain, Members cultivate workplaces that empower people to participate in the decisions that affect them.

CACE position: When we propose an order to a group of artisans, they only accept it if they believe they can make the crafts requested according to the types, numbers, prices and time specified.  Artisans then divide the order among those who are interested to help fulfill it.  Most artisans collect the plants they use to make the crafts from their own fields and make the crafts in their own homes or collective spaces they have built for themselves.

7. ENSURE THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN

Fair Trade means that all children have the right to security, education, and play.

CACE position: Most crafts are made by adults from partner communities.  While children go to school and have lots of time to play, it is traditional for artisan parents to teach their children how to make handicrafts.  Many of the most creative and productive artisans we work with who are now in their twenties and early thirties were teenagers watching their moms weave and their dads carve new crafts in the CACE project.  Apart from our craft work, CACE has supported education in several villages and towns by donating a portion of craft sales to buy school supplies for students, equipment for school offices, and a new bathroom for an elementary school.  See photos of inter-generational craft making and kids playing below.

8. CULTIVATE ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP

Fair Trade seeks to offer current generations the ability to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

CACE position – As stated before, promoting this principle lies at the heart of CACE’s mission.  We believe that helping people to improve their livelihoods by sustainably using non-timber forest products will relieve pressure to exploit the forest in more severe ways.  Our aim is to help our partners use more of their creative than natural resources to improve their income.  We help artisans use saws instead of machetes to harvest chambira palm to reduce damage to non-target leaves and support their efforts to plant more trees today to meet the demand for more products three to five years in the future.

Comment from Maria – Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo

“I have planted chambira palm trees in my field, and I will keep reforesting it.  My husband and I know we need the chambira, not only now but for the future.  I’ve seen communities that have no chambira because they didn’t know how or didn’t care to plant it.  Fortunately CACE has supported reforestation in my and many other fields in the community so it’s clear they understand the value of caring for and maintaining the forest.” Read more about early CACE reforestation activities in the Ampiyacu in our GlobalGiving report: New handicrafts and craft plant reforestation. See photo of chambira planting below.

9. RESPECT CULTURAL IDENTITY

Fair Trade celebrates the cultural diversity of communities, while seeking to create positive and equitable change.

CACE position – CACE now works with artisans from 17 villages, towns and cities in the northern Peruvian Amazon that include six indigenous groups as well as forest people of mixed backgrounds who call themselves “mestizos”(mixed race people) or “campesinos” (forest farmers).  While the degree to which these indigenous communities use their native language and practice their traditional customs varies widely, CACE seeks to accept and respect the cultural norms of any community we partner with.  Read more about our initial efforts to work with new native communities in the Napo River area in our GlobalGiving report: Exploring a partnership with Maijuna communities.

Since most of our core programs are focused on strengthening the crLiz - Bora artisan and FECONA President

Liz - Bora artisan and FECONA President
Skill-sharing workshop to weave butterflies
Skill-sharing workshop to weave butterflies
Maranon artisan with woven motmot and kingfisher
Maranon artisan with woven motmot and kingfisher
Zoraida presenting group poster to artisan leaders
Zoraida presenting group poster to artisan leaders
Dolores stripping leaflets from chambira leafspear
Dolores stripping leaflets from chambira leafspear
CACE paying artisan for handicraft on delivery
CACE paying artisan for handicraft on delivery
Angelina, her mother and daughter weaving together
Angelina, her mother and daughter weaving together
Bora children jumping over hay in Brillo Nuevo
Bora children jumping over hay in Brillo Nuevo
Maria with daughter and chambira palm seedling
Maria with daughter and chambira palm seedling
Bora artisan teaching how to make calabash rattles
Bora artisan teaching how to make calabash rattles
Chino artisan association & draft logo with basket
Chino artisan association & draft logo with basket
Little parrots with woven egrets in San Francisco
Little parrots with woven egrets in San Francisco
Liria drying chambira fiber before dyeing it
Liria drying chambira fiber before dyeing it

Links:

Aug 21, 2017

Did you make all of these crafts?

Marvelous spatule tail hummingbird ornament
Marvelous spatule tail hummingbird ornament

While all of our previous reports about our project focused on our work with our native community partners in Peru which is supported by donations received through GlobalGiving, our sale of their handicrafts in the U.S. is our direct means of supporting artisan families and improving health, education and conservation in their communities. 

When we first started buying crafts from artisans who visited the research station at Jenaro Herrera in 2006, we had no formal channels for selling them.  Like many people who connected with foreign places that were full of poor people with rich artisan traditions – I came home with random crafts stuffed in my duffel bag and did my best to sell them at my church (Friends Meeting for me) and to friends at special dinners.  As our work in Peru focused more on trying to help artisans, I started selling crafts at small holiday craft fairs in central Pennsylvania.  This was sometimes a lonely affair – one time I sat behind a table at a church fair and sold $50 worth of crafts in 6 hours.  As our number of partner communities expanded, the pressure to sell more crafts increased even more.  We bought our first exhibition tent in the summer of 2015 and tried our luck being a vendor at the Green Festival in New York City and Washington, D.C., street fairs in New Jersey and several music festivals.  It was clear that events in the convention centers were too expensive, and it took too much work to set up in the morning, sell during the day and break-down that that evening at street fairs.  While the music festivals varied a lot in size and character, most provided opportunities to set-up at a site for several days and interact with more people who appreciated hand-made crafts.

Last summer I packed my Subaru station wagon and Thule roof carrier to the max with our tent, display materials and boxes of crafts and drove to eight festivals in four states.  The results varied a lot according to the age and demographics of the festival goers, the amount of rain (or hail in one case) and other factors, but I noticed that the larger booths (bigger than the standard 10 x 10 foot size) got more traffic because people could browse their wares more comfortably.  I had tried to help people connect to our crafts by displaying photos of the artisans, hanging garlands of plastic plants, and playing rainforest sounds on cassettes on a tape player I picked up at Goodwill, but my dream was to create an environment where booth visitors could see our full variety of incredible crafts attractively displayed and engage with the Amazon rainforest and its people more intensively.

That dream has largely come true this summer.  My wife agreed to trade in our Subaru with 250,000 miles on it and sold some mutual funds to buy a used Toyota Highlander in very good condition.  I now use this to haul a small trailer that contains our two 10 x 20 foot tents that gives us a full 400 square feet to work with at some festivals.  We adorn our ample space with tropical style plants, rainforest birds and masks, and we have a corner called the Amazon Discovery Zone.  This area has a TV playing a rotation of videos showing how our artisan partners make their crafts.  One wall features the Rainforest Puzzle which is a 3 x 3 foot mosaic of photo pieces of Amazon people, plants animals.  Groups are challenged to assemble it as fast as they can and challenge their friends to beat their time.  We have the Pin the Eye on the Tree Frog game for younger kids.  We have a small table just outside the tent inviting people to draw a picture of a toucan or their favorite animal. They can refer to a larger plush toucan perched above or a pile of pictures of Amazon animals nearby for inspiration.  Their creations are posted on a giant whiteboard called the Rainforest Art Gallery.  I write other quiz-type questions on little whiteboards such as: “what is the longest river in the world?” (spoiler alert – it’s the Amazon) and “what is the largest rodent in the world?” Finally, I offer musicians a 30% discount on our guitar straps if they are willing to play a song or two on my or their guitar with one of our guitar straps and let me post it on our YouTube channel.

Below are some the most common questions/comments visitors to the booth have asked me `and a few of my typical responses that vary according to how much information it seems like someone wants to hear.  Sometimes I wonder why I bother making signs at all, but any question creates an opportunity to engage with someone.

Customer 1: Wow, these crafts are beautiful, did you make them all?

CP: Thank you, they are beautiful, aren’t they?  I took the photos, but I did not make any of the crafts.  They were all made by artisans who live in the Peruvian Amazon.  My organization now works with fifteen native and campesino communities in the region.  We help them develop and market the crafts so the artisans can help support their families without cutting the rainforest down.  We are encouraging the artisans to make more ornaments based on actual Amazon species of birds, butterflies, insects, amphibians and other wildlife.  I was amazed that an artisan we have just started working with along the Maranon River rendered an incredible model of the spatule tail hummingbird on his first try.

Customer 2: How much are the earrings?

CP: All of the earrings are $12 (I usually don’t tell them that there is a big sign right above the earrings that says: Amazon Earrings $12).  They are made from some

Customer 3: Your signs say you are Fair Trade.  How much money do the artisans get from your sales?

CP: CACE is a member of the Fair Trade Federation which means that we respect all nine fair trade principles.  We pay the artisans up front for their work at a price that is agreed to ahead of time with them or their association if they work in a group.  On average, our retail price is three to four times the price we pay the artisans so we can buy the crafts, send them to the US, sell them here and support a small portion of the program costs of our work in Peru that include hosting skill-sharing and leadership workshops for the artisans.  We return 20% of our net sales of the crafts made by artisans from our partner communities to support improve health, education and conservation projects chosen by them.  These social rebates are additions to the other benefits generated by work sponsored by foundation grants and donations from individuals (like gifts through GlobalGiving). 

Customer 4: Do you get to go to Peru?

CP: Yes, that’s one of the best parts of my job.  I usually go to Peru twice a year for five or six weeks to meet with our small staff in Iquitos, visit our artisan partners and their communities, and check on our research and reforestation projects (copal and rosewood).  I first fly to Lima then get a domestic flight to Iquitos – the largest city in the northern Peruvian Amazon.  I stay in a small house in Iquitos and then take one or more boats of various sizes to visit our partner communities.  It takes about five hours to get to the closest ones and 24 hours to get the remote ones.  I’ve gotten to know many artisans and their families well since I have visited their homes at least once a year for the past two to eleven years.  It’s also great to meet new artisans every visit as some veteran artisans encourage their friends to get involved with us.  Some new artisans began learning to weave from their moms when they were in primary school and they are now accomplished enough to make export quality crafts with us.  Over the years, it’s also been sad to lose a few artisan partners who have died in freak accidents in the forest or succumbed to a disease that could have been treated with access to better health care.  Other artisans have dropped out of our pool because old age has left them with very poor eyesight or bad arthritis in their hands.  Their grand-daughters can sometimes help them for a while, but eventually they need to retire.  Other artisans have left their villages to live in towns or Iquitos to get regular work or so their children can attend better schools. 

Customer 5: I’ve been to Machu Picchu.

CP: That’s great.  It’s an incredible place.  I hope that next time you go to Peru, you’ll make it to the Amazon because it’s very different and special as well.

Customer 6: How did you get involved with all of this?

CP: I got involved with rainforest conservation in the mid-1980’s when there was a lot of attention about the massive loss of tropical forests.  I worked with Greenpeace to try to convince the World Bank and other large institutions to stop funding projects that were damaging forests and harming indigenous people.  I left this work after several years, though, when it became apparent that I was not well suited to do this lobbying and advocacy work on this issue at the global level.  I went back to school to get some skills to help rainforest people at the local level.  I lived in a Tembe Indian village in the eastern Brazilian Amazon for almost two years doing field work for a PhD in Ecology where I studied the ecology, management and marketing of non-timber forest products.  After I graduated, I did some consulting work with a few groups campaigns for indigenous rights and curbing illegal logging.  I then founded CACE because it was the only way I could see to do what I knew I really wanted to do – help create positive alternatives to deforestation for small communities in the Amazon.

Customer 7: (Picking up and shaking a rattle ornament) Is this a gourd?

CP:   These rattles are made from the pod of the calabash tree.  Many Amazon families plant this tree in their back yards because they can harvest a fruit that’s as small as an egg or as large as a watermelon for any size of bowl or container.  They clean the seeds out of the pod, dry it and then put seeds from the achira plant inside to give it a nice sound.  They cap it with a balsa wood plug and attach a chambira palm fiber chord to hang it from a Christmas tree.  Every craft in our booth has a rich story behind it.  All of our crafts come with a card with the name of the artisan who made it, the name of their community and all of the plants they used to make it.  We want to help people who visit our booth understand that buying a craft from us is not buying a commodity, it is making an investment in the future of the Amazon.

Customer 8: Do you sell your crafts anywhere else besides festivals?

CP: Yes, please check out our Amazon Forest Store online.  We are also starting to sell some crafts wholesale to fair trade and other stores around the US.  We’d welcome any ideas you have about good places that might like to carry crafts made by our partners.  If you’d like to host a craft sale/party in your home, please let us know.

Customer 9: Do you need help?  Can people volunteer with you in Peru?

CP:  We need a lot of help. Volunteers help us at festivals to set-up and take down our booth, sell crafts and talk with our customers.  We also work with students and professionals in the US with tasks like writing, photo and video editing, research data analysis, and book keeping. Other people host presentations and craft sales in their home.  Our Amazon Field Volunteers spend one week to two months with us in Peru using one of their skills to support our work or our community partners.  Past volunteers have included a photographer, videographer, journalist, artist, and a woman doing service projects around the world after her 34th birthday.  My daughter spent two summers with me in Peru near the end of her time in high school, and she focused on volunteering at a local health clinic.  These experiences helped inspire her to go to nursing school.  Please visit our website or contact me if you want to discuss an idea for volunteering in the US or Peru.  We can also connect you with our sister organization Camino Verde which runs a special reforestation center in the southern Peruvian Amazon.

Customer 10:  How do you support your work?

CP:  The main sources for funding our work in Peru are grants from foundations and donations from individuals.  If you’d like to learn more about or contribute to our work, please visit our website or our page on GlobalGiving at www.AmazonAlive.net.

 

Next report, I’ll share highlights from our last two artisan leadership workshops.

Thanks very much for your support.

Native Peruvian crafts for sale at CACE booth
Native Peruvian crafts for sale at CACE booth
Friends and family that did the Rainforest Puzzle
Friends and family that did the Rainforest Puzzle
Drawing a toucan at CACE booth at festival
Drawing a toucan at CACE booth at festival
Amazon Forest Store trailer at Romp music festival
Amazon Forest Store trailer at Romp music festival
Musician playing with Amazon guitar strap on guita
Musician playing with Amazon guitar strap on guita
Practicing quality control at artisan workshop
Practicing quality control at artisan workshop
Bora family in peque peque
Bora family in peque peque
Bora artisan family from Brillo Nuevo
Bora artisan family from Brillo Nuevo
Campbell studying copal resin in Brazil
Campbell studying copal resin in Brazil
Bora artisan with calabash rattle ornaments
Bora artisan with calabash rattle ornaments
Videographer Greg H. - Amazon Field Volunteer
Videographer Greg H. - Amazon Field Volunteer
Watering seedlings at Camino Verde nursery
Watering seedlings at Camino Verde nursery

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