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May 23, 2017

Navigating choppy community waters to make smooth bottle carriers

Bora artisans from Nuevo Peru and bottle carriers
Bora artisans from Nuevo Peru and bottle carriers

As soon as our boat pulled up to the bank of Nuevo Peru in the pouring rain, Yully, Tulio, Ania, Lucio, and I ran to the school building, draped our ponchos over the sills of the open-air windows and waited for the artisans to arrive for what we hoped would be a quick introductory meeting.  We waited some more hoping the rain might stop.  Then we waited some more hoping that people might show up.

Fair enough.  We started working with native communities in the Ampiyacu River area in 2008 to develop handicrafts and essential oils, and this Bora village had waited seven years for us to visit them.  We were still a very small NGO, though, so we did not want to take on new partners until we felt we could work with them effectively.

We occasionally saw figures darting between the half-dozen houses spaced around the open soccer field, and finally one of them splashed across the tall grass and mud puddles toward us.  He bounced up the stairs, and wiping his wet hair away from eyes said, “I am Alejandro, the president of this community.  Welcome to Nuevo Peru. We have heard a few things about CECAMA (the Spanish acronym for CACE) from others and look forward to learning more about your group from you.  As you know, our village is very small so not many people or projects pay attention to us.

As the downpour subsided to a drizzle, our audience gradually grew to eight women, three men and two children from the village.  We asked them what kind of crafts they had experience making and selling, and their answer was typical of artisans in the area.  Rosalvina said, “My sisters and I know how to weave chambira palm fiber into simple bags and hammocks, but we don’t sell them very often because tourists hardly ever come here, and it’s expensive to go to Iquitos where the market vendors don’t pay much for our crafts that take many days to make.”

Tulio then set up his MacBook and showed the group a video he had just finished making about the different products that artisans from other Ampiyacu communities weaving for sale in the US through CECAMA.   Ania from Brillo Nuevo next addressed her Bora colleagues – “I’ve really enjoyed weaving natural patterns like the red, white and black striped naca naca (coral snake) into new crafts like belts, guitar straps and hot pads.”  Lucio told the men – “We get to know many animals while hunting in the forest.  I still sometimes shoot a paca or peccary for my family to eat, but I can make more money now carving wildlife figures onto calabash tree pods than selling game meat in the town of Pebas.  CECAMA buys lots of these for people in the US to use for Christmas tree ornaments or hand rattles.”

The group seemed very enthusiastic about getting involved, but over the next year and a half, only a few artisans came to any of the skill-sharing workshops that we sponsored in the area.  A few wove a few hot pads, but the colors were weak or muddy, and the shapes were irregular.  One woman made a guitar strap that was OK for a first try, but it wasn’t good enough to sell in the US.  We realized that while these products looked simple, they were not at all simple to make.  It had taken the artisans from other villages several years to start making these with consistently high quality.  The Nuevo Peru artisans were getting discouraged and resentful that we weren’t buying their initial efforts.  Jheny expressed this sentiment succinctly – “how would you feel if you spent a week gathering, cleaning, dyeing, and weaving a craft and were then told – sorry, it’s not good enough, try again.”

At this common juncture of working with artisans, some artisans do quit or at least give up wanting to work with us.  Others understand that making new things well inevitably takes a lot of trial, error and practice.  Rather than accept that we were bound to have a high attrition rate and hope that one or two artisans might persevere long enough to make good crafts with us, we tried a different strategy that should have seemed obvious at the beginning.  We asked the Nuevo Peru artisans to make bottle carriers which were a relatively new product for us, but the women could make them in a very similar way they used to weave chambira bags – they just needed to make them tall, skinny and round.

When I next visited Nuevo Peru in the fall of 2016, we gathered at Luz’ house on the edge of the soccer field since she had emerged as the local artisan group leader.  She told us, “I am really working hard to become a better artisan because I can already see this will help me sell more crafts and make more money for my family.  The hardest part is encouraging my sisters and others in the village to keep practicing and pay attention to the details.” It was great to see, though, that this group had made a big step forward by making a batch of attractive slender bags that could be used to carry a bottle of water at a festival or bottle of wine to a neighborhood party.  (I recently learned this item is called a wine cozy.)  It was still a somewhat painful process, though, because Yully still rejected many of them after close inspection because their dimensions, colors, and/or quality of weaving weren’t good.  We realized (again) that we need to train our partners how to use simple tools like a tape measure and leave a few well-made crafts with them as examples.  It was, nonetheless, great to get a few shots of the four artisans with their best bottle carriers and Rosalvina’s daughter Dana holding all of them draped over her head.  One of these pics was selected as a semi-finalist in this year’s GlobalGiving Photo Centest – see details for how you can vote for this vote as your favorite at the end of this report.

So we’ve made some progress with Nuevo Peru, but beyond the issues discussed in this report lie even bigger challenges that feel well beyond our scope to resolve.  Last year Nuevo Peru agreed to host a major skill-sharing workshop which would have been a big boost for their artisans.  We cancelled it, however, because it became evident that the community’s exploration of problematic modes of generating income would not make it a safe environment to bring a large group from other villages under our name.  While we have invited their artisans to join the new Artisan Leadership Program workshops held in Nauta, they have so far declined.  I am optimistic we will find a way to reconnect to the Neuvo Peru artisans in time, but we are still learning to navigate these choppy community waters.

In the meantime, Bora and Huitoto artisans from Puca Urquillo are continuing to make high-quality bottle carriers that we will sell through our online Amazon Forest Store and at music festivals this summer.

Thanks for your support of our project.  Please vote for our photo of Ampiyacu artisans as your favorite in the GlobalGiving Photo Contest at: https://www.globalgiving.org/poll/vote/?pollOptionId=1131.  Voting is open from May 22 through midnight on Thursday, May 26 (12:01 am on May 27).  Help us win the $1000 prize to support our work.

Artisans from Nuevo Peru with bottle carriers
Artisans from Nuevo Peru with bottle carriers
Bora artisan daughter with bottle carriers
Bora artisan daughter with bottle carriers
Bora artisan weaving bottle carrier at workshop
Bora artisan weaving bottle carrier at workshop
Ania discussing CACE craft project in Nuevo Peru
Ania discussing CACE craft project in Nuevo Peru
Nuevo Peru artisan with son and bottle carrier
Nuevo Peru artisan with son and bottle carrier
Nuevo Peru artisan with two bottle carrier models
Nuevo Peru artisan with two bottle carrier models
CACE project manager inspecting bottle carriers
CACE project manager inspecting bottle carriers
Artisan daughter at Nuevo Peru
Artisan daughter at Nuevo Peru
Chambira palm fiber wine cozy made by Bora artisan
Chambira palm fiber wine cozy made by Bora artisan
Lisa with chambira bottle carrier at music fest
Lisa with chambira bottle carrier at music fest
Gladys with chambira bottle carrier at festival
Gladys with chambira bottle carrier at festival
Eric with chambira bottle carrier at festival
Eric with chambira bottle carrier at festival
Mother and daughter looking at rain at Nuevo Peru
Mother and daughter looking at rain at Nuevo Peru

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Feb 22, 2017

Second chance to become a great artisan

Global Giving Report #21 banner final2.jpg
Global Giving Report #21 banner final2.jpg

Second chance to become a great artisan

Last week we held two “creative” workshops with artisans from the communities of San Francisco and Amazonas on the Marañon River that work with the group Minga Peru.  Since they had already woven some very cool ornaments of colorful birds, we handed out photos of a dozen actual species and asked them to design new models of birds from the Peruvian Amazon.  During the gathering, we interviewed several artisans on video to learn more about the lives of our newest partners. While CACE is a secular organization, we are spirit-led and were moved by Francisca’s faith and story about an event that led to the formation of the artisan association in Amazonas.

“In truth, things happen to us because the Lord gives us a second chance. Last January 23 was the 10th anniversary of the day I almost drowned.  I was going to Nauta with my husband, his uncle, my little daughter and her doll.  We were cruising up river in our motor canoe just before dawn with my husband driving the boat and my uncle in the bow.  I was combing my daughter’s hair when we felt a blow.  I thought it was just a branch in the water that whacked the boat and didn’t pay much attention to it.  After the second hit, things happened very fast.”

“I realized I was in the water, grabbed for my little girl and hugged her tightly. At that moment I said to the Lord: “Lord, get me out of this water with my little girl or save only her and do what you want with me”.  I lifted my daughter up and swam until I managed to reach the shore.  Fortunately my feet touched the ground and I was able to stand. I looked for my husband and saw him leaning against the overturned boat. It had apparently hit a submerged trunk and flipped.  We heard my husband’s uncle calling out a short way down river.  The water had dragged him down but he had also ended up on the shore.  My husband was able to save the engine by taking the boat to shore as well. What I remember well is that I did not cry or scream at any momento, and neither did my daughter.  She was a baby and stayed very calm.  We went back to the community and told people what had happenned.”

“Why do I remember that event? Because after it, seeing my children and embracing them caused me to think more about life.  That dawn I reflected on how fragile we are. I thought of how my fears and constant doubts had inhibited me and knew I had to change.  This life that can be finished in a second had given me a second chance.”

“So this realization motivated me to do many things including improve my work as an artisan.  I used to be afraid of not being very good so I didn’t care enough to try.  But then I convinced myself that I should get better.  I became the first member of the association of artisans in our community of Amazonas and helped baptize it "Palisangre" (the spanish word for the beautiful dark red Amazon “bloodwood” used by many artisans for carving).”

“That is my story. As I told you at the beginning, I decided to change my life ten years ago because I was faced with death. One of the changes I have given my life is making handicrafts. I will not be afraid or doubt my ability again.  If I do not do a job well, I will keep trying until I improve.  Since that day I have improved little by little and will keep improving.  That’s how life is.”

 

Thank you for your support for our project that helps us support wonderful artisans like Francisca.

Francisca in Amazonas 2.jpg
Francisca in Amazonas 2.jpg
Francisca butterfly napkin holder 1024 px.jpg
Francisca butterfly napkin holder 1024 px.jpg
Francisca scraping huacamayo caspi bark.jpg
Francisca scraping huacamayo caspi bark.jpg
Francisca with large chambira plate 1024 px.jpg
Francisca with large chambira plate 1024 px.jpg
Francisca with woven iguana 1024px.jpg
Francisca with woven iguana 1024px.jpg

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Nov 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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