Apply to Join
Sep 12, 2016

Exploring egrets and new partners on the Maranon River

Montage of egret ornaments and artisans
Montage of egret ornaments and artisans

Earlier this year I learned about a group with a kindred spirit called Minga Peru that also works with native communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon.  It began by hosting a radio program to educate people in rural areas about health issues.  It then expanded its work to include training women to be “promotoras” (advocates) who can share information and promote better health, education and economic activities in their communities.  Minga Peru has provided some support for a few food production and forestry projects with several partners in the Maranon River region that borders the reknown Pacaya-Samiria conservation area.  It has also worked with the Lindblad tour company to bring groups of tourists to visit four of these communities on a rotating basis.  These visits could generate significant income for artisans in these villages, but Minga Peru co-director Luiz G. readily admitted, “We don’t have the expertise to help these artisans – perhaps you can work with us to do this.”

After meeting with Minga Peru’s director of operations in Loreto, I took an early morning van from Iquitos to Nauta – the only stretch of paved highway that emanates from Peru’s principal Amazonian city.  MP local coordinator Edwin A. then took us by boat to Amazonas – a Cucama native village with about 100 families where we met the local “promotora” Zoraida.  One of her duties included taking care of the short-wave radio and public address system in her house so residents could be given important news, called to a meeting or communicate with someone outside the village.  After giving us a quick tour of the fish pond, she escorted us to an open wall structure where a dozen women from the Palosangre artisan association were busy mashing, slicing and scraping fruits, roots, leaves and bark.  They added these bits into pots of boiling water with hanks of chambira palm fiber to dye them a wide range of earth tone and other colors.

The artisans seemed used to showing these activities to visitors who would wander around while they continued to chat among themselves.  As I asked them about the names and uses and mixtures of plants with citrus juice and mud, and commented how these compared to ones used by artisans from other parts of the region, their attentiveness seemed to increase.  The association leader Francisca told me, “some years ago we used the artificial dye powders to color our woven crafts because it was easy, but an American visitor strongly encouraged us to use the plant dyes again because he said that tourists would appreciate the natural colors and traditional arts much better.  He was right – you’ll see our decorative weaving soon.  We’re now also collecting roots of two types of vines to weave stronger baskets to carry things.”

After the demonstration, the women put their dye plants away and reconvened under a thatched roof dome where the artisans all laid out their crafts to sell.  I had made it clear that I was primarily there to get a feeling for what they had, not to buy things like a tourist, but as I walked around the circle, I still felt the familiar heavy expectation of artisans who make very little money hoping I would buy something from them.  I made the rounds two times – the first quickly and the second slowly.  I was pleased to see that there were a few pieces that were well-made and both new and interesting to me.  The hard part was realizing that 95% of the crafts did not meet these criteria.

I took a deep breath and asked Francisca, “Would you like some feedback on the crafts from my point of view?” She immediately responded, “Yes, please.  We work hard to make these crafts to try to make some money to help our families.  So, we get very frustrated that well-dressed tourists come here, look around, but they often don’t buy anything.”  The suggestions I offered were that they work hard to improve the quality of their crafts.  They know the difference between well-made and poorly made crafts so they need to help each other make them better and only put out the best ones to show to the tourists.  Next, they could focus on making crafts that are unique – not make the same ones being made by hundreds of other artisans found in every craft stall in the city.  I pointed out and bought examples of a few crafts that I found special that included some woven animal figures and woven plates with different patterns.  I showed them a video of our work with artisans from the Ampiyacu and passed around samples of a few of the Christmas tree ornaments they have been making in the past few years.

My visit to the town of San Francisco another half an hour up river followed a similar but abbreviated pattern.  Minga Peru had trained two “promotoras” in this campesino community with almost 500 people.  While the artisans were not prepared for my visit, Doris, who was leader of the artisan association Las Achiras (named for one of the principle seeds used in craft making) quickly gathered almost 20 women and some of their husbands in an empty school room to display their crafts and have a chat.  We didn’t have the same degree of warm-up, but it was easy to get down to business.  Most of the crafts were still typical designs with average quality, but it was exciting to find that more than half a dozen of these artisans had woven some awesome egrets, a beguiling owl and other clever animals with brightly colored chambira fiber.  Liria said, “we’ve got some wonderful birds that live by our river that are fun to make.” Lesly added, “I’m always experimenting making new animals from our forest.  Some look kind of funny, but some turn out really well.”

I picked out even more unusual samples this time and said that I would show these to buyers in the US.  After the shopping, Doris and her colleagues gathered around my laptop to watch the Ampiyacu video.  She said, “it’s great to see the creativity and knowledge of nature that those artisans have put into their crafts.  We’d love to work with you to encourage that process with us.”

 I am happy to report that people who visited our booth at craft fairs and music festivals this summer loved the Maranon artisan critter crafts. Of the 42 craft samples I bought during our first one-day visit, only one was left by the end of the season.  Someone even bought the woven frog with a lot of attitude.  Our project manager Yully is visiting Amazonas and San Francisco right now to review and pick up our first order of crafts from their artisans.  I expect they will be very popular during the upcoming Christmas season and create a new source of income for their families and support for their communities.

Thank you very much for your support for our project. We would welcome any donation on the next GlobalGiving Bonus Day on Sept. 21 when contributions can receive matching funds.

Artisan from San Francisco with woven purple egret
Artisan from San Francisco with woven purple egret
Artisan Letty with woven owl. Photo by Plowden
Artisan Letty with woven owl. Photo by Plowden
Artisan Liria with woven fish ornament
Artisan Liria with woven fish ornament
Cucama artisan Juana with woven chambira plate
Cucama artisan Juana with woven chambira plate
Artisan Lesly with two woven birds
Artisan Lesly with two woven birds
Artisan with carved balsa wood coati
Artisan with carved balsa wood coati
Artisan with woven chambira snail
Artisan with woven chambira snail
Cooking dye plants for chambira
Cooking dye plants for chambira
Scraping huacamayo caspi bark for chambira dye
Scraping huacamayo caspi bark for chambira dye
Campbell with artisans at San Francisco
Campbell with artisans at San Francisco
Cooking green dye plant
Cooking green dye plant

Links:

Jun 15, 2016

Butterflies and Dora's family group of artisans

Amazon butterflies and Dora group woven ornaments
Amazon butterflies and Dora group woven ornaments

In the summer of 2007, the Center for Amazon Community Ecology began its second summer of field work researching the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin at a research station on the outskirts of Jenaro Herrera – a town of 5,000 people reached by a 12-hour ferry ride up the Ucayali River from Iquitos.  On one trip to town, I met Dora and her “family” of artisans and bought an assortment of their shicras (shoulder bags that were loosely woven with chambira palm fiber) and seed jewelry to bring back to the U.S.  Their handicrafts were similar to ones made by many other artisans in the region so I asked them how they thought they might make their crafts more distinctive.  Dora volunteered, “I could sew a satiny lining into a chambira bag – what about red?” Great, let’s try it!  My 17-year old daughter Marissa who was with me on that trip suggested the idea of making a chambira choker decorated with achira seeds.  Dora’s “aunt” Hilda said, “I could make that.”   We then walked out to their fields to watch them collect oblong-shaped pashaco seeds to accent some longer necklaces.  Several weeks later we got some well-made examples of the standard crafts and some examples of the new ones.

Our sales of earrings made by other artisans from Jenaro Herrera did well, but the new woven crafts made by Dora and her relatives hadn’t yet struck a chord.  After some Christmas tree ornaments made by artisans from the Ampiyacu region began to sell well, I brought the challenge to Dora and her group.  We brainstormed different ideas, and they decided to try making colorful miniature versions of the woven baskets and plates that were usually 8 to 12 inches across.  Doilith who was a younger relative that had recently joined the group made chambira stars with black and red seeds in the five points and center.

It was encouraging to see that people liked many of these ornaments, but the spark of success came the following summer when Dora modestly told me, “My daughter Rosa has woven some critters that I think you will like.”  It was a wonderful understatement.  Arriving at her house, I marveled at the first examples of a butterfly, bee and dragonfly that she had woven from chambira.  The normally shy teenager beamed when I asked her if I could take her picture displaying her creative efforts.

Over the next few years, we experimented with different colors, models and sizes of these unique insect ornaments.  It didn’t take long to figure out that people buying one for their Christmas tree or a gift much preferred ones with bright colors like yellow and orange to dark ones and generally liked small to medium sized-ones more than giants.  We gradually improved, but Dora and friends produced some batches that still mostly sit in boxes because I failed to understand that certain Spanish words for colors are different from their English equivalents and their meanings may vary from region to region. 

I appreciated that in spite of these glitches in communication, the Association of Chambira Artisans as they now called themselves worked very diligently to comply with any craft order and were always ready to discuss and try new ideas. They in turn appreciated that while CACE was their only regular craft buyer once or twice a year, these sales were making a difference in their lives. When I got to Jenaro Herrera in the summer of 2014, I noticed that Dora’s house was completely new.  She said, “thanks to making these ornaments, Eliazar and I were able to buy enough wood and palm thatch to put up new walls and a roof.”

While the Dora group will continue using their imagination to make new crafts, we are now trying to develop some chambira ornaments based on actual species of Amazon insects. They have made good-looking models of the blue morpho butterfly, scarlet peacock butterfly, (day-time flying) uranid moth, and the Amazon darner dragonfly.  Attempts to make a bright green orchid bee and yellow and red tailed “ronsapa” bee that are important pollinators and collectors of copal resin are still in progress.   Since Rosa left town, Doilith has become the master weaver of these new critters.  She said, “I love the challenge of trying to figure out how to make the details of these beautiful little animals that live in our forests.  Before we started making insects ornaments, I wasn’t really aware that they have six legs instead of four.  My goal now is to bring them to life as best as I can so people can have a better understanding of our art, culture, and nature in the Peruvian Amazon.  Making crafts is already helping my family meet its needs, and (placing her hand gently on her tummy) I’ve got another baby on the way." Dora added, "We also feel proud that part of the sales of our crafts have helped support our local school and health clinic. We now look forward to working with CACE to plant more chambira trees to support our craft making for the future."

Thank you very much for your support that makes this work possible.  One other great opportunity to support our work will be Wednesday, June 15 - Partner Bonus Day on GlobalGiving.  Beginning at 9:00 am, donations made online to our project (up to $1000) will receive a 50% match from other generous donors until matching funds run out.  This is the single largest chance to multiply a gift this year.  Thanks for sharing this opportunity to support our work with your friends and family through social media or an old-fashioned phone call.

Campbell & Dora group artisans from Jenaro Herrera
Campbell & Dora group artisans from Jenaro Herrera
Dora group looking at photos of Amazon insects
Dora group looking at photos of Amazon insects
Doilith weaving chambira butterfly ornament
Doilith weaving chambira butterfly ornament
Scarlet peacock butterfly and chambira ornament
Scarlet peacock butterfly and chambira ornament
Amazon darner dragonfly and chambira ornament
Amazon darner dragonfly and chambira ornament
Hilda making morpho butterfly ornament
Hilda making morpho butterfly ornament

Links:

Apr 7, 2016

Bringing artisans together and getting out of the way

blue headed parrot photo banner
blue headed parrot photo banner

One of CACE’s most successful programs working with artisans in the Ampiyacu River region has been to organize skill-sharing workshops where five or six veteran artisans show other artisans how to make a new special kind of handicraft.  While these workshops have steadily increased the number of native artisans who know how to make CACE’s best-selling models of hot pads, belts, guitar straps, and Christmas tree ornaments, we and our partners recognize that they also needed to become better organized to fully use this growing capacity to make and sell more high-quality crafts.  We did done some leadership training workshops with the Field Museum in 2014, but progress in this area has been slow.  I had told the Ampiyacu native artisans about several groups of campesino artisans along the Tahuayo River that had successfully formed associations and a community enterprise to improve their craft sales, and they seemed enthusiastic about meeting them to learn from their experiences.

While CACE has focused a lot of resources organizing workshops and other activities in the Ampiyacu, our relationship with the Tahuayo communities has been much simpler.  I have visited the village of Chino once or twice a year since 2008 to buy the beautiful chambira baskets they make primarily to sell to visitors from a nearby tourist lodge operated by Amazonia Expeditions (AE).  We have also worked with them to develop a colorful line of woven frog Christmas tree ornaments.  As CACE has sold products made by the Chino artisans, we have regularly returned part of our profits to support local development needs. Unlike the Ampiyacu where discussions about the use of this social rebate have often been contentious, Chino village meetings have openly discussed all ideas presented, and quickly and amiably reached consensus about the best way to use the funds available.  These projects have included buying new desks and building a new bathroom for the school, buying medicines for the village pharmacy, and providing food for work parties to care for chambira palms used to make woven crafts.  When I asked Estelita, the president of the Chino artisan association whether I could bring along a few guests from the Ampiyacu on my next visit, she readily agreed. 

Our two Ampiyacu artisans were Liz C., president of FECONA – the federation that represents the 15 native communities in the Ampiyacu watershed and Segundina, a savvy artisan chosen by 20 Bora artisans from Brillo Nuevo to represent them during this artisan exchange trip.  We left Iquitos early on a Saturday morning on a speed boat belonging to the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF) – an NGO partner that has been working to improve forest and human health in the Tahuayo region for many years.  Our drivers were RCF staffers Gerardo and Exiles who coordinate RCF community programs to reforest depleted populations of aguaje palm trees and train people to climb the trees with harnesses to collect their popular fruits rather than cut them down. 

We bought some extra gas and water in the town of Tamshiyacu and passed the small lancha that takes 10 to 12 hours (instead of our four) to ferry local residents, bags of charcoal, sacks of aguaje and camu camu fruits and crates of fish from Tahuayo villages to market in Iquitos.  We briefly stopped once more at the village of Buena Vista where fellow American Matt (a student working with RCF) and I checked in with the police manning the official entry point to the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Regional Conservation Area.  We arrived in Chino in the early afternoon and were distressed to find that our host Estelita was laying sick in her hammock barely able to speak.  The other artisans assured us, however, that we were welcome. 

After getting settled in the guest house formerly operated by RCF two minutes upriver, we returned to Chino to inspect the group of baskets that the Chino artisans had made to fill the CACE order.  In the past I had bought all of my baskets there at a “feria” – a fair where every artisan in the cooperative would place all of the crafts she had available for sale on a table in front of her.  This is the way that they also sell their products to tourists visiting from the AE lodge.  I had bought over 400 baskets with unique designs this way, but I had found that the styles and quality of baskets had changed a lot from visit to visit over the past eight years.  Sometimes for better; sometimes for worse.  In order to develop a reliable supply of consistent quality baskets, I had sent photos of 32 models of baskets that we have sold asking the artisans to make one to three more of these specific designs. 

The artisans had readily complied with our request to make more medium and small baskets since our customers had continued to admire but had been buying fewer of the more expensive large ones.   I had also asked the artisans to make the baskets using the same colors as the models showed in the photos without using the seeds they used in the past to use to adorn the baskets since they might harbor insect pests.  The seeds of “ojo de vaca” (cow’s eye) had a large deep brown center with a black rim.  Huayruru seeds were naturally orange with a black patch in one corner of their oblong shape.  Rosario seeds were a medium-sized grey pearl, and achira seeds were small black spheres.  These seeds were readily available, cheap, and had distinct shapes, sizes and colors that provided beautiful accents to the woven chambira baskets.  As I began to inspect the new baskets, I immediately spotted a big problem.  Finding good substitutes for the seeds had proven more challenging than I thought. 

Some artisans in the Tahuayo have gotten used to using wooden and other types of beads to finish their baskets for a separate export channel, so I didn’t think it would be a problem to do the same for our order.  The Chino artisans, however, had just made due with whatever beads they had on hand to complete the CACE order in three weeks.  I learned that these beads were not cheap and were difficult or impossible to buy in Iquitos.  Some of the beads the artisans used were beautiful matches; others led to horrible clashes of colors and poor fits in open spaces. 

I was still feeling weak and sick from my second trip to the Ampiyacu so I welcomed Segundina’s help to figure out how to handle this challenge.  In this situation, some buyers simply say “this order is rejected because these products don’t meet our specifications.”  We have worked hard, however, to establish trust in our relationships with our artisan partners.  We acknowledge that while their job is to make quality crafts; CACE needs to recognize their reality which sometimes means admitting that we have asked them to do something that just wasn’t possible.  We all need to be flexible and figure out the best solution available.  In this case, I was fortunately able to offer some useful resources because I had stopped in Lima on my first day in Peru.  After an exhaustive search of a market area focused on craft-related products, I had found one shop that sold a wide variety of painted wooden beads and huassai seeds (not a kind that hosts any insects).  They were out of several colors that I had wanted, but I had at least been able to bring a good assortment of medium-sized colored beads to Chino. 

Segundina and I inspected all 70 baskets and placed them into one of three piles: acceptable, acceptable if the beads were changed, and not acceptable if the chambira weaving or color was too poor to fix.  Segundina asked Romelia, “Do you have any more of these large tagua beads?  They would nicely accent the orange ring in this basket.”  She asked Rosa, “Could you replace these pink beads with purple ones in these middle rows – they would go really well with the violet center of the basket.”  She patiently explained to Pilar, “Your weaving is good, but the intensity of the color needs to be a lot stronger.”  What amazed me and Segundina was that while she had come to Chino as an outsider to observe and learn, the Chino artisans readily recognized her as a fellow artisan with a keen eye and welcomed her suggestions for ways they could improve their work. 

The Ampiyacu artisans soon got to see and hear how the Chino artisans have persisted through many tough times, particularly the ebb and flow of visiting tourists and river levels.  The flux in tourism produces alternating seasons with good income and almost no income from craft sales.  Extreme floods in these villages have sometimes killed most of their chambira palm trees.   Some artisans have left the village so their families could seek more income or better education for their children in the city. The Chino artisans have survived simply because they have learned to trust each other, work together, and have the support of their whole community. 

Estelita rallied from her hammock to share the history of the Chino artisans with their new friends from the Ampiyacu.  “Long ago we had a few women who had learned how to weave chambira in other places, but Dolly (co-owner of the AE lodge) inspired us to learn how to make baskets the tourists would like and to get organized.  We worked with the name “Huacamayo (macaw) Association” for a long-time, but when we decided to formally register our group, this name was taken, so we are now officially called, “Manos Amazonicos” (Amazon Hands).  In the beginning, some of our husbands seemed threatened by the idea of women working together and potentially making more money than them.  Fortunately, this has now completely changed.  The men in Chino recognize that selling crafts generates a very important source of income for the whole village.  Everyone also appreciates that selling crafts to CACE has helped our school and other things in our community.” 

Later in the evening, I showed the Chino artisans pictures of the diverse crafts that the Ampiyacu artisans have been making with us.  Norma remarked, “Wow, those placemats are beautiful!  I bet making a belt so straight is not easy.”  Liz and Segundina nodded in agreement.  Madita said, “I’ve made a few bottle carriers before, but they haven’t sold so well.  Now I think I know how to make them better.  I’m sure the tourists who visit here will love them!”  After closely watching the Chino artisans make baskets all day, Segundina said, “When I go back to Brillo Nuevo, I’m going to try making a basket adapting the base of a hot pad.  I don’t need to copy the patterns here – I’ve got my own ideas.” 

I had been reluctant to share images of one community’s unique crafts with artisans from another region for a long time because I had thought it was important to respect each community’s creativity.  I learned during this trip that while my desire to respect each group’s intellectual output was well-intentioned, trying to keep these groups a part was restricting their collective creative potential. 

This visit not only sparked ideas for ways that each group of artisans might improve their respective crafts but generated a proposal for a collaborative handicraft project.  In the past, a few Chino artisans have etched wildlife figures onto calabash pods that have been woven into the center of baskets.  They were great when done well, but many baskets which were beautifully woven seemed spoiled when their centers were adorned with mediocre carvings.  While committed weavers could improve their carving, they are unlikely to get as much practice refining this craft as the handful of Ampiyacu artisans who are now producing hundreds of gorgeous carved calabash pod ornaments with a range of Amazon birds, mammals, frogs and fish for CACE.  We will now ask these carvers to see if they would like to produce four to five inch wide carved pieces that Chino artisans can sew into some of their chambira baskets. 

The next day, the Chino artisans stacked up their finished baskets on a table where Estelita measured each one to make sure its size and price were correctly recorded on the tag and in her ledger.  She told one artisan, “this basket is half a centimeter less than its proper length; you can’t get full price for it.  Please pay better attention to the standard sizes.”  Liz and Segundina were stunned to see how the Chino artisans had direct responsibility for quality control and agreed to consistent pricing among their members.  Segundina said, “My fellow artisans often criticize each other, but they find it hard to ask for and accept suggestions for ways to make their crafts better.  We have to figure out how to encourage and trust each other to improve our quality and hold each other accountable; this will help all of us.” Liz added, “When tourists come to my village, they often shop from house to house because some artisans try to undercut their prices to make a sale. We have to get on the same page so everyone gets a fair price for making the best crafts.” 

One highlight of the visit was visiting the new “Escuela de artesanas” – the artisan school under construction in Chino.  After major floods destroyed the last simple building the artisans used to sell their crafts to tourists, the artisans decided they needed a larger and stronger building where they could gather to dye their chambira with roots, fruits, leaves and bark and weave their crafts under one roof.  They could then demonstrate these traditional techniques to visiting tourists – giving them a more personal experience and incentive to buy the crafts offered for sale.  The ability to work together will also help them improve the consistency of their work by using the same batch of colored chambira to make multiple baskets with the same design.  The structure built with sturdy wooden beams, cement and rebar was progressing, but costs had surpassed donated funds available from Amazonia Expeditions.  I was glad that CACE was able to contribute the most recent batch of our social rebate funds from our sale of baskets and frog ornaments to help complete this worthy effort.  I was sorry that we were going to miss helping out in the big village work party set to happen the next day to get the walls and roof up. 

As we headed back to Iquitos at dawn on Monday, Segundina told me, “I can’t wait to get home to share everything that I’ve learned on this trip with my fellow artisans.  I didn’t believe you when you kept saying that the artisans at Chino cared so much about each other and cooperated so well.  Now, I know you were telling the truth.  These women are really inspiring, and we need to learn from them.” 

Perhaps my best reward of this trip was seeing Segundina and Estelita hug and exchange phone numbers when they parted.  That instant confirmed that bringing these dynamic artisans together was the right thing to do.  CACE is now thinking about launching a region-wide school for artisan leadership to promote more of this kind of exchange.  We also just need to know when to get oSegundina giving tips to Pilar about basket color

Segundina giving tips to Pilar about basket color
Campbell inspecting baskets at Chino
Campbell inspecting baskets at Chino
Romelia putting beads on basket
Romelia putting beads on basket
Estelita measuring baskets
Estelita measuring baskets
Sarita with chambira basket
Sarita with chambira basket
Yermeth with frog ornaments
Yermeth with frog ornaments
Artisans with Campbell at artisan school in Chino
Artisans with Campbell at artisan school in Chino
blue headed parrot at Chino
blue headed parrot at Chino

Links:

 
WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.