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Sep 15, 2015

Angelina and her family of Peruvian Amazon artisans

Bora legendary woman painting by Elmer
Bora legendary woman painting by Elmer
Since I first visited the Bora village of Brillo Nuevo in 2008, I’ve learned that almost everyone knows how to weave things that are essential for rural life in the Amazon – thatched roofs from irapay palm fronds, woven bombonaje cane to strain yucca root mash, and simple baskets made on the spot from leaves in the forest to bring home fruit or game meat.  Most people also know how to make a basic bag from chambira palm fiber, but few families have as many creative artisans as Angelina.
 
I have often found Angelina working on some craft alone in the front room of her house on stilts overlooking the Yaguasyacu River.  She has told me, “My mother taught me to weave chambira when I was a little girl and now I have taught my daughters to weave as well.” The family nature of this activity is very evident because I usually see her sitting in a circle on the floor of her or her married son’s home with her mother Ernestina and one or more of her daughters and their children.
 
While no one including Ernestina seems to know exactly how old she is, this 70+ year-old lady has lived in Brillo Nuevo for all of her and most of this village’s existence.  She has been an enthusiastic participant in our project from the beginning, although her first belt was such a mish-mash of patterns, colors and widths that I worried she might not ever make something that we could sell.   Yully and my attempts to speak with her directly in Spanish usually only produced quizzical looks and good-natured laughs, but one of her relatives is always on hand what’s needed to her in Bora.  Her grand-daughter Rode told us, “Grand-mother’s hands are still strong but her eyes are getting weak.  I help her finish up the detailed parts of her handicrafts.”
 
While Angelina laughs when sitting at ease with her family, her aura of reserved confidence has made her a well-respected artisan leader in Brillo Nuevo and other native communities in the Ampiyacu.  I appreciate that she has never been shy about creating and showing us one new design of woven belt, guitar strap and hot pad after another.  Angelina said, “New artisans are sometimes scared to bring their work to Senora Yully from CECAMA (CACE’s name in Spanish) because they don’t want her to tell them that their work isn’t made well enough to buy.  I don’t mind, though, because we need this kind of tough inspection.  Her suggestions have made me a much better craft maker."
 
Angelina has also become of the project’s best and generous teachers.  She was one of the veteran artisans who patiently showed a group of four women who to weave her popular “shushupe” (tropical rattlesnake) design guitar strap at a skill-sharing workshop we sponsored this year in the village of Puca Urquillo.  Angelina said, “A few women don’t want to show others how to weave their special designs because they worked hard to make them and are worried they won’t get as many orders if others can make them too.  I really enjoy sharing my creations, though.  It gives me a lot of pride to have my daughters and women from other villagers ask me to show them how to weave the colorful patterns I’ve invented.  We can all make money to help our families sharing this way.”
 
While the women in Angelina’s family focus on weaving, her two sons have become very accomplished painters.  Darwin and Elmer both make their canvass by pounding the inner bark of the “llanchama” tree, a fast growing pioneer species in young forest fallows, into a thin layer.  They use both plant-based dyes and commercial paints to depict portraits of Amazon wildlife and scenes of traditional Bora life and legends including mystical plants, animals and other spirit beings.  I haven’t found a channel yet to support the marketing of their creative efforts, but I am glad that they are gaining recognition as talented native artists in Iquitos and beyond.

Thank you very much for your support for our project that helps multi-generational families of artisans like Angelina’s to use their creativity to earn a living, maintain their traditions and conserve the forest.  We would welcome your continued support on Wednesday, Sept. 16 – the last GlobalGiving  Bonus Day of the year.  Donations made early in the day will receive a 30% matching donation until matching funds run out – usually within one hour of the 9 am starting time.

 

       

Bora woman straining yucca root mash in basket
Bora woman straining yucca root mash in basket
Angelina with chambira woven guitar strap
Angelina with chambira woven guitar strap
Angelina's mother Ernestina weaving a belt
Angelina's mother Ernestina weaving a belt
Rode showing CACE intern how to weave a bag
Rode showing CACE intern how to weave a bag
Angelina teaching at CACE skill-sharing workshop
Angelina teaching at CACE skill-sharing workshop
Ernestina and chambira palm fiber placemat
Ernestina and chambira palm fiber placemat
CACE manager Yully reviewing crafts with Angelina
CACE manager Yully reviewing crafts with Angelina
Angelina son Darwin and traditional Bora painting
Angelina son Darwin and traditional Bora painting
Bora painter Elmer and legendary woman painting
Bora painter Elmer and legendary woman painting
Angelina daughter Rode and shushupe guitar strap
Angelina daughter Rode and shushupe guitar strap
Angelina group thankyou to GlobalGiving donors
Angelina group thankyou to GlobalGiving donors

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Jul 14, 2015

Making a difference in the forest

Orchid bee males at copal resin lump
Orchid bee males at copal resin lump

Thank you very much for your support for our project 'Grow Amazon artisan income & Peru rainforest trees' through GlobalGiving.  I am very proud of the work that our project manager Yully does with our partner communities in Peru every month, but sometimes a short-time volunteer can make a big difference as well.  This past spring we welcomed Tracy to work with us as an Amazon Field Volunteer for ten days.  While approaching her 34th birthday, she decided to take a year off from her career path in marketing and communication to do community service with 34 non-profit organizations around the world in a project called ThirtyFortunate (https://www.facebook.com/34tunate).  I am very grateful that Tracy helped me tag and catalogue hundreds of handicrafts in Iquitos for several days.  She made an extra special contribution to our efforts, however, when she took the 12 hour trip by lancha (300 person ferry boat) from Iquitos to the town of Jenaro Herrera to help our copal research project. 

We have been studying the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal's aromatic tree resin for the past nine years.  The resin exudes onto the trunk when previously unknown species of bark-boring weevils chew into the inner bark to feed. This resin repels most insects, but these weevil larvae shape the resin into a protective chamber for themselves as they mature. Many types of bees collect this resin to build and defend their nests. While Amazon people usually harvest these lumps to caulk their wooden boats or make crude incense, we are distilling this resin to produce essential oil that native and campesino communities can sell to make money without cutting or burning the forest.  To try and develop methods for sustainably harvesting this resin, we have periodically harvested some lumps and then track how long it takes for the weevils and the resin lumps to recover.

Our copal project manager who has a degree in agronomy is now analyzing thousands of digital photos taken during the first phase of the study so we can publish our initial results and use them to guide our community-based copal projects in the Ampiyacu and other areas.  Since we want these local enterprises to be viable for many years, we have called on our long-time field assistant who I will call Alanzo to continue monitoring the recovery and growth of the resin lumps with low cost and low tech tools – i.e. a pen and paper.

Like many people who grow up in rural forest communities, Alanzo only completed 8th grade in school.  He was an excellent woodsman, but instead of becoming a full-time farmer or fisherman, he wanted to support his family by assisting researchers who came through the government research station at Jenaro Herrera.  During the years he worked with us, he was a keen observer of nature, creative and meticulous with physical tasks, and reliably recorded numerical data.  What I only learned recently, however, was that he was almost illiterate.  We are trying to help him fill this gap, but we needed to find a way for him to do his job well in the short-term.

Our volunteer Tracy found a simple and creative solution to Alonzo's need.  While the data collection sheet that I designed for Alonzo had words on it, Tracy added simple illustrations to signify the different options he would need to write.  For resin condition, there is a 1 next to a drawing of a white lump (meaning it is fresh and sticky), a 2 next to a lump that is partially grey, and a 3 next to a lump that is black (meaning it is old and dry).  The same system is used to indicate different stages of tree reproduction (whether it has flowers or fruits) and other variables.  She then spent two days walking with him in the forest to make sure he was confident and competent using these tools to record his observations.  At the end of her visit, Alonzo said, "I was embarassed that my difficulty reading made some things so hard for me.  I am happy that I can do this job well now my own."  

We sometimes work with student interns from the local university to help us with certain tasks, but I feel it is very important to empower the people who live in the forest to be directly involved with these studies since they are the ones who will ultimately decide its fate. 

Thank you very much for your support that makes this project possible. Donations made to our project at www.AmazonAlive.net early on Wednesday, July 15 (GlobalGiving Bonus Day) will receive a 50% matching donation from other sponsors.

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden
Executive Director
Center for Amazon Community Ecology
Checking copal resin lump status
Checking copal resin lump status
Tracy and Alonzo at Jenaro Herrera field site
Tracy and Alonzo at Jenaro Herrera field site
Copal tree phenology code sheet with pictures
Copal tree phenology code sheet with pictures
May 12, 2015

A herd of armadillos and the challenges of filming

Woven armadillo ornaments. Photo: C. Plowden/CACE
Woven armadillo ornaments. Photo: C. Plowden/CACE

Earlier this year, our project manager Yully Rojas organized two workshops to teach artisans from our partner villages in the Ampiyacu to make some of our best-selling handicrafts.  The first was a three-day gathering in the Bora village of Brillo Nuevo where veteran artisans showed sixty fellow artisans from six villages how they made popular models of hot pads and snake pattern belts.  The results were very good with the exception of a group that worked with a last-minute substitute teacher who didn’t know her model as well as expected.

I attended a two-day training in the thatched roof maloca (meeting house) in Puca Urquillo Huitoto where four artisan teachers taught their peers from five villages how to make another batch of special crafts.  Many women and children gathered around Siena on a large plastic sheet on the dirt floor to practice weaving an armadillo ornament.  Others gathered around Ania and Angelina to begin making the more complicated shushupe and naca naca models of guitar straps.  Many women said they learned a lot and acknowledged it was going to take a lot of practice to weave a high-quality strap.  We were pleased that Luz Elena, an artisan from Neuvo Peru joined the workshop for the first time.  She said, “I used to only know how to make bags and hammocks – now I can make a new kind of craft.”  It was disappointing that no artisans came from two nearby Yagua villages.  We have been trying to engage artisans from these communities in the project for a few years now, but we are learning that initial enthusiasm to get involved doesn’t always translate into long-term commitment. 

There was a cluster of men sitting on a side bench of the maloca using crude awls to etch a paiche (a giant Amazon fish) and other wildlife figures onto dark brown calabash tree pods.  When filled with beads, they become attractive hand rattles and Christmas tree ornaments.  Guillermo from Puca Urquillo had been trying to sell his ornaments to Yully without success for over a year.  He said, “I learned to make crafts 25 years ago when I was a teenager.  This workshop was very important, though, because it gave me a chance to compare, practice and improve my work with others.” Guillermo was very pleased that we bought almost all of the ornaments he made during the workshop.

At the conclusion of the workshop, each of the artisan groups expressed their thanks to CACE, GlobalGiving and other foundations for their support of artisan skill sharing.

While workshops are a potent way to promote artisan learning, we are also producing a DVD compilation of veteran artisans showing and explaining step-by-step how they make a variety of handicrafts for CACE.  Videographer Tulio Davila has now recorded more than 20 sessions with artisans from Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo making a variety of woven belts, guitar straps, hot pads, hair barrettes, hat bands and water bottle carriers.  He accomplished a lot during his recent three week stint in the field, but the factors that slowed him down were a potent reminder that many things are beyond our control.  

Tulio could not shoot some craft models with black because high floods prevented artisan access to the fruit that is normally used to dye chambira this dark color.  He couldn’t work with a few key artisans who were understandably distracted when the husband of one failed to return from a hunting trip in the forest, and the husband of another was accused of killing him.  Fortunately the missing fellow wandered back to the village after three days – very hungry – but otherwise in good shape.  Oscar initially agreed to be filmed explaining how he weaves the popular “anaconda” model belts and guitar straps, but backed out when he was worried that his creation might be shared with artisans outside the region.

We are having to carefully and repeatedly explain to our partners that we will only be able to sell a few of their crafts if we can’t offer them in larger numbers with consistent high quality.  Since none of them would be able to fill an order from a wholesale buyer by themselves, they have to be willing to share their knowledge with each other if they want to increase their income from making and selling crafts.  Our promise to them is that these detailed training materials will not be shared with artisans beyond the 15 communities in the Ampiyacu federation.  Tulio is now busy editing the completed instructional videos into final form.  We need to raise more funds to complete the process of documenting all of the most popular models once the river water level returns to normal.

Thank you for your support for this project – particularly on Bonus Days when your contribution will be partially matched by other donors on GlobalGiving.

These key dates are:

Wednesday, May 13 (match amount will depending on total amount given to all projects)

Wednesday, July 15 (50% match given to donations made before matching funds run out)

Wednesday Sept. 16 (30% match given to donations made before matching funds run out)

We would appreciate your feedback and questions about our work.  Please contact me at cplowden@amazonecology.org.

Best wishes,

Campbell Plowden

Project Leader/Executive Director

Artisan starting woven hotpad. Photo: Davila/CACE
Artisan starting woven hotpad. Photo: Davila/CACE
Shushupe guitar strap group. Photo: Plowden/CACE
Shushupe guitar strap group. Photo: Plowden/CACE
Weaving naca naca guitar strap. Photo: Plowden/CAC
Weaving naca naca guitar strap. Photo: Plowden/CAC
Artisan with sun wheel hotpad. Photo:Davila/CACE
Artisan with sun wheel hotpad. Photo:Davila/CACE
Artisan with armadillo ornament.Photo:Plowden/CACE
Artisan with armadillo ornament.Photo:Plowden/CACE
Artisan with doll ornaments. Photo:Davila/CACE
Artisan with doll ornaments. Photo:Davila/CACE
Shushupe group thanking GlobalGiving.Plowden photo
Shushupe group thanking GlobalGiving.Plowden photo
Calabash pod carving group.  Photo by Plowden
Calabash pod carving group. Photo by Plowden
Ornament thank you for GlobalGiving.  Photo CACE
Ornament thank you for GlobalGiving. Photo CACE
Artisan with calabash ornaments.Plowden/CACE photo
Artisan with calabash ornaments.Plowden/CACE photo
Artisan with water bottle holder. Photo:Plowden
Artisan with water bottle holder. Photo:Plowden
 
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