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Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon

by Center for Amazon Community Ecology
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Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon

My most recent trip to Peru was one of the most special I have experienced since I started CACE in 2006. We have made a lot of progress helping hundreds of artisans to improve the diversity and quality of handicrafts they make and sell, but this past September and October I took part in a beautiful coming together of artisan hearts and hands.

We had a tough time earlier this year when a few expert artisans who were leading our woven bird making workshops demanded a lot more money, complained about long travels to other villages, and finally backed out of their commitment to teach several workshops two weeks before they were due to start. Their action led us to convene a special workshop where we brought together a group of talented artisans from the Marañon River area who said they were interested in improving their craft making and teaching their fellow artisans.

Our goal of building an artisan teacher core with people who were excited about sharing their knowledge coincided with our development of an Alternatives to Violence Project program with several of our partner communities in the region. We first carried out a series of Basic and Advanced level AVP workshops for artisans and others from six communities between Sept. 2018 and April 2019. This fall, we carried out four more artisan training workshops and three more AVP workshops that included two workshops to train facilitators from our partner villages. I would like to share most of the letter that some of the graduates wrote to several groups that co-sponsored this program.

“Dear Friends,

We are writing to thank you for your support of the Alternatives to Violence Project being developed in Loreto, Peru in cooperation with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. This program has given us new ways to think about our lives and improve relationships in our families and communities. The most recent Training for Facilitators workshop has given us courage to express our thoughts and feelings in front of a group and the confidence to be leaders who can listen, act and support each other. We have come together from six different native and campesino communities to taste the joy and spiritual power of making plans and decisions together.

Your support has allowed us to bring experienced facilitators from Bolivia and southern Peru to introduce the AVP program in Loreto. Our group of new facilitators now feels ready to bring this program to the next level. We first want to create opportunities to practice and strengthen our skills and then begin organizing full workshops to share AVP ideals and techniques with other adults and young people in our communities. We are confident that they will benefit from learning how to better value themselves, affirm the good in others, approach differences in constructive ways, and instill a greater sense of trust, respect, and cooperation with each other.

Thank you once again from all of us who have come from Amazonas (Cocama), Brillo Nuevo (Bora), El Chino, Puca Urquillo Bora, Puca Urquillo Huitoto, and San Francisco.

Sincerely,

Jacmen, Estelita, Elisa, Exiles, Edwin, Francisca, Heriberto, Kleiber, Liz, Marilu, Mirian, and Zoraida"

 

The result of integrating the AVP workshops into our program was that our artisan teachers Edson, Pablo and Doilith brought a whole new level of attention to the artisans in the artisan training workshops after completing their training as AVP facilitators. As they approached a workshop participant, they tried to take four steps: 1) explain with their words, 2) show with their hands, 3) observe with their eyes, and 4) give specific and constructive feedback. We then added a fifth step – affirmation. The thousands of photos I took during these workshops showed the intense concentration of the artisans and the teachers, countless examples of the teachers using subtle hand motions to show how another artisan how to make a particular knot or bend a wire, comfortable displays of mutual affection, frequent laughter and comradery, and thumbs up to artisans showing their mastery of a new skill. Several types of comments we often heard during the workshop and read in written evaluations were:

“This workshop has given me so much pride in being an artisan.”

“I never thought I would be able to make such a complicated bird ornament like this.”

“The teachers were SO patient. Thank you CACE for bringing them to us.”

While we still need to focus on helping artisans learn the finer points for improving their crafts, we realized our teacher team could only accomplish this if they behaved in humble and supportive ways that also built artisans’ self-esteem, confidence and joy of creating together. In order to avoid becoming overly dependent on this new trio of teachers we had had before, we invited one to two of the other artisans who had attended the artisan teacher workshop to join us as apprentice teachers in the training workshops in October. Paquita, Mirian and Deisa blended very well into this team as they easily shared their skills and enthusiasm with the participants.

At the end of the last two workshops, we adopted the AVP tradition of doing a full team debriefing with the teachers and CACE support staff. After discussing general opinions about the workshop and participants, each person shared some thoughts about what they did well as well as areas they could improve. The next round gave people a chance to share affirmations for other members of the team and any suggestions for improving. These debriefing sessions that each lasted over two hours were constructive, enlightening and emotional. By the end of each session, every person sitting at the table had cried at least once. Comments included expressions of deep gratitude for being invited to join and help build this mutually supportive group (often for the first time in their life), the joy and strength of empowering others, and appreciations for the unique gifts of other members of the team. We decided to use the AVP term “facilitator” for the leaders of training workshops in the future since it better conveyed our sense of the proper role of a leader in these sessions than the term “teacher.” In Peru, this term often means someone who acts from a position of superior knowledge, directs a group with an authoritarian style, and criticizes students who don’t do as they say.

In the coming months we plan to hold mini-AVP sessions so our group of newly trained facilitators can further practice their skills before taking part in full workshop teams. We also plan to organize several sessions just for the artisan training facilitators so they can develop new models of crafts together, practice and improve their craft teaching and facilitation techniques, and strengthen their relationships with their fellow artisan facilitators. It’s exciting to be part of this dynamic process.

Thank you very much for your support for our program with best wishes for the holidays and New Year.

Small group discussion in AVP workshop
Small group discussion in AVP workshop
Human knot "light and lively" in AVP workshop
Human knot "light and lively" in AVP workshop
Affirmation thumbs exercise in AVP workshop
Affirmation thumbs exercise in AVP workshop
Graduates from AVP Training for Facilitators
Graduates from AVP Training for Facilitators
Pablo and Edson - artisan facilitators
Pablo and Edson - artisan facilitators
Pablo showing Berta photo to make bird ornament
Pablo showing Berta photo to make bird ornament
Edson and his artisan wife with two birds
Edson and his artisan wife with two birds
Doilith showing Romelia to make woven butterfly
Doilith showing Romelia to make woven butterfly
Paquita weaving basket in spare time
Paquita weaving basket in spare time
Artisan making ornate hawk eagle ornament
Artisan making ornate hawk eagle ornament
Mirian with 4 generations of artisans
Mirian with 4 generations of artisans
Rings of monarch and morpho butterfly ornaments
Rings of monarch and morpho butterfly ornaments
harpy eagle ornament
harpy eagle ornament

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Edson is a young artisan from the campesino community of San Francisco on the banks of the Marañon River. This 30-year-old father learned through observation and practice how to make beautiful crafts. His specialty is making little birds.

 

This talent is what led Edson to agree to be a teacher in several skill-sharing workshops being organized by CACE in our partner communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon. These workshops are always led by experienced artisans showing their fellow artisans how to make new kinds of handicrafts.

 

The first time Edson taught in a CACE artisan training workshop was this past August in Nauta – a town two hours from the city of Iquitos. Participants included artisans from his home village of San Francisco and others from the nearby Cocama village called Amazonas. Edson showed both his ability as an artisan and more importantly his patience and dedication to help each participant learn how to make and finish the craft they were working on.

 

Later that month, Edson joined the adventure of teaching in the Ampiyacu basin which has numerous indigenous communities with Bora, Huitoto and Yagua native residents. The first stop was the Bora community of Nuevo Peru which needed a five-hour trip in a peque-peque (dugout canoe with a small motor) open to the harsh summer sun in the Peruvian jungle. 

The workshop in Nuevo Peru had 25 participants who attended eight-hour sessions for three successive days. The next one held in the community of Huitotos del Estiron had 23 participants from the host village and other communities in the area.

The models that were taught in the workshops were some magnificent birds from the Peruvian Amazon including a few types of eagles, hawks, macaws, toucans, owls, and parrots. Another teacher Doilith who is from the town of Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River shared her special talent for making different types of butterflies. Each participant got to choose two models to learn during the three-day workshop. The common result was that each participant was very proud to see their finished crafts.

On the way back to Iquitos, Edson shared his thoughts about being a teacher in the Ampiyacu: “This was the first time that I have taught in communities away from my home, and it was a very positive experience. I was a little afraid that it would be difficult to teach them, but I quickly saw that people are very kind and completely willing to learn. They are fellow artisans who understand the value of the chambira palm and the work it requires. They understand the importance of a craft and how it helps in the economy of the family. I liked teaching, I loved meeting so many people, but above all it makes me feel very good when I think of all the people who learned to make new crafts ”.

Edson and other veteran artisans are a vital part of CACE’s goal of helping artisans from the Peruvian Amazon to improve their skills and livelihoods. This task is a key to our mission of supporting the well-being of Amazonian communities and the conservation of their forests.

Edson teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Edson teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Pablo teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Pablo teaching artisan at Chino workshop
Artisan Liria with 2 birds at Chino workshop
Artisan Liria with 2 birds at Chino workshop
woven barbet ornament at Chino workshop
woven barbet ornament at Chino workshop
Artisan with woven butterflies at Estiron workshop
Artisan with woven butterflies at Estiron workshop
Artisan at Estiron workshop with parrot and toucan
Artisan at Estiron workshop with parrot and toucan
Artisans at Nuevo Peru workshop with birds
Artisans at Nuevo Peru workshop with birds

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In Greek mythology the Amazons were a people formed and governed entirely by women warriors. Some say the largest river in the world bears that name in honor of these great warriors. Amazonas is also small community on the the Marañón River, a tributary of the Amazon River, which gives it a connection to the power embodied in the origin of the mighty river’s name. Amazonas welcomed us earlier this month to empower a group of artisans who are passionate as warriors to share their craft-making skills with each other.

The Center For Amazon Community Ecology (CACE) has hosted skill-sharing workshops in our partner communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon for the past ten years so artisans can learn how to make new kinds of crafts. Women artisans in the Ampiyacu region showed other women how to weave different products like belts and guitar straps, and a few men taught other artisans how to carve wildlife designs onto calabash tree pods. When we started working with the communities in the Marañon River area a few years ago, we found that while many artisans made a variety of animal figures, a few people from one family made the most detailed birds. So following our earlier practice, we contracted them to be teachers in workshops to show other artisans how to weave these popular ornaments.

This arrangement worked pretty well for a while, but this spring we reached an impasse. After first asking for more money, this select group finally said they did not want to teach anymore. They could make more money making and selling crafts at home and didn't want to spend the time traveling to teach others. They were also upset that tourist shops in the city were now buying bird ornaments from other artisans – not just from them. So while we understand that artisans may not wish to share their skills with others they view as their competitors, we still believe that all artisans will ultimately benefit if they can collectively make crafts with high quality and consistency to sell their work to wholesale buyers as well as occasional tourists.

We now plan to build a new cadre of artisans who are highly skilled and are enthusiastic about sharing their talents with other artisans. Our first step was organizing a special workshop in Amazonas in early June for artisans who want to improve their craft-making and becoming artisan teachers.

We left the city of Iquitos early morning by car and traveled on the one road out of the city to the town of Nauta. From there, we rode for a half-hour in a peque-peque (motor canoe) down the Marañón River to the community. We were warmly greeted as always by the artisan leader "Panchita" who invited us to stay in her home for the two-day workshop. She is a wife, mother, grandmother and pillar of her family. While she is also a very accomplished artisan, she remains humble and often expresses how she is still learning. This humility motivated her to participate in this workshop. Read more about Panchita in our report Second Chance to Become a Great Artisan. 

The other women artisans who joined the workshop were Deysa, María, and Miriam. The only man who came was "Pablito," a talented artisan who had been a teacher at an earlier CACE workshop. While the group was small, they were ready and excited to participate. They joked and caught up with each other over breakfast. We then gave them their challenge for the first day - everyone should make the best toucan they could by the end of the afternoon. This was similar to an exercise we did in our last workshop to promote cooperation between artisans (see our report: Building a Better Toucan).  This time, however, they would make replicas of this iconic rainforest bird with chambira instead of construction paper. The group enthusiastically accepted the challenge and began to transform threads of palm fiber into art.

The artisans often laughed while working, but it did not diminish their concentration. Their hands moved with mastery, and it seemed like their fingers danced with each other as the artisans observed, commented and corrected what they need to fix.  My CACE colleague Yully and I felt wonderful when we saw these veteran artisans from two communities teaching, learning and sharing with each other without any prompting. When Pablito explained how he makes the toucan beak, the others paid close attention. Panchita shared an idea for how to make the feet, and the group incorporated this detail into their birds. While looking carefully at the photo of the toucan, Miriam noted how the patch around the bird’s eye had a particular shape and blue color, and the group welcomed her observation to make their toucans more like the actual bird. While these artisans might have tried to show off their individual skills in a sort of live competition to earn a teacher job, they all treated it as a rich opportunity to improve their skills by sharing with each other.

After a break for lunch, they quickly resumed their work. Their birds took shape as the body, beak, tail, and wings came together. Deysa paused to stretch her legs, and Maria took a break to breastfeed her baby. They soon got back to their task, however, and wove and wove until one by one they finished their birds which seemed to have come alive. When the day ended, we are all happy the first objective was completed.

For the second day we proposed that the artisans make a blue and gold macaw, and they accepted the challenge with the same positive spirit. The process was similar to the previous one with more jokes, laughter and positive atmosphere. The extent of their cooperation, however, was even greater than the first day. They weaved at their own pace, with focus, respect for work, and in tune with the rhythm of life in the jungle. As time passed, pieces of wire and colored chambira scattered on the ground came together to shape one of the most beautiful birds of the Amazon.

In the afternoon, a small group of tourists unexpectedly arrived at the village. The community mobilized to receive them, and our group took the lead. The visitors wanted to learn about craft making so the artisans took advantage of this opportunity to show them how they were making birds and other kinds of handicrafts made with chambira including baskets and other kinds of woven ornaments. The guests laughed, took pictures and felt very welcome. It was a great example of the simplicity and hospitality of people who feel part of the Amazon rainforest.

As the afternoon wanted, each artisan put the final touches on their macaw.  We asked the group how they felt about these two days sharing and learning from each other. Panchita said, “I found it very useful because my technique got better.” Pablito commented, “It’s very valuable to weave while others can watch and make suggestions about my work.” María said, “This is the first time I’ve partipated in a workshop like this and want to do it again.” Deysa agreed and added, “I’ve learned a lot more about how to add special touches to my crafts.” Miriam concluded, “I’m very proud of my birds, but I have a lot more to learn.”

We finished the workshop with more laughing and joking. I very much appreciated that warmth and joy are abundant with our friends whose bodies and souls are enriched by their lives with the river and forest. We take our leave for the city with promises to return soon and optimism that we have the budding core of a group of artisans who are happy together, anxious to learn, and enthusiastic about sharing their skills and passion with other artisans.

Panchita with large woven egret
Panchita with large woven egret
Artisan making macaw at artisan teacher workshop
Artisan making macaw at artisan teacher workshop
Toucan ornament made with chambira palm fiber
Toucan ornament made with chambira palm fiber
Pablito teaching at workshop in Puca Urquillo
Pablito teaching at workshop in Puca Urquillo
Blue and gold macaws at teacher workshop
Blue and gold macaws at teacher workshop
Blue and gold macaw eating aguaje fruit
Blue and gold macaw eating aguaje fruit
Artisans at teacher workshop
Artisans at teacher workshop

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This past February and March, CACE conducted three workshops in Nauta, Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo to help our artisan partners address three main topics: how to work together to create a new product, how to make a product in quantity with consistent quality, and how to sell handicrafts more effectively to wholesale buyers and tourists.

We kicked off each workshop by splitting the participants into small groups and gave each one some construction paper, glue, tape, scissors, colored pencils and a ruler. The simple instruction was: “make a toucan any way you can.” This initially produced a lot of blank stares. A few artisans had woven birds with chambira palm fiber, but most of them had never made anything with these materials – much less a complicated three-dimensional figure.

The artisans set to work, however, with a jovial spirit, and just over an hour later everyone put their toucan on a long bench. The creations ranged from fat to flat, colorful to dull, precise to crude, and few could stand on their own. The artisans filed slowly by to inspect these individual efforts and carefully observed how any part of any bird was well made or had some attractive feature. The small groups then got back together to make one better toucan based on ideas they picked up from seeing the first attempts. They prepared a basic plan for toucan 2 and assigned each member a task. Someone would make the beak; others would make the head, the body, the tail, the legs, some adornment and/or put the whole thing together. Francisca from Amazonas expressed her feelings about the exercise well, “The first toucan I made by myself was terrible. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t want to ask anyone for help. Our group’s bird was incredible the second time. We learned SO much from each other. I know now that we can apply this process to create any new product we want.”

As CACE has tried to standardize various types of handicrafts with our partners, sizes still vary widely sometimes even when we specify the dimensions. We learned one reason for these inconsistencies was that many artisans did not know how to measure things. So, we began the next part of the workshop by explaining the basic units and equivalencies of the metric (centimeters, meters, etc.) and American system (inches, feet, etc.). We reinforced the concept of dividing inches into halves, quarters and eighths with a game in which 2, 4, or 8 people needed to quickly come together to make one whole. We next defined length, width, height and diameter on objects with different shapes and then helped artisans use measuring tapes to record the dimensions of a box, a bottle, a roll of masking tape and a pair of scissors. Angelina from Brillo Nuevo told the group “It was really hard for me to do this exercise, but I really appreciated it. I feel confident now that I can make my belts and other crafts to the right size each time.”

The next step of helping the artisans make products with consistent design and size began by posting a drawing of a water bottle carrier with the dimensions of the woven pouch, the size and color of three stripes and the specs of the shoulder strap. Small groups were then asked to make four identical models with paper and other basic supplies. A few groups who had each person in their group make their own bottle carrier had predictable results – each model was very different. Most groups at least tried to work together where one person would do the measuring, someone else would do the cutting, while others worked on the strap or colored the stripes. No group in any of the three workshops completed all four carriers according to the specs, but after reviewing their initial efforts, each group came up with several ways they could work together more efficiently in a second try. Adela made a point that hit home for several artisans, “I’ve only been weaving for a few years so I’ve been shy about trying to make things with other artisans in my village. If we work together in this way, though, I can do something to help our group be more productive and complete bigger orders. I will get better watching others, and we will all get better with time.”

The next part of the workshop focused on teaching artisans how to classify and organize their crafts to sell them to wholesale buyers through a catalog or to tourists at fairs. All of the artisans first put all of the crafts they had with them on tables. We listed each of these crafts and other kinds that they or anyone else in their village made on a white board and then put each type of craft into a category. So earrings, bracelets and necklaces were grouped under jewelry; baskets, hot pads, and placemats were put into housewares, etc. After this brainstorm, we asked the group to place the crafts distributed randomly on the table with like crafts and categories next to similar categories. We noted the advantage of making crafts with multiple uses that fit into more than one category. One prime example for us is the small calabash pod etched with an Amazon animal with achira seeds inside which serves as a Christmas tree ornament as well as a hand rattle popular with musicians.

One of our most difficult tasks is telling an artisan who has spent days making a craft is that it isn’t good enough for us to buy. We have to do this, though, and tell them why so our partners can improve. They also need to do this quality control on their own to succeed with other buyers. To give the artisans practice with this task, we asked them to closely examine the crafts they had laid out on the tables, choose the best ones in each category and then explain why. We heard comments like: “Oh this, one has really precise edges,” “the knots are loose and uneven,” and “the colors on this one are faded.” It was encouraging that the artisans almost always chose or rejected the same ones we would have. This confirmed our suspicion that most artisans are well aware of the quality of their crafts. While some artisans don’t make high quality crafts because they haven’t learned to make them yet, experienced artisans sometimes rush to complete an order with the hope we will accept their work. While debriefing the exercise, Milda from Puca Urquilla said, “It’s hard to criticize the work of our fellow artisans, but we have to learn to do this in a constructive way. I know from experience that other buyers can be even more strict than CACE. It’s no good wasting our time and resources making crafts that large buyers won’t accept because they can’t sell them. We should develop a reputation as artisans who can be trusted to produce high quality crafts.”

Some of these exercises were challenging and intense so we separated them with interactive games. A few favorites borrowed from our Alternatives to Violence Project workshops were Armadillos and Holes (adapted from Landlords and Tenants) and Crocodiles and Frogs. Both required people to move around quickly and cooperate in some way and produced lots of laughter.

In two of the workshops, we did a session on photographing handicrafts so they could learn to help market their own work. We first set up cloths on tables to provide a solid color background below and behind a craft. CACE staff member Tulio then explained the basics steps for taking a good picture. Each artisan took a turn using one of our cameras or one on their phone to shoot one of the selected handicrafts. Tulio later compiled the photos on his computer and showed the group examples of shots which were in or out of focus, had good or poor lighting, or presented the craft in a good or not so good angle. Eliza from the village of San Francisco said, “I was very timid about doing this because I didn’t want to break the camera. Every time I pushed the button, the camera seemed to lurch, and the photo was blurry. I finally relaxed, though, and did it OK. I was proud to take a good picture of my woven turtles and discover that my son isn’t the only one in the family who can learn to use some technology.”

The next stage of the two-day workshop was helping the artisans start to make a catalog of their crafts. This began by explaining a product description that explained a bit about the artisan or artisan group, where they lived, what materials they used to make it, its size, its use, and their cost for retail and wholesale buyers. Small groups were asked to prepare a description of one or two products that mentioned these points and anything interesting about the craft’s cultural significance or animal depicted in the craft. In mixed-age groups, the elders usually talked while younger ones did the measuring and wrote responses. They then shared these descriptions with the full group to get their feedback and suggestions. One tough part of this exercise for the artisans was figuring out how much of a discount they could give to wholesale buyers who wanted many crafts of the same kind. When they make crafts one at a time by themselves, there are limited ways to improve their efficiency. They realized, though, that they could gain some economy of scale if they worked together to fulfill a large order.

We finally shifted to tips for marketing crafts to tourists. Some artisans had already had some experience doing, but was mostly new for artisans from more remote villages. Each small group was given a stand with a cloth, a batch of crafts, a big paper and some markers. They were asked to lay out their crafts in an attractive way and prepare a sign with the name of their artisan group and some phrase about themselves or their crafts. We did one review first to suggest ways to improve the presentation of their crafts or sign. After these adjustments, our facilitation team took on the role of tourists visiting their fair. Our Peruvian members asked questions in Spanish and tried to haggle with the artisans about prices. I pretended to be an American tourist who was a bit rude and spoke nothing but English. Milly from Puca Urquillo commented, “Wow, that was amazing, fun and hard. This was the first time I really had to explain everything about my craft.” Ofelia added, “It’s true that many visitors only speak a few words in Spanish, and it can be frustrating for all of us. We want you to teach us some simple English when you come back so we can communicate with them a little bit better.” I said I would.

We ended every workshop by asking artisans to answer a few questions in a written evaluation, and we helped the ones who had trouble reading and writing. The overall comments about the workshop were very positive, although there were sometimes mixed reviews about the food served during meal times. Other feedback helped us make our explanations of difficult concepts more clear and dynamic from the first to the third workshop and identify other topics the artisans want to learn about or practice more in the future.

There are many ways to build a better toucan, and we’re learning new ones all the time.

Artisans making paper toucans at workshop in Nauta
Artisans making paper toucans at workshop in Nauta
First round of toucans made by individual artisans
First round of toucans made by individual artisans
Artisans inspecting first round of paper toucans
Artisans inspecting first round of paper toucans
Artisans cooperating to making toucan in round 2
Artisans cooperating to making toucan in round 2
Artisans showing toucans made by groups in round 2
Artisans showing toucans made by groups in round 2
Artisan showing toucan made by her group
Artisan showing toucan made by her group
Yully from CACE explaining measuring units
Yully from CACE explaining measuring units
Tulio from CACE explaining measuring terms
Tulio from CACE explaining measuring terms
Artisans studying bottle carrier design
Artisans studying bottle carrier design
Artisan group making model of bottle carrier
Artisan group making model of bottle carrier
Artisans selecting best baskets for display
Artisans selecting best baskets for display
Armadillos and holes game (Light and Lively)
Armadillos and holes game (Light and Lively)
Artisan taking studio photograph of woven bag
Artisan taking studio photograph of woven bag
Artisans describing handicraft for product catalog
Artisans describing handicraft for product catalog
Placing product photos in practice catalog
Placing product photos in practice catalog
Bottle carriers at practice fair for tourists
Bottle carriers at practice fair for tourists
Artisans practice selling crafts to tourists
Artisans practice selling crafts to tourists
Helping artisan complete written evaluation
Helping artisan complete written evaluation
Serving lunch at artisan workshop at Brillo Nuevo
Serving lunch at artisan workshop at Brillo Nuevo
Pet parakeet in artisan home
Pet parakeet in artisan home
Artisan daughters from Brillo Nuevo
Artisan daughters from Brillo Nuevo
Kids playing soccer at Brillo Nuevo
Kids playing soccer at Brillo Nuevo
Heron flying over Ampiyacu River
Heron flying over Ampiyacu River
Tarantula and termite tunnels on CACE house wall
Tarantula and termite tunnels on CACE house wall

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It was about ten o'clook in the morning when we spotted the port of Jenaro Herrera - the small town on the bank of the Ucayali river which was named after a famous Amazonian writer. The “rápido” (long narrow speed boat) slowed as we approached the metal floating dock where a bunch of children and adults anxiously waited with trays in their hands to sell us their products. Some did not even wait for our boat to stop before they jumped on. They crowded inside to offer packets of the town’s signature buffalo cheese and other refreshments to the seated passengers. When I finally managed to get off, I found Italo waiting with a smile and greeted him with a hug.

Italo has been working for CACE for eleven years. His face reveals his years of living in the forest and gives off a kindness that can not be ignored. He helped me carry my bags to the “hospedaje” (local inn) while we caught up on general topics like our family and health. Once I settled in a bit, we discussed our job for this trip. Italo has been observing the number, size and condition of the resin lumps on copal trees in our study areas in the government reserve on his own for the past three years and helping with every other phase of the research for even longer. While we had long hoped to develop a system to sustainably harvest these resin lumps and distill them to extract a novel and valuable essential oil, we finally had to accept that there were not enough of these trees or lumps in the forests around our partner communities for the enterprise to be profitable for the harvesters (See more details in our report: Letting go of the idea we love most). Before wrapping up our study in Jenaro Herrera, however, we wanted to get one more complete photographic record of the resin lumps on the trees we have been observing since 2007. We can use these photos to estimate how fast these resin lumps grow as the weevils inside them mature – key scientific information to better understand the relationship between copal trees, its resin and this specialized insect.

Very early the next day, I put on my boots, grabbed my camera, and found Italo waiting for me outside the inn.   We took a “motocar” (three wheeled motorcycle taxi) to the government research center that is a few miles up the road that eventually reaches Brazil. The road is not paved, so the tires skidded on the muddy ground and jumped when we hit bumps and ruts. Once we got to the center, we entered the forest that provides a large study site for scientists and students. Immediately the mosquitoes came out in force to greet us. They made it clear that they reigned here; we were just passing through.

We walked for a long time under a thick cover of leaves that protected us from the sun, but not from the heat. The humidity was intense, and we were soon sweating profusely. Italo went ahead, paying attention to the trail and everything around it. His years of experience in this environment has remarkably sharpened his vision. He can spot a tiny frog hiding in the foliage meters away when others would only see scattered leaves. I trusted Italo to notice any snakes – my main fear of walking in the forest. When we finally arrived at the first copal tree of the day, I got my camera gear ready.

When the larva of these special weevils chews into the inner bark of copal trees to feed, liquid resin oozes out of the wound onto the outer bark of the tree. As the resin begins to harden, the larva pushes the sticky material to the side to create a protective chamber for itself as it develops over the next couple of years. I took photos of every resin lump we found and recorded the code number of the study tree. Some lumps were near the roots while others were higher up the trunk.  Italo helped me steady a telescopic rod to photograph the lumps in difficult positions and record information about their condition. When we finished one tree, we moved on to the next according to a map that only exists in Italo’s head.

We spent another five hours walking through the forest, finding study trees, photographing resin lumps and using the opportunity to talk. Italo had countless stories to tell – things he has seen, things he has learned, how he respects nature and what these things mean to him. His words are full of the wisdom of an Amazonian woodsman, of a man of the jungle and sweat with alert eyes and tired feet.

While resting on a fallen trunk, Italo reflected, "You know Tulito, I have walked through the forest all my life. I have almost been bitten several times by poisonous snakes.  I have gotten lost in the bush, and I have lost friends who walked into the woods and never came out. I have seen things that you would not believe. But you know, I would not change my life for any other. I have enjoyed focusing on copal because I have learned so much studying it with CACE. I have spent so much time observing the trees and resin lumps that it makes me feel good about myself. I know I'm not a professional, and I have not studied at a university, but I'm not going to feel bad about it. I like the life I have. I have assisted students and professors who have come from several universities to do their research here, and they have learned from me. How do I explain it? I am who I am thanks to the forest."

His words are full of pride, and I deeply appreciated that he shared them with me. Time has passed, though, so we stood up and carried on with our work since we still had to visit several hundred more trees.

When we finished for the day, we headed back to the research station. There was no motorcar at the entrance to take us back to town, but we hadn’t really expected to find one. We walked along the road under the attentive gazes of water buffaloes who were accustomed to people and did not flinch as we passed.  Back at the inn, taking off my boots and resting my tired feet was one of the great pleasures in my life.

We repeated this pattern for several more days.  My tasks became routine, but the forest did not. The forest always seemed to have something to say, just like Italo. While I was used to the rhythm of the city, the change from its fast pace to the life here was memorable. Not everyone has the chance to walk through the Amazon rainforest or to share this experience with someone whose life is the forest. The time finally came to say goodbye to Italo and my other friends in Jenaro Herrera and go home with my own stories to tell.

Italo monitoring resin lump on copal tree
Italo monitoring resin lump on copal tree
Italo and Tulio fishing near the Ucayali River
Italo and Tulio fishing near the Ucayali River
Italo measuring copal tree size
Italo measuring copal tree size
Italo and Angel monitoring copal tree in the rain
Italo and Angel monitoring copal tree in the rain
Resin lumps on copal tree at Jenaro Herrera
Resin lumps on copal tree at Jenaro Herrera
Italo and snake in the forest
Italo and snake in the forest
Lychen patches on copal tree
Lychen patches on copal tree
Italo and CACE volunteer Tracy S.
Italo and CACE volunteer Tracy S.
Italo collecting copal resin lump sample
Italo collecting copal resin lump sample
Italo manually harvesting copal resin
Italo manually harvesting copal resin
Italo harvesting resin lump from copal tree
Italo harvesting resin lump from copal tree
Italo and Campbell Plowden - Project Leader
Italo and Campbell Plowden - Project Leader

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Organization Information

Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Location: State College, Pennsylvania - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @Amazon Ecology
Project Leader:
Campbell Plowden
Dr.
Lemoyne, Pennsylvania United States
$85,849 raised of $99,999 goal
 
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