Copal resin montage. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE
Dear GlobalGiving donor,
Thank you very much for your support for our project on GlobalGiving. The main goal of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology is to help people in Amazon native and campesino communities to improve their livelihoods, conserve their forests and enrich their cultural traditions. We help native artisans develop and sell innovative handicrafts and planted 900 rosewood seedlings to produce fragrant oil from this endangered species in a few years. CACE’s longest standing effort, however, has been to develop a novel oil from the aromatic resin of copal trees.
Copal is the common name for more than 40 species of trees in the family Burseraceae in the Amazon and other parts of Latin America. The best known members of this family are frankincense and myrrh, but New World societies going back to the Mayans also burned copal resin for incense.
People in Central America make cuts into copal trunks to collect the resin that drips from the wounds. Forest peoples in the Amazon, however, collect resin lumps from trees that have been attacked by bark-boring weevils and use the sticky material to caulk their wooden boats. CACE is one of the first groups to explore distilling the resin into fragrant essential oil as a more valuable non-timber forest product that could be a more sustainable source of income than activities like unregulated logging, hunting game animals and cash-crop agriculture that burns forests.
We began studying the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal in 2006 at Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River by measuring how much resin could be collected from 30 species. Since then we have been monitoring resin recovery and learning how different insects are connected to this little copal resin ecosystem. (See our video: Use and insect ecology of copal resin in the Peruvian Amazon).
Every few months project manager Angel Raygada and field assistant Italo Melendez visit several hundred study trees in the government run field station and take digital photos of every resin lump. These observations have given us a rich glimpse into the lives of these fascinating weevils. Their life cycle begins when a pair mates on a copal tree, and the female places her eggs into tiny holes in the bark. When a larva hatches and chews into the inner bark to feed, it also cuts through canals carrying resin up and down the trunk. This resin usually repels attackers, these highly-specialized beetles manipulate the exuding resin into a lump with a chamber that protects them as they mature.
Italo has made and refined a series of traps with wire mesh, old soda bottles and inner tubes to catch adult weevils emerging from their lumps so we can better understand the animals responsible for stimulating resin flow. Checking these traps three times a week during successive rainy and dry seasons has shown us that it takes two to three years for a resin weevil to fully develop. As Angel has analyzed thousands of photos, we have learned that different weevils make distinct forms of resin lumps including irregular moonscape blobs, grapefruit size hemispheres, and golf-ball size lumps containing a resin honeycomb. This work is also letting us know how many years the trees (and weevils) need to rest before resin lumps could be harvested again.
Our study has also shown us that many other insects use copal resin. Italo spends one day a month observing bees on copal trees to learn how important copal is to these major rainforest pollinators. He has seen black and striped stingless bees collecting resin to build nests for their colonies in hollow trees, iridescent green and gold orchid bees harvesting copal to make their solitary nests, and bumble-bee sized male “ronsapas” courting females perched on resin lumps. Syrphid fly larvae sometimes burrow through gooey resin lumps where they feed on microbial spores. We have also found diverse ants, spiders, millipedes, and scorpions roaming through dry resin lump chambers in search of food or a place to raise their young. Italo came to us with a savvy knowledge of the forest; working with us has taught him how to record detailed measurements in ways he never learned in his schooling that ended after 8th grade.
We extended our copal surveys to the village of Brillo Nuevo in 2009. Since we’ve learned from our studies at Jenaro Herrera that it takes at least five years for resin lumps to recover after all of them are removed, we limited our experimental harvest in the Ampiyacu region to half of the lumps on any tree. We have now begun our second year of monitoring copal study tree and are pleased to see a good number of new and growing resin lumps on them. With support for this project through GlobalGiving, many young Bora native men are learning to study their own forest resources with techniques and tools including climbing trees with a harness, collecting leaves with a pole pruner, orienteering with a compass, mapping with a GPS, measuring trees with a diameter tape, and weighing resin lumps with a digital balance. (See our video: Sustainable harvest and marketing of copal resin in the Peruvian Amazon).
We have distilled samples of resin from both Jenaro Herrera and the Ampiaycu to try and transform copal from a local resource that’s good for caulking boats into an aromatic oil that native communities can sell as a value-added product. Essential oil buyers have told us that samples from some species have promise in fine fragrances while others may be more attractive in aromatherapy. This year we plan to analyze resin composition and resin weevil DNA to learn which species of copal and weevils produce the most and best resin and develop a management plan with the community to harvest it commercially.
Our five gallon copper alembique pot has been good for our experimental distillations of small batches of copal resin and rosewood leaves. We now need to buy a larger stainless steel distiller to process more plant material and increase oil yield with our community level project. We also need to purchase a grinder to chip branches into little pieces that can be efficiently distilled. Thanks again for supporting this project through GlobalGiving. Every donation will help us develop a novel and viable new sustainable enterprise for our partners.
Executive Director and Project Leader Center for Amazon Community Ecology
Copal resin lump in sustainability study. CACE
Collecting copal resin lump from tall tree. CACE
Two weevils and copal resin lumps. Plowden/CACE
Orchid bee collecting copal resin. Plowden/CACE
CACE GPS training with Bora natives. Plowden/CACE
Copper alembique distiller. C. Plowden/CACE
Distilling rosewood essential oil. C. Plowden/CACE
Stainless steel distillation unit. Heart Magic