Ampiyacu and Chino artisans learn to make Amazon birds
By Campbell Plowden | Executive Director & Project Leader
I loved attending two workshops that CACE organized last month for top-level artisans from the Marañon River to teach fellow artisans from the Tahuayo and Ampiyacu River how to weave bird ornaments with chambira palm fiber. In the first workshop, brothers Kleiber and Jamner from the village of San Francisco spent two days teaching 24 artisans from Chino how to make the channel-billed toucan, tropical screech owl, purple gallinule and wire-tailed manakin. The group included men and women from sixteen to sixty years old. I had been buying bird ornaments from Marañon artisans for two years, but this was the first time that I and artisans from these other regions saw how they were made from scratch.
Surrounded a dozen eager artisans in one half of the artisan meeting house, Kleiber asked everyone in his group to first form a ball with chambira by wrapping a strand around and around its center until it reached the size of a large cherry to form the core of the body. They next formed a second smaller ball for the head, connected the two with a three-inch long piece of wire and then wrapped fiber around this to form the neck. In the following hours, they progressively attached other bits of wire which they wrapped with different colors of fiber to form the wings, tail, beak, legs and feet. As the first day came to a close, everyone in Kleiber’s group had a bird that resembled a toucan while the members of Jamner’s group each produced an owl. We placed all of the ornaments on a bench and asked the group to point out features that they thought were well made and which ones could be improved. The details and expression of one of the artisan’s toucan were even better than the one made by her teacher. Norma said, “I’ve seen this bird in the forest around here all my life, but now I know I can bring it to life for others through my art.”
Kleiber told me, “It was incredible to me to see how fast these artisans learned how to make this complicated bird. I really appreciate how seriously they got involved with this process. It’s harder to get people from my village to focus on this kind of thing for this long.”
Romelia and her husband Jorge both learned how to make an owl and gallinule from Jamner. Jorge said, “I’ve been a carver for years and can weave a basic chambira bag, but I never thought I could make a little bird as beautiful as this.” Estelita who is the president of the Chino artisan association called Manos Amazonicas (“Amazon hands”) said, “This workshop was valuable for all of us. We can now design and make new kinds of crafts to sell to CACE and tourists. I know these visitors will want to buy crafts representing some of the birds they can see in our forest and by our river. This workshop also attracted new people who haven’t been part of our association before. It would be great to increase our group with more dedicated artisans.”
Two weeks later, we convened another skill-sharing workshop in Puca Urquillo – the dual Bora and Huitoto village near the town of Pebas on the Ampiyacu River. We recruited Pablo, another artisan from San Francisco to join Kleiber and Jamner as teachers since we had invited artisans from all of our partner villages in the region. About 40 artisans joined us for breakfast, and this number swelled to 66 as people arrived from more distant villages. Our artisan teachers had their hands full so many participants so we scaled-back the pace and had each one teach the 20-23 people in their group how to make one bird well in two-days. The featured birds were the Amazon kingfisher, lineated woodpecker and rufescent tiger heron. There was a lot of energy in the “locale” (community meeting room) as dogs and wandered around and participants swapped bits of chambira of different colors, but they soon settled into a focused flow of watching their teacher demonstrate each step in the process, try it themselves and then refine it with feedback from their teacher. Some artisan moms breastfed their babies while they weaved, but kids who were three years or older played non-stop on the stage or ran around outside.
This was the first time that these artisans had made a bird, and they were not making easy models. The tiger heron (which they called the “puma garza” – mountain lion egret) required sewing multi-colored loops onto the chest and then carefully cutting them to resemble the bird’s ruffled feathers. The woodpecker had a bright red crest on its head (like Woody Woodpecker) which needed shaping and combing to look just right. Kori said, “I feel like I’m learning to be a hair-stylist for birds.”
As Tulio interviewed artisans outside the workshop, most offered two similar comments. The first was that it was hard at first to make their bird, but the teachers explained the process well and they were confident they would get better with practice. The second was that they all wanted to have another workshop to learn how to make different types of birds. Maria Elena said with a smile, “I’m proud of the kingfisher I made; now I want to learn how to make a macaw.”
A week later, I had a farewell dinner with Kleiber and Jamner at a restaurant in Nauta where we discussed workshop highlights and ways they could engage their student artisans even better. They were excited about teaching more workshops and wanted to keep making new models of birds themselves. They were anxious to try and raise their bird craft-making another level by making more birds in flight so I gave them a dozen photos of various species with their wings out. The day before I left Iquitos for home, I received a box with new prototypes made by the pair in the past ten days. I was astounded by the life-like shape, colors and fine touches on their flying hoatzin, roseate spoonbill, purple gallinule and black-collared hawk. It’s great to know that we can support a few top artisans to keep pushing the boundaries of their creativity while enlisting their support to welcome other artisans to this journey of weaving beautiful birds of the Amazon.
Jamner showing Romelia how to weave owl in Chino
Artisan feet holding chambira palm fiber
Sarita weaving bird with baby in Chino workshop
Artisan weaving wire-tailed manakin bird ornament
Jorge and Romelia with purple gallinules and owls
Rosa and three daughters from Chino with birds
Purple gallinule and tropical screech owl ornament
By Campbell Plowden | Executive Director and Project Leader
Banner photo for CACE report #26
Dear GlobalGiving supporter,
I admit that I had planned to write a succinct letter like ones that many non-profit organizations send to their supporters in December that sum up their accomplishments for the year with one last request for a donation. In a quiet moment, however, I decided not to write about what we did because what kept coming to me were images of people I have appreciated so much for their help in different ways. I am proud that we now work with over fifteen villages in the northern Peruvian Amazon, but putting this report together made it clear that it takes a lot more than one or fifteen villages to do what we do. It needs artisans dedicated to improving their craft and helping each other; it needs our super-committed small team in Peru; it needs scores of volunteers giving us their time and expertise, it needs hundreds of people buying our partner’s crafts; it needs partnerships with trusted organizations, and it needs individuals and foundations willing to show their faith in our work with gifts of $10, $100, $1000 or $10,000. I hope you enjoy learning about some of the people who made a difference with us in 2017.
It would take a book to share the best stories about the artisans we work with, but a few touched me deeply this year. Doilith is part of a family group of artisans we've worked with in Jenaro Herrera since 2007. While they began making some cool insect ornaments years ago, Doilith has taken this art to a new level. She has used photos and caught butterflies near the forest to draw figures of new species in a special notebook and then used those colorful patterns to carefully weave chambira palm fiber into beautiful replicas of these species. Earlier this year, she went to Brillo Nuevo with us to show Bora native artisans how to make their own butterfly ornaments. I was so impressed with her natural teaching ability, care and patience with other artisans. See more at: Butterflies and Dora’s family group of artisans.
I first met Estelita in 2008 as one of the artisans who wove beautiful chambira baskets in the campesino village of Chino on the Tahuayo River. As President of their association, she has helped her fellow artisans develop new products, create norms for quality control and chambira management, build an artisan house with support from an eco-tourism company, and win respect for women artisans from their husbands and community. She has earned trust from her peers by exploring new ideas, acting with purpose and integrity, and making decisions by building consensus. When we organized the Artisan Leadership Program that brought together artisans from more than a dozen communities, Estelita inspired them as well by sharing her encouragement, insights and energetic approach to every challenge. See more at: and Bringing artisans together and getting out of the way and Artisan leaders gather in Nauta to share info, ideas and fun.
Most of our partner artisans are women, but we happily work with male artisans as well. We bought a lot of calabash tree pod ornaments from a master carver named Rider from the village of Puca Urquillo, but when he hesitated to share his skills with other artisans for awhile, Lucio from Brillo Nuevo stepped up and said he would do his best to teach others. He didn’t have Rider’s talent for carving animals from an idea in his head, but giving Lucio photos created an avalanche of beautiful designs of courting herons, hummingbirds pollinating flowers, and otters fishing. His patience, attention to detail and openness to feedback has made his work the gold standard in the Ampiyacu and better than every carver in Iquitos. We are fortunate he is also an avid teacher to the growing number of teenage and mature artisans who want to learn this craft.
Another innovative male artisan we have just began to work with is 16 year-old Heriberto from the village of San Francisco on the Maranon River. He first learned to weave chambira from his mother and then improved living with his artisan uncle. Heriberto has used his imagination, creativity, and photos to create the best new models of Amazonian birds we’ve seen so far. These include complicated species like the chestnut eared aracari and marvelous spatule tail hummingbird. He is also a cheerful and capable teacher who is enthusiastic about sharing his talents with artisans in the Maranon and beyond. See more at: Exploring egrets and new partners on the Maranon River.
My first visit to the Cocama village of Amazonas in 2016 was marked with a stark contrast. Their artisans warmly welcomed me and demonstrated how they dyed chambira fiber with several plants. Their crafts, however, were mediocre compared to ones I saw in nearby San Francisco. While most artisans initially react with anger or sulleness when we don't buy their crafts, Francisca (“Panchita”), the Amazonas artisan association president told me “Thank you for sharing your honest comments about our work. Please tell us how we can make them better.” Her forthright approach reflected her attitude that shifted when she and her family almost drowned in a river accident when she resolved that just being an average artisan was not good enough. Panchita wants herself and her colleagues to become great artisans, and their improvement in the past two years has been dramatic. There was no better for feeling for me last year than seeing smiles of pride on Amazonas artisan faces when I bought one or more of their woven birds, turtles or baskets. They had worked hard to make better crafts and they knew it. See more at: Second chance to become a great artisan.
CACE Staff in Peru
It is difficult to overstate my gratitude for our project manager Yully. She joined us as substitute field assistant on one trip to the Ampiyacu in 2009 and has been the core of our work in Peru ever since. Yully had already worked on ecological field studies under tough conditions and had experience working with forest-based communities. With CACE she has led teams of men searching for copal resin in primary forests, trained farmers to measure rosewood trees in their fields, handled every aspect of our work with artisans, organized the logistics of bringing together workshop participants from five river systems, managed delicate relationships with partner villages, federations, governmental and non-governmental partners, and taken care of our administrative, equipment, and housing needs in Iquitos. We have no accomplishment in Peru that has not been facilitated by her hard work, versatility and integrity. One particular challenge was sensing when if was OK to approach and when we had to back away from a community where some artisans want to make crafts with us but more families want to make money by growing coca. See more at: Navigating choppy community waters to make smooth bottle carriers.
We first met Tulio when he was contracted by the Field Museum to help teach photography and video skills to young people from the Ampiyacu. We next brought him on board to document our project activities. His easy rapport with people made him ideally suited to interview artisans about their lives and gather information about their economic realities. He has prepared learning materials for artisans including an illustrated resource manual, instructional videos with artisans and produced the video on the CACE GlobalGiving home page. He co-facilitated every Artisan Leadership Program workshop and showed he knows how to present serious topics in interesting and interactive ways and how and when to include fun activities that sometimes had a serious point. He has also been a great companion to share a beer, play cards in a cheap motel room, photograph a bird flying across the river, and cruise around Iquitos on his motorcycle looking for a new house for CACE.
Italo has been a field assistant with CACE since 2007 in our study of the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin in Jenaro Herrera. He has used his keen knowledge of the forest, woodman’s skills, and physical toughness to track resin lumps on hundreds of study trees. While Italo lacks a high level of formal education, he has dedicated himself to advancing the project and improving his literacy skills with a CACE sponsored tutor. While prospects for cost-effective harvesting of copal resin in primary forests seem tough, Italo is exploring other ways we can tap this potent aromatic resource. See more at: Letting go of the idea we love the most.
I’d like to thank several of the many people who volunteered for CACE in 2017 in both the U.S. and Peru. Retired photographer Donna first contacted us through VolunteerMatch.Org in response to our search for photo editors. Several weeks after we met at a restaurant in Ohio, she and her husband Chris arrived in Iquitos to help us. She taught our media coordinator Tulio how to take quality studio photos of our crafts, and Chris showed Yully how to maintain our shredder. They then donated Donna’s Nikon SLR camera to us when they went home three weeks later.
I was exhausted from setting up my double-tent at the Romp Bluegrass Music Festival when Tessa and a friend walked into my booth and asked if they could help. They joined the melee of arranging crafts, lights, and plastic tropical plants and then left to catch a late-night band. Tessa came back the next day and every other day until the end of the festival. Beyond helping with sales, she applied her artistic talent to create the Draw a Toucan activity that enlisted kids and adults to draw a picture of this classic tropical bird or any animal of their choosing to post on our Amazon Art Gallery.
Brenda defines the term “super volunteer.” She was a stage manager at the Philadelphia Folk Festiva and still made time to bring me bags of ice to cool my drinks and helped pack up at the end. This year, she helped set up my booth at the beginning and take down my booth at the end at both the Falcon Ridge and Philadelphia Folk Festivals. These tasks alternately include heavy lifting, ingenuity, aesthetic sensibilities, and a lof of patience. I am indebted to Brenda for hanging in there with me with humor and true grit until the last board was tucked away in the trailer at 2 or 3 am. Her amazing parents then picked up the torch and helped me run the craft sale at Lancaster Friends Meeting this fall.
Thanks to many other wonderful people who helped us at 30 other events this year. Special shout outs to the couple who helped me bail water out of the middle of my tent during the Grey Fox festival; Stu, Bill, and Phyllis who kept me laughing and fed; Lois, Nancy and Larry for their long hours of service, and Jackie who wowed me with her gift for connecting with people. Jeremy spent 100 hours helping us improve our online Amazon Forest Store. His work designing special pages will allow us to present stories and images about the people, plants and places that went into making the beautiful products made by our partner artisans.
Our board members and advisors contribute to CACE’s efforts in a whole different way. CACE directors Kat Alden, Michael Gilmore, Audrey Maretzki and Robin Van Loon are mentioned in other parts of this newsletter. Jim Finley has generously shared his experience since I walked in his door in the Penn State Forestry Dept. as a graduate student in 1995. He served on my PhD dissertation committee and has helped me brainstorm approaches to almost every major idea and CACE related challenge over breakfast for the past 12 years. Virginia Hubbs has been a key spiritual advisor, fundraising coach, and conduit to grants from the Caye Foundation. Chris Benner has connected us to students in the Everett Program at the Univ. of California at Santa Cruz who have used their media skills to put together videos to promote our sale of the Amazon Guitar Strap.
Thanks to the hundreds of people who bought crafts from CACE during 2017 at festivals, craft fairs, special events at churches, online and stores owned by friends of CACE. I especially appreciate people who have come back to our booth at the same event for two or more years in a row. Their purchases of our fair trade handicrafts topped $30,000 which broke our annual sales record. This process generates significant income for artisans and their families and helps fund improvements to heath, education and conservation in our partner communities. See more at: Did you make all of these crafts? and What does it really mean to practice fair trade?
I would like to thank a few special craft buyers: 1. Lisa C. welcomed me to the fire circle of Painkiller Ridge camp at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in 2016 and then brought a contingent by our booth in 2017 to welcome us back and encourage them to buy a craft. 2. One inebriated fellow came by our booth at the Romp Bluegrass festival late one night and attached two of our woven parrots to his hat. His inspiration opened up a new approach to marketing these ornaments that normally only perch on Christmas trees. 3. John D. bought several crafts and discussed my past and his upcoming trip to Peru for several hours. 4. Fellow vendor Quetzal drew the best bird of the season for our Amazon Art Gallery. 5. Matt and Allie put together our rainforest puzzle is less time (5 minutes) than anyone else in the summer. 6. Colleen Kattau and other musicians who bought an Amazon Guitar Strap and sang for us. 7. John Tait and his staff at Tait Trees who have sold our Christmas tree ornaments in their shop for seven years without taking any commission. 8. Susan Jermusyk – owner of the Barranquero Café in State College who hosted two craft sales and commissioned our artisan partners to make a replica of the “barranquero” bird. This is the local name in Spanish for the blue-crowned mot mot that frequents the mountainous part of Colombia where her coffee comes from.
CACE is blessed with many partnerships with fellow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups. Our relationships with Camino Verde (CV) and its founder Robin Van Loon are important to CACE now and will likely become even more so in the near future. I was introduced to Robin by our board member Audrey Maretzki who was also on a foundation board that first supported CV then brought us together to support a joint project. Building on CV’s experience planting thousands of native trees at its base in the southern Peruvian Amazon, our first collaboration focused on the rosewood reforestation project in Brillo Nuevo. Three years after showing the Bora farmers how to plant the seedlings, Robin returned to show them how to prune the trees so we could extract their essential oil. Robin's team has now figured out the technical and bureaucratic aspects of managing forest lands, distilling leaves and branches and exporting the aromatic oil. CACE and CV have also cooperated on fundraising and communication projects and are exploring new ways to integrate our operations. We aim to combine our skills, assets and networks to conduct innovative research and community-based projects that conserve forests and support forest peoples. This partnership is also exciting at a personal level since Robin and I have easily shared ideas of how cooperating could amplify our impact, and developed an honest and caring dialogue to navigate this process.
It is also important to acknowlege CACE’s growing relationships with the NGO Minga Peru who introduced us to their partner communities along the Maranon River. We now work directly with some of their artisans to improve the quality, diversity and marketing of their handicrafts. Minga Peru has also supported our artisan work by hosting three of Artisan Leadership Program workshops at its Tambo Minga training center near Nauta. CACE board member and key advisor for our work in Peru since 2008 is Michael Gilmore who founded the NGO One Planet. OP conducts research, community development and conservation projects with Maijuna native communities in the Napo River region. CACE is exploring ways to further support handicraft development in these communities. CACE appreciates the work that FECONA (Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu) does to support 15 native villages in the Ampiyacu watershed as well as its role in facilitating CACE’s work in this region. We much enjoyed working with their president Liz Chicaje who promoted organizing artisans in her region and giving them new opportunities to sell their crafts in Iquitos and Lima.
CACE couldn’t do any of its work without the funds to pay for our programs and staff. We very much appreciate the New England Biolabs Foundation’s support for our work in Peru since 2013. Beyond its grants, its executive director Jessica Brown has welcomed our allies Camino Verde and One Planet to NEBF’s strategic group of grantees it funds in the Amazon and connected us to our new key partner Minga Peru. Allan Thornton became a colleague during our time with Greenpeace and then supported me to gather evidence about pirate whaling in the Philippines, tiger bone trade in Indonesia and illegal logging in Honduras after he founded the Environmental Investigation Agency. Many thanks to Allan and EIA for its grant to CACE in 2017 and renewing its support for us in 2018. Patricia Shanley has supported my work to develop the sustainable harvest and marketing of non-timber forest products since we both worked in Brazil in the late 1990’s. She has been an invaluable advisor to CACE and sponsored several Amazon handicraft sales at her home. This year she and her husband Chris facilitated a vital grant to CACE from the Melza and Frank Theodore Barr Foundation. I could not have strated CACE in 2006 without the faith and gifts of Sheri and Dayton Coles. Their welcome support and keen interest in our progress and challenges continues to this day. Kat Alden is another charter CACE backer and friend whose positive energy, ideas, and financial support (with her husband Bill) has been critical. I also sincerely thank many friends and family members whose regular donations have kept us going and growing.
Finally, thanks to Emily James and other staffers at GlobalGiving who have created a unique platform to direct donations to CACE and thousands of other worthy projects. This year Emily selected me to be part of the first GG mentor program. She also acted as our liaison to a GG ambassador visit to our field sites in Peru and arranged for CACE to offer its crafts to GG staff at its office in Washington, D.C. during the holiday season. In addition to supporting platform partners to improve their online fundraising, GG also provides numerous valuable opportunities to help its members communicate more effectively with the people they were created to serve.
Doilith showing artisan to make woven butterfly
Estelita measuring baskets with artisans
Lucio with carved calabash rattle ornaments
Heriberto with bird ornaments
Panchita with woven egret tray
Yully with artisans at workshop
Tulio photographing coati
Italo monitoring resin lumps on copal tree
Donna with artisan, capybara and squirrel monkey
Tessa and the Draw a Toucan game at CACE booth
Volunteer Brenda with spatule tail hummingbird
Lisa with woven bottle carrier at CACE booth
Quetzal bird drawing at CACE booth
Matt and Allie and rainforest puzzle at CACE booth
By Campbell Plowden | Executive Director and Project Leader
Copal story banner photos
The hardest idea to let go of is the one that we have loved the most. In my case, this idea was believing that harvesting resin from copal trees in the rainforest could produce a new and significant source of income for forest peoples in the northern Peruvian Amazon.
I first learned about this resin from a Tembé Indian while walking through a patch of the Brazilian Amazon in 1993. I almost tripped over a downed tree that had greyish lumps of resin on it that one of my guides called “breu.” He said they used this material to caulk their wooden boats and also burned it like incense or to create light like a candle. I noticed this material again four years later while living in a different Tembé village studying non-timber forest products for my PhD dissertation. Men often came back to the village with sacks full of the malleable white to grey resin which they had picked off the bark of live “breu” trees. They laid the lumps out on the ground to dry in the sun before using it themselves or selling it to boatyard suppliers in the city. I began to pay serious attention when someone told me they frequently found “tapurus” (some kind of larvae) in the resin.
I collected a few of these larvae, and an entomologist from the Goeldi Museum in Belém told me they were juveniles of some kind of beetle – probably a weevil. I realized these little white blobs with hard reddish-brown caps were not just casual visitors to the resin - they were actually responsible for forming the lumps on the trees. I began to study this relationship and estimate how much resin the Tembé could collect in their forests. I picked apart so many lumps of gooey resin that I developed a surreal sense of when and where I would find young weevils and syrphid fly larvae that may have been feeding on fungal and bacterial spores in the resin. I also saw many kinds of stingless bees collecting fresh “breu” – presumably to help build and defend their nests. I ended up writing two chapters of my dissertation on these relationships which were later published in scientific journals.
While my research established me as a bona-fide ecologist, the deterioration and eventual fracture of my relationship with my Tembé hosts left me hurt, confused, and unconfident for a time about my ability to work with rainforest communities. What remained clear was my compelling desire to learn more about this resin and its diverse relationships with insects since they seemed to exemplify the essence, beauty, and complexity of tropical forest ecology.
I followed the resin trail up the Amazon exploring different field sites in Brazil and eventually made it to Peru in 2003 where I found a PhD student studying the taxonomy and ecology of resin-producing trees Burseraceae trees locally known as “copal.” Paul directed me to various sites where I found an amazing diversity of trees and resin lump shapes I had not seen before. In short, I was hooked on copal.
After making a few more exploratory trips to Peru, I took the plunge and formed CACE in 2006. I spent the first two summers living at a research station studying which species of copal trees most often had resin lumps on them and started to understand how resin weevils interacted with their hosts. It was soon apparent that the weevils developed very slowly so we did some studies to measure how much resin could be harvested by mildly wounding the trees to harvest the resin – the typical way that resin is harvested from copal and other resinous trees throughout the world. While our studies showed that a harvester could gather as much resin by wounding a tree as collecting resin lumps provoked by the feeding of weevils, they would need to go out and wound the trees every few days to do so. While the Mayans in Mexico and Central America gathered enough resin for their rituals by wounding certain copal trees, this did not appear to be a cost-effective strategy in Peru.
By 2008, we thought we knew enough about the copal system to extend our work into communities where they might be able to earn some money by sustainably harvesting the resin. We launched this project in the Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo on the Ampiyacu River because they had access to large areas of intact forest and a lot of knowledge about their resources.
My first forays into the forests there were exciting because my elder guides showed me various types of white copal that I was familiar with on tree trunks in the high forest and a whole other class of resin lumps I had never seen before on the branches of trees in areas that were periodically flooded. While this discovery fascinated me, I decided to keep my focus on the first type since the second system involved a type of long-horned beetle that was attacking a whole other class of tree to produce yellow resin lumps that lacked any aromatic properties that seemed to hold the key to copal’s commercial promise. My guides rewarded my curiosity in these trees by giving me the Bora name “ka’a nepa” which means resin in their language. Copal was no longer just a product to me; it had literally become a part of my identity that connected me back to a native community in the Amazon.
Our first attempt to develop a commercial product from copal harvested near the village was a comical failure. I had picked out what seemed to be a simple recipe for incense from the internet, but when we cooked up some resin and combined it with a bit of oil and ash, and tried to roll them into little cones, they looked like the worst rejects possible from a Hershey’s Kisses assembly line. They didn’t burn well and offered no pleasing scent. I was pleased that the women who indulged me with this experiment at least had a good time doing so even though all they had to show for their efforts were blackened hands that took days to clean.
I supposed that we could eventually learn how to do this process better, but fate fortunately quickly intervened via an email from Haley, the president of a specialty fragrance company who happened to be traveling through Peru meeting with various suppliers. She agreed to make a quick trip to Iquitos to discuss the idea with us of distilling copal resin into essential oil which might become an ingredient in fine fragrances.
I brought down a small copper alembique pot on my next trip to Peru. This is the classic vessel that artisanal essential oil makers have used for centuries to boil or steam aromatic plants. The hot plant-water vapors pass from the top of the pot through a tube into a cool water bath where they are condensed and then separated into their pure forms. We didn’t have any rye flour that is traditionally used to make a paste that can prevent steam leaks from the system. We first tried using manioc flour, but this only succeeded in making bread while the stem burst out at will. Our more effective solution was to apply a commercial two-part resin mix, but we had to quickly disassemble the hot pot and pipes after a distillation before they completely cooled or the resin would harden to the point where they couldn’t be separated. I will never forget the sensorial bliss of our first distillation when I bathed with the warm copal scented water (hydrosol) that came off the distillation process.
While we gradually got the hang of distilling the resin in the copper pot and later graduated to a larger stainless-steel distillation unit, our inventories of copal trees and sample harvests were a lot less encouraging. The notable asset of a tropical forest is its high diversity, but by simple math, this means that there usually only a few of any given species in one area. We found a relatively decent number of copal trees in these forests, but only a few of them had resin lumps on them. It seemed that the weevils were rather picky about their hosts. We also learned that while there were a variety of weevils that infected copal trees, only a few types made lumps containing enough fresh resin to harvest and distill. Others made small honeycomb style lumps that were biologically interesting but were worthless to human (and bee) harvesters. We were initially excited to learn that many Bora had planted one type of copal tree in their “chacras” (forest fields first used for crops, later for trees), but unfortunately this variety which produces a very tasty small fruit was not favored by the resin weevils.
We knew that people in the region were gathering and using copal resin on a regular basis so decent amounts had to be out there somewhere, didn’t they? One tantalizing event was my first visit to the small village of Ancon Colonia north of Brillo Nuevo when one man emptied out a large sack full of copal on his wooden slat floor to show us what he had recently collected.
Meanwhile the research that we had begun at Jenaro Herrera was still moving forward with its own milestones of progress and frustrating challenges. We had individually marked hundreds of trees to track the growth of many hundred individual resin lumps to learn how and how long it took for the immature weevils to become adults. We also placed wire mesh traps over many lumps to capture and identify the adults when they emerged, but our early designs were not tight enough and some later ones put too many nail holes in the trees. Traps wore out and needed to be regularly replaced until we figured out how to efficiently put traps only on very mature lumps. While many insects have rather short life-cycles (some flies only live for three days), these resin weevils needed two to three years to become adults and many didn’t survive to that stage. The implications for sustainably harvesting the resin lumps was stark. While one is normally concerned about the impact of harvesting a plant product on the plant itself, resin harvesting needed to be done in a way that didn’t harshly impact the population of resin weevils.
In order to better understand the weevil’s development, we took digital photos of the resin lumps on a regular basis for many years. The concept of the research method was simple and sound. We could use a computer program to draw a line around the perimeter of the resin lump and measure its area by comparing it to the known area of a reference object in the same photo. We encountered many challenges, however, making this method work as precisely as we had hoped. It was hard to keep track of lumps that came and went on hundreds of trees. Our field assistants were very knowledgeable about the forest, but they made mistakes along the way that compromised some of the data. Part way through the study, the original tags we had used to track the lumps became unavailable and we needed to switch to another tag whose size was only slightly different. It was hard to consistently delineate the boundaries of resin lumps that dripped and morphed over time. We spent a lot of time and resources analyzing this data, but we have not yet found a clear pattern of growth that we logically expected.
As our work with handicrafts continued to expand, we also conducted additional surveys of copal trees in the Ampiyacu, one campesino village in the upper Tahuayo River area, two Maijuna villages in the Napo River area, one Matses village in the Ucayali River area, and cursory explorations in others. In each case, we initially found people who were knowledgeable about copal trees and its resin, regularly used it, and were interested to explore it as a value-added forest resource with us. Our underlying justification for the work was that forests are routinely damaged or destroyed not because their resources are valuable, but because intact forests are not valued enough. While essential oils made from agricultural commodities are sold for dozens of dollars per liter, high-value ones go for hundreds to thousands of dollars. We thought that if we could successfully develop a sustainable harvest of copal resin and develop a premium market for its oil, we could create one more tangible incentive to conserve primary forests.
We collected samples of resin from all of these places and distilled them into small batches of oil. We sent samples of these to our essential oil colleagues to evaluate and to labs to analyze. Our yield of oil from fresh resin was good, but we again encountered mixed results. The good news was that our specialty fragrance friend Haley really liked the aroma of one species she smelled. The down side was that this scent came from one of the rarest species of copal while the aroma from the more common species did not seem promising as an ingredient in fine fragrance. While pondering this, we learned that essential oils have a whole other group of people who use them for their healing properties more than their assets as an ingredient in a perfume. Thanks to a budding connection with our fellow non-profit group Camino Verde, we met people who sold essential oils in this aromatherapy space. So even if most copal oil wasn’t suitable in cologne, it might still be able to help someone relax, become energized, or direct positive energy to some other system of the body. Indigenous people have used some of these resins as medicines, so this remained an enticing new market to explore.
Unfortunately, all of our forest surveys kept coming up with the same result. There just wasn’t as much resin out there as people believed there was or should be. We wondered if copal abundance near villages was relatively low because scores of men regularly cruised around the forest hunting and opportunistically collecting copal and other forest products.
Last year, we thought we were finally going to get a chance to search for copal in a forest area far away from casual harvesting. Our goal was to conduct a survey in the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area and create a pioneering management plan that would first allow people from Brillo Nuevo and later other communities to sustainably harvest copal in this large forest reserve. We were ready to go, but our schedule kept changing in response to demands from the government agency responsible for oversight of the reserve. When we finally were able to send our team off, they were not able to get as far above the Yaguasyacu River as they had hoped. This limited their copal search to forest that was similar to the kind found near Brillo Nuevo in an area that was still frequented by hunters. It was disappointing but not surprising that they didn’t find much resin.
Undaunted, we decided to try again this year, but we were again confronted with bureaucratic delays. One unfortunate reality of working in Peru now is that government agencies dealing with the environment at the national and regional level have gone through numerous transitions and the people in charge at both the local level (reserve coordinators) and headquarters in Iquitos seem to change at least once a year. Consequently, our efforts to explain our work to one person are short-lived. One manager never seems to pass along their understanding of the situation to their successor so we have repeatedly had to start over again with each new person. It is no wonder that communities generally view the government as an entity to work around rather than work with since there is rarely any consistent vision, support, or follow-up for any program. The frequent shifts in personnel and lack of clarity about policies and procedures makes it particularly hard for communities to trust a government liaison. In worse case scenarios, managers assigned to reserves adjoining indigenous area seem to lack a basic understanding and respect
Campbell sorting resin lumps in Brazil in 1998
Copal tree with lychen patches in Peru
Weevil larva in copal resin lump
Campbell examining copal lumps in Jenaro Herrera
Manual harvest of copal resin in Jenaro Herrera
Stingless bee collecting copal resin
Cooking copal resin to caulk wooden boat
Bora man caulking canoe with copal resin
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin near Napo River
Bora women from Brillo Nuevo and copal incense
First distillation of copal resin in alembique pot
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