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
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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
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Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
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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
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Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
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Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
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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
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Project Report | Oct 27, 2017
Letting go of the idea we love the most

By Campbell Plowden | Executive Director and Project Leader

Copal story banner photos
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 respectCampbell sorting resin lumps in Brazil in 1998

Campbell sorting resin lumps in Brazil in 1998
Copal tree with lychen patches in Peru
Copal tree with lychen patches in Peru
Weevil larva in copal resin lump
Weevil larva in copal resin lump
Campbell examining copal lumps in Jenaro Herrera
Campbell examining copal lumps in Jenaro Herrera
Manual harvest of copal resin in Jenaro Herrera
Manual harvest of copal resin in Jenaro Herrera
Stingless bee collecting copal resin
Stingless bee collecting copal resin
Cooking copal resin to caulk wooden boat
Cooking copal resin to caulk wooden boat
Bora man caulking canoe with copal resin
Bora man caulking canoe with copal resin
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin near Napo River
Maijuna man harvesting copal resin near Napo River
Bora women from Brillo Nuevo and copal incense
Bora women from Brillo Nuevo and copal incense
First distillation of copal resin in alembique pot
First distillation of copal resin in alembique pot
Man from Ancon Colonia with dry copal resin lumps
Man from Ancon Colonia with dry copal resin lumps
Campbell and Eli with yellow resin lumps
Campbell and Eli with yellow resin lumps
Copal oil in separatory flask
Copal oil in separatory flask
Fragrance maker Haley smelling copal
Fragrance maker Haley smelling copal
Burning copal resin to make fire and light
Burning copal resin to make fire and light

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Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Location: Lemoyne, Pennsylvania - USA
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Project Leader:
Campbell Plowden
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Lemoyne , Pennsylvania United States
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