July 20, 2012
After my presentation to the Grand Valley University students at the Rainforest Conservation Fund lodge near Chino, one of their Peruvian field assistants gave me a golden tip – the name and phone number of a fellow from Tamshiyacu whose group had produced some oil from “palo de rosa” rosewood. We couldn’t get anyone at this number for a couple of days so Yully and I decided to take a rapido there and see if we could find Weninger Vasquez or someone else who could tell us about this operation.Yully knew about another Vasquez in this town so we went there first. By luck Weninger’s house was next door. His wife told us he wasn’t involved with the rosewood project anymore, but she told us that another man who lived down by the cemetery might be able to help us. Juan wasn’t home, but while we waited for his daughter to fetch him, his wife pulled out several bags of handicrafts and passed them to us one by one to inspect (and hopefully buy). I passed on the carvings but got one nice maraca and a few pashaca seed necklaces.
Juan was very happy to receive us and share the story of his group’s venture with rosewood that began about ten years ago. Tamshiyacu was known as a place where this aromatic tree had once thrived and been a center for rosewood exploitation and oil production. With encouragement and some technical assistance from the Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP), a group of ten residents collected and germinated seeds from some of the remnant trees and planted about 7,000 seedlings in their forest properties. In meantime they collected enough material from some older trees to produce one liter of oil. They turned this over to IIAP and the university to analyze, but they never got any results.At this point Juan invited us to visit his property about 15 minutes away by motorcar where he had planted most of his rosewood seedlings. It was immediately apparent that Juan was a man of many talents. He raised some pineapple and his basic crops there and had a little building where he carved hunks of tawari and palo sangre wood into jaguars, snakes, eagles, and abstract human figures inspired by shamanic visions. There was a simple bunkhouse, eating area, and conical building where he led lodged, fed and guided guests in an ayahuasca ceremony. The sacred vines growing nearby showed that he prepared his potion from fresh material. We paused to chat around a few of the rosewood saplings he had planted in 2003. The ones planted in open sun had grown very well. He had followed IIAP’s recommendation for a time to prune them so they wouldn’t grow taller than four meters – a nice height to keep the top leaves and branches within easy reach for harvesting. Juan had learned the importance of pruning the branches in the right way since poor technique caused unnecessary damage to the tree.
IIAP showed renewed interest in the project in 2008 when it surveyed the abundance of seed trees and condition of the five-year old seedlings in the fields of the group members that hadn’t abandoned the project. The group renewed the registration of its group (the Tamshiyacu Campesino Association of Amazon Aromas) with the regional government, but they let this expire again when the government again failed to offer any concrete way for them to make or sell any rosewood oil.The most recent glimpse of hope to use this resource came two years ago when a French woman came to the area with a plan to create multiple types of fragrant essential oils. While the group had only been able to process up to five kilograms of plant material in the distillation apparatus belonging to IIAP, this woman supposedly had a unit with at least ten times this capacity. For a year she had periodically bought batches of 300 kg. of leaves and branches from the five remaining active members of the group, but their plan for longer-term cooperation stalled when they failed to reach an agreement about how to pay for the association’s renewed registration. Juan heard that one of their members had sold several hectares of his land fully stocked with the young rosewood trees to her and left the area so she may be producing oil on her own now. Yully will try to track her and the last IIAP advisor to this project down so we can get the full story from their side. After this recent opportunity fell away, even Juan stopped maintaining his young rosewood trees. It was easy to see where top branches that now topped 6-7 meters emerged from the last pruning scar. There is still time to bring them back into a tighter management system for leaf production, but if he can’t convert the leaves to oil, he is content to let them grow into large trees for the future. He has clear fondness for this tree, though, since he recently planted a few new rosewood seedlings near his lodge.
Even if a large-scale project doesn’t materialize, Juan would like to make some oils on his own using the clean water from the stream that passes through his land. He once made some oils from several medicinal plants with a borrowed distillation unit and put them in old (and well cleaned) medicine vials he got from a friend at the hospital.
Yully and I came away knowing that Juan would be a valuable advisor for the development of our rosewood oil project at Brillo Nuevo since he knew so much about what it takes to grow the trees, harvest the raw material and turn them into fragrant rosewood oil. We now needed to learn a lot more about different strategies for marketing the product. Ideally we could figure out a way to get started with Juan’s group and then expand to include the Brillo Nuevo group when they are ready.