Copal resin project – research progress and potential new market

by Campbell Plowden

Amazon native harvesting copal resin. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Amazon native harvesting copal resin. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

One of CACE’s main projects is investigating the ecology and sustainable harvest of resin from copal (Burseraceae) trees and developing ways to distill and market the essential oil extracted from it and other aromatic plants. Our study began in 2006 at the Jenaro Herrera research station operated by the Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) on the Ucayali River in Peru by measuring how much resin could be collected from 30 species of copal trees. We next harvested resin lumps from some trees and have closely monitored their recovery to estimate how long we would need to wait before they could be harvested again.

Copal resin lump and reference circle being analyzed with ImageJ program. Photo by Angel Raygada/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Copal resin lump and reference circle being analyzed with ImageJ program. Photo by Angel Raygada/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

This process has included taken periodic digital photos of over 1000 resin lumps to learn how their growth corresponds to the development of the bark-boring weevils who provoke their formation. Copal Project manager Angel Raygada has trained a computer-savvy assistant to help him analyze these photos with the ImageJ program to describe how and when these resin lumps change in shape, size and color as the weevil inside it grows from a tiny larva to an adult in two to three years.

CACE field assistant Italo Melendez checking weevil trap on copal tree. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

CACE field assistant Italo Melendez checking weevil trap on copal tree. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Field assistant Italo Melendez has continued to refine the traps used to capture a few mature weevils that emerge from these lumps. Our challenges have been creating cost-effective designs that can withstand intense rain and heat, avoid buildups of fungus, minimize damage to the tree, and safely trap adult weevils that emerge from the resin lump.

Trigona stingless bees at nest shelf entrance. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Trigona stingless bees at nest shelf entrance. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The other aspect of this project is studying the relationship between copal resin and other insects that use it. Our observations of fresh resin lumps have showed us which stingless bees and other Hymenoptera (the taxonomic group that includes bees, wasps and ants) collect fresh copal resin. We are now seeking to develop ways to measure how and how much they use this resin to build their nests and defend their young. I learned this summer that some bees can be quite tame since they allowed me to get very close to their nest entrance in a trunk or hole in the ground to photograph them. Other times, though, a wave of bees swarmed around my head and got into my eyes, ears and hair when I got closer than 20 feet to their home. These stingless bees cannot sting, but some can inflict painful bites.

Two weevils and copal resin lumps. Photos by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Two weevils and copal resin lumps. Photos by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

This July, we met with researchers from CIRNA (Center for Investigation of Natural Resources of the Amazon – associated with the National University of the Peruvian Amazon) in Iquitos to discuss a joint project. Our goal is to compare the DNA from the weevils so we can tell how many species are involved in this system and which ones produce the most and highest quality resin. We are also seeking partnerships (and funding) to analyze the resin from the different species of copal to understand how its chemical differences affect its ecological relationships with weevils, bees, and commercial potential.

Collecting high copal resin lump near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Yully Rojas/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Collecting high copal resin lump near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Yully Rojas/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

We extended our copal project to the Ampiyacu region in 2009 with small-scale exploration of copal trees near the Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo. With support from the Rufford Small Grant Fund and other foundations, we conducted more extensive inventories of copal trees (sampling 51 plots in about 366 hectares) around this village and three other adjoining areas over the next two years and found at least 34 copal species – almost all of which had at least one tree with a resin lump. Since our study at Jenaro Herrera indicated it would take at least five years for resin lumps to recover on trees where all lumps were removed, we decided to remove no more than half of the lumps from any tree in our study in the Ampiyacu.

Bora men measuring copal tree diameter. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora men measuring copal tree diameter. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Last year we conducted the first round of monitoring to see how well resin lumps were recovering on the trees around Brillo Nuevo. Many of the resin lumps were small, but we were happy to see that our more conservative harvesting system seemed to be working. We have now begun our second year of monitoring this recovery.

Digital camera workshop for Bora men. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Digital camera workshop for Bora men. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

In addition to collecting data to chart the progress of resin lump growth, we are also using this process as an opportunity to train young Bora men how to use forestry and documentation tools such as a diameter tape measure, GPS, and digital cameras. Most of the trees in the inventory are still there, but as expected, the forest around these communities is a dynamic environment. Some trees that were in the original surveys, though, were lost when fallow forest was once again burned to grow crops or fell over in storms with strong wind and rain.

Distilling copal leaves with copper alembique pot. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Distilling copal leaves with copper alembique pot. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

We have been distilling batches of resin lumps collected at both Jenaro Herrera and Brillo Nuevo and sending oil samples to L’Oeil du Vert – a company ally in Los Angeles with the hope of finding ones that could be used to make perfume or other specialty fragrances. These evaluations have been tantalizing and frustrating since the samples with the greatest potential come from species which have been relatively rare in the areas we have searched so far in the Ampiyacu.

Bora man collecting distilled essential oil. Photos by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora man collecting distilled essential oil. Photos by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Jenaro Herrera has a few relatively abundant species with very nice aromas, but our activities there have to been focused on research rather than commercial harvest. Beyond distilling copal resin, we are also conducting experimental distillations of leaves and small branches from various species of copal. This would open up new possibilities for a more regular supply of plant material to make aromatic oils.

Floracopeia company banner. Photo by Floracopeaia.

Floracopeia company banner. Photo by Floracopeaia.

We are now cooperating with two other groups doing forestry surveys in the Ampiyacu region to see if we can locate concentrations of the most promising copal species beyond the forests around Brillo Nuevo. Thanks to a contact from our partner NGO Camino Verde, we have discovered that aromatherapy offers another potentially good market for copal and other essential oils. One type of copal oil that may not have the right smell for use in a perfume may still be good for healing or relaxation. Another essential oil buyer based in California is now evaluating a range of our copal oil samples to evaluate their prospects for these applications.

20 gallon essential oil distiller. Photo by Heart Magic

20 gallon essential oil distiller. Photo by Heart Magic

As we move forward with our work on copal and essential oil made from rosewood, we are aiming to expand the size and efficiency of our distillation operation. Our 20 liter (5.3 gallon) copper alembique pot has been good for experimental extraction of essential oil from small batches (3 to 5 kg) of resin and leaves, but we are now seeking to purchase a larger stainless system that will allow us to process 20 kg or more of plant material at one time with a higher yield of essential oil. We will also need to purchase a grinder to chip branches into small chips that can be efficiently distilled. Please contact CACEif you would like to support this venture.

Learn more about or donate to CACE’s project in Peru at: www.AmazonAlive.net

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One response to “Copal resin project – research progress and potential new market

  1. Pingback: Sharing clothes and good will with Bora artisans | Center for Amazon Community Ecology

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