Listening to artisans in the Ampiyacu

Angelina Torres and her family of artisans in the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Angelina Torres and her family of artisans in the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The Center for Amazon Community Ecology aims to promote conservation, create sustainable livelihoods and build stronger communities in the Peruvian Amazon by helping native and mestizo artisans to develop and market innovative handicrafts and novel essential oils.

We began working with the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo as a pilot project site in the Ampiyacu River area in 2009.  In recent years we have organized skill-sharing workshops so veteran artisans can teach others how to make new kinds of crafts.  This growth in the number and skill of partner artisans as well as our increasing capacity to market their crafts has allowed us to gradually expand our program to eight of the fifteen villages represented by the native federation in the region.

CACE intern measuring chambira yield with Bora artisan at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

CACE intern measuring chambira yield with Bora artisan at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Surveys done in the field with artisans have given us an idea about the current stocks of chambira palm trees and the amount of palm fiber needed to make different types of crafts.  While our general goal has been to continue building artisan capacity to make and sell more quality handicrafts, the GlobalGiving Feedback Fund has given us a valuable opportunity to ask our partners about their economic realities and dreams, and how making more crafts with our without our assistance could help them achieve their goals.

With assistance from GlobalGiving staff and a team of international affairs students studying monitoring and evaluation at the New School, we designed a survey to ask artisans to respond to questions in four areas: sources of family income, expenses, assets, education levels, personal and family goals, and handicraft production.

We contracted Peruvian videographer Tulio Davila to conduct the survey because he was well known and trusted by the artisans due to his previous work with them in workshops and making instructional videos.  In the course of two weeks, Tulio spent an average of one hour speaking with 18 artisans from three villages – about one third of the artisans we routinely work with.

CACE paying Bora artisan for woven hot pad at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

CACE paying Bora artisan for woven hot pad at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We learned a lot from this first round of surveys.  It’s been obvious from the beginning that our partners don’t have much money; this survey gave us a sense of the upper and lower range of income in the village and how important selling crafts is to many families.  It was also interesting to learn that CACE is the major craft buyer from some artisans and a minor one for others.  We had assumed artisans wanted to sell more, but asking them to describe their goals for one year and five years gave them a chance to set craft production targets and showed us how many more crafts we would need sell to help artisans meet their goals.

Two-story house in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Two-story house in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Learning how artisans spend their limited income now and what they want more for has given us valuable insights into their evolving expectations and aspirations.  In the past, people wanted enough money to buy a few basic items (like soap, salt and kerosene) to supplement their subsistence lifestyles.  As access to electricity increases through wider use of gasoline generators and connections to power lines from cities, lighting, TV, and DVD players have become common.  Many people now want bigger houses, bigger boats and engines, chain saws, refrigerators, and nicer clothes.  A few want to raise fish, raise cattle or expand the size of their fields.  Some goals are focused on increasing their means to increase income while others describe the amenities they could get with more money.

Confirming that our partners have materialistic aspirations was not surprising but revealed something important.  While artisans are well aware of the challenges, most families want to at least try to stay and improve their standard of living in their remote villages.  Recognizing this has significant implications for our work and forest conservation.  One is that we need to try and help our partners increase their income from sustainable enterprises even more than we had expected.  Their desire to make money is growing, and it may not matter much if the way they attempt to do so is illegal or damages the forest.

Bora children playing at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora children playing at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The stakes for success seem higher in another way we hadn’t considered before.  Families have often worked hard to help their children learn a professional trade so they can build a life outside the village, but it seems the trickle of entire families leaving the villages is increasing.  Adults want to get regular and higher paying work, and they want their children to attend higher quality grade schools.  This emigration threatens to create a downward spiral in local development because the regional government will close down secondary schools if their enrollment drops below a minimum number of students.  If the villages at the frontier of the forest continue to shrink, there will be fewer and fewer people with a vested interest in keeping the forest intact to support their low-impact lifestyles. This will leave the forests more vulnerable to predatory exploitation by outsiders.

The other types of lessons we learned from this first survey were that questions need to be asked in a way that matches peoples’ normal frames of reference.  We initially thought that since most people do not keep any records about their earnings or expenses, we would get the most accurate responses by asking people to provide monthly “averages” for certain sources of income or types of things they paid for.  It turned out that the artisans we spoke with had the best overall recall when asked about the previous six months of economic activity combined.

Bora artisan with daughters and woven bag in Puca Urquillo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora artisan with daughters and woven bag in Puca Urquillo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Our imprecise phrasing of one question greatly slanted its perceived meaning.  We expected that many families would say that a key long-term goal would be to provide a better education for their children.  A few did express this, but this response may have been low because our question unintentionally seemed to ask them to mention concrete objects they could buy like a TV or chain saw rather services they might need to pay for like school tuition.  We corrected these issues before carrying out a second round of interviews.

Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo making chambira palm fiber bracelet. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo making chambira palm fiber bracelet. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While artisan surveys provided thoughtful and insightful answers about their goals, the amounts of time, material and money they thought they would need to achieve these goals often seemed based on imprecise and unrealistic estimates and faulty basic math.  The message to us is clear.  Artisans need to continue mastering their craft, but we also need to help them better understand the quantitative aspects of managing trees, processing fibers, and selling crafts.  We have done studies that provide solid data about these issues.  Our next task is to teach the artisans how to derive and work with these numbers on their own.  This will be a critical step toward truly empowering them to improve their lives and safeguard the forests.

Building a better bug ornament

In 2007, I spent a month near Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River.  While I spent most of my time studying copal resin ecology at a research station, I also wanted to meet local artisans to see if CACE could help market any of their handicrafts.

Peruvian artisan Dora Tangoa from Jenaro Herrera holding achiote fruit pods used to dye chambira palm fiber. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Dora Tangoa with achiote fruit pods. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

One Saturday afternoon, I met Dora and her small group of fellow artisans at her home and watched them lay out some bracelets and necklaces made with rainforest seeds and simple bags woven with chambira palm fiber.  I bought some samples of each and asked them to make some chokers with certain colors at my teenage daughter’s suggestion.  CACE sold enough of these in the U.S. to buy some supplies for the public school when I returned in 2008.  That summer, Dora took us out to her field and showed us which plants provided the seeds and natural dyes to make her crafts.

Peruvian artisan Rosa Estela Mozombite Tangoa with chambira palm fiber insect ornaments made in cooperation with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE.

Rosa Mozombite Tangoa with chambira insect ornaments. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE.

Sales of the loose woven bags (called “xicras” in the local market) were never great for us, however, and over the next few years, sales of the seed jewelry slowed to a trickle.  In 2011, we started developing Christmas tree ornaments with artisans in the Ampiyacu, and I invited Dora and her group to come up with ideas of their own.  Dora wove a miniature pot, her aunt Hilda made a miniature plate, her niece Doilith wove chambira stars with seeds, and her teenage daughter Rosa made little butterflies and grasshoppers.  We did so-so with the first three types, but the insects were an immediate hit.

Chambira palm fiber bee ornament made by Jenaro Herrera artisan in cooperration with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira fiber bee ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Over the next few years, we tested different colors, sizes and types of new critters – sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.  We learned (probably not surprisingly) that people much prefer pink, yellow an orange critters over black ones with any color.  One batch of giant purple bees were produced due to misunderstanding over the Spanish meaning of “fuxia.”  So, some ornaments have sold very well while others are lingering long in our inventory even at “clearance” prices.

Chambira palm fiber butterfly ornament made by Doilith del Castillo in cooperration with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira palm fiber butterfly ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Last year, we asked Dora and company to increase the number of legs on the critter ornaments from four to six so they would have one more realistic element on them.  This past trip, I asked her group if they would like to try to advance this process a step further by trying to weave replicas of specific types of insects.  I had downloaded a variety of photos of butterflies, dragonflies and bees from the internet onto my laptop and went over each image with them at Dora’s big table in front of her house.  They embraced the challenge – each one agreed to make a prototype of one or two new “species.”

I checked in a few days later and was thrilled to see the progress of Doilith’s Amazon darner (Anax amazili) which closely represented the dragonfly’s shape, colored tail bands, and fine lacey wings.  Hilda’s blue morpho butterfly also had a lot of promise.  Dora had skillfully captured the green orchid bee’s hind legs used to carry pollen and resin back to its nest, but her “ronsapa” bee needed more work since its head resembled a bull-dog snout.

Amazon darner dragonfly and chambira palm fiber ornament made by Doilith del Castillo in cooperration with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photos by Bob Thomas & Campbell Plowden/CACE

Amazon darner dragonfly and chambira palm fiber ornament. Photos by Bob Thomas & Campbell Plowden/CACE

I admit that most members of the public neither know nor care if these ornaments are anatomically correct, but I do hope we can develop models with our partners that will be attractive enough to sell and gradually educate buyers about real rainforest critters along the way.  It seems this type of understanding can only help to increase people’s desire to preserve the forest and support sustainable livelihoods for its traditional peoples.

It has been rewarding to see that creating and selling more crafts has allowed Dora and her relatives to improve their houses and invest more in their children’s education.  I am glad that CACE has played a role in this process.

Miguel, Celestina and Rosewood Trees in Tamshiyacu – November 8, 2015

Juan harvesting rosewood branch

Juan Silvano harvesting rosewood leaves from Miguel’s tree. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

One highlight of my recent trip to Peru was spending a day with Miguel and Celestina – a couple who live in Tamshiyacu, a small town that is about an hour and a half by Iquitos by speed boat.  I first toured their farm a year ago with our local contact Juan who introduced us to a few families that had planted rosewood trees in a community development project around 2003.

 

They warmly greeted us in their home filled with their children, grandchildren and dogs.  Other families in the area had either sold their land or sold the rights to their rosewood trees to a new company making essential oil.  I was pleased that this senior citizen couple wanted to work with us to manage the rosewood trees they had left on their property.

Motorcar from Tamshiyacu

Motorcar from Tamshiyacu. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Heading out with machete and large collecting basket, our project manager Yully, Celestina and I sat in the back seat of a motorcar while Miguel and CACE videographer Tulio perched in the luggage rack in back.  We soon got beyond the paved road in town and traveled for miles on dirt roads that were rutted but solid since the “dry” season rains were not intense.   Twenty minutes out, we passed by some rough wooden buildings with tarp roofs in a clearing made by roughly hacking down a section of rainforest.  The government was creating these new settlements by giving land rights to poor families seeking a place to farm.

 

Miguel squeezing sugar cane

Miguel squeezing sugar cane with wooden press.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The motorcar dropped us off at a tiny trail entering the woods on the other side of the road and promised to pick us up at the end of the day if we could reach him on his cell phone.  After a half-hour hike, we reached Miguel and Celestina’s plot that they had legally acquired over twenty years ago.  They had planted yucca (also known as cassava and manioc) as their main staple food.  Pineapples, umari fruit, and Brazil nuts were their main commercial crops.  Sugar cane provided snack food. They hoped that selling rosewood material could increase their modest income.

 

Miguel attaching tag to rosewood tree

Miguel tagging rosewood tree on his property. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We got to work tagging and measuring all of the rosewood trees that were still alive a dozen years after the donated seedlings were transplanted into their field.  Some were vigorous tall trees that seemed good to maintain as a source of seeds in the future.  Many had grown to 30 feet tall and seemed good candidates to be pruned to provide branches and leaves for distilling.  A few were still no bigger than seedlings that might grow if exposed to more light.

 

Tulio measuring rosewood tree diameter

Tulio measuring rosewood tree diameter. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

After four hours of hot hard work, we gathered under their rustic shelter built to protect bags of charcoal they were soon going to sell.  Miguel then cut up and gave each of us a whole pineapple to savor – the freshest and sweetest I had ever had in my life.

We promised to return soon to do our first modest harvest to make a small batch of rosewood oil. We will need to undertake this task carefully, though, since many of the trees have grown very large and will need to be pruned carefully to keep them healthy and produce good material for distilling in the future.

CP Yully Miguel Celestina at Tamshiyacu

Miguel, Celestina, Yully Rojas and Campbell Plowden. Photo by Tulio Davila/CACE

In addition to helping this couple in the coming years, we hope to learn a lot about rosewood tree growth and management that we can apply to our rosewood project at Brillo Nuevo being developed with our partner Camino Verde.  Those trees are now almost three years old, and we expect to conduct our first experimental harvest in early 2016.

Breakthroughs with three artisan communities – October 15, 2015

Raquel Lopez planting chambira seedling

Bora artisan planting chambira seedling in 2013. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We have had growing success helping artisans in the Ampiyacu develop and market innovative handicrafts, but our efforts to catalyze significant reforestation of chambira palms used to make woven crafts has been frustratingly slow.  While we have also promised to reinvest part of our craft sales in the US to support health, education and conservation needs in the communities, this social rebate program had unfortunately created more dissension than good works for several years.

Brillo Nuevo artisans receiving donated clothing. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora artisan planting chambira seedling in 2013. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While mentally prepared to confront the same resistance, I decided to at least try a fresh approach while meeting with our artisan partners in Brillo Nuevo.  As they trickled in to our house at the far end of the village, they saw a written agenda posted on the wall.  Noting the ambitious list included numerous updates and serious topics, they favorably commented that it also included slots for receiving certificates, donated clothing, and lunch.

Artisans playing crocodiles and frogs 2

Caimans and frogs game with Brillo Nuevo artisans. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CAC

Since discussions of tough issues in previous meetings had sometimes produced more rancor than resolution, we also inserted a few cooperative games into the mix.  These were a balloon race which generated lots of laughs and an energetic round of caimans and frogs which featured artisans (as the frogs) holding on to each other on sheets of paper (representing tree stumps in a river) so the hungry caiman (the Amazon version of an alligator) wouldn’t get them when he woke up.

The results of the meeting included new agreements regarding craft pricing, quality control, a household survey, and a proposal for chambira reforestation.

Chambira planting group of artisans

Chambira “minga” with Brillo Nuevo artisans (2013) P

Three days later, the full community endorsed the reforestation plan.  Brillo Nuevo would use a large chunk of its CACE social rebate fund to provide a standard “basket” of food (rice, beans, oil, etc.) for up to 20 families who wished to organize work parties (“mingas”) to help plant or do extensive maintenance on chambira, assai palm, or medical plants in their forest fields.  Future rounds would allow more families to do the same.  They also decided to use part of the fund to buy some critical supplies and medicines for the village health post that were not provided by the government.

Sawing chambira stem

Cutting chambira leaf spear with pruning saw.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

When we headed back down the river to Puca Urquillo Huitoto, I was pleasantly surprised that their community meeting quickly agreed to also use their rebate fund to carry out 10 chambira work parties to replenish supplies of this vital plant for their artisans.  Another part of improving chambira management will be providing pruning saws that can be used to harvest leaf-spears without damaging adjoining stems as often happens when the task is done with a machete.

I was astounded when the leader of the Puca Urquillo Bora council handed me a 3 page proposal requesting our assistance to fund enrichment planting of chambira in 30 hectares of fallow forest fields.  Their decision was particularly surprising to me since they had rejected the offer of a researcher last year to measure the abundance of chambira palms in their fallow fields as we had done with artisans at Brillo Nuevo.

I have no illusions that these plans will be carried out without a hitch, but it was wonderful to feel this spiritual burst of affirmation to quench my growing wonder if some basic aspects of our work were seriously off-track.

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CACE welcomes donations to this project through our page on GlobalGiving at: www.AmazonAlive.net

 

Ines – the laughing and feisty artisan from Brillo Nuevo – July 27, 2015

Ines lighting copal incense

Ines lighting copal incense. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

I first became aware of Ines during my second visit to the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo in 2009 because she was enthusiastic about everything.  When we first tried to make incense candles from copal resin, she immediately got her hands blackened with the burnt sticky stuff and suggested they might look nice in the half-shells of macambo fruit pods.  She pulled me aside, though, and said, “You know these are really pretty ugly.”  I said, “I know,” and she burst out laughing.

Ines and Graciela drawing snake patterns

Graciela and Ines drawing snake patterns for belts. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ines is a quintessential artisan from the Peruvian Amazon.  She said, “I live by selling bags and hammocks made from chambira palm that I cultivate in my fields.”  While meeting with artisans in a Brillo Nuevo classroom to discuss weaving new products to expand their income, Ines jumped at the chance to go the blackboard to draw the patches and wavy lines of a cascabel (tropical rattlesnake) as a design for a woven snake-pattern belt.

Ines weaving belt with cats eating fish 800 px

Ines weaving cascabel pattern belt with cats. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ines soon welcomed me into her home while making the prototype on her hand-made loom with her two cats munching on a little fish in front.  Ines’ voice stood out in the animated mélange of Spanish and Bora of artisans discussing their creations and her distinct laugh could mark her location more than a soccer field away.

Ines grating mishquipanga montage

Ines grating mishquipanga fruits to dye chambira fiber. Photos by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Over the past six years, we have shared many adventures, triumphs and challenges with Ines.  She showed us how she grew, collected, and prepared half a dozen plants used to dye chambira palm fiber various shades of yellow, orange, red and deep purple and then dyed my silvery hair black with roasted leaves from a huito tree.  She has proudly showed us new styles of bags and guitar strap designs that she invented and readily shared these with her fellow artisans in skill-sharing workshops.

Ines dying CP hair with huito 800 px

Ines dyeing Campbell’s hair with huito leaf mash. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

Ines’ hard work made her the most prolific craft maker with CACE.  She once told me, “I really like working with your project because it has given me a chance to create new kinds of crafts and improve the quality of my weaving.  The extra income has allowed me to help my sons study at a better school.”

Amrit and Ines with certificate

CACE volunteer Amrit and Ines with certificate. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Giving Ines an award for being the top-selling artisan in her community, though, first generated more resentment than accolades from her peers.  One evening, she came to talk and began to cry. “My sisters and I love working with your project, but we are thinking of dropping out because people can be so mean.”

I soon met with other artisan leaders and families to hear their view of the situation.  They had said they wanted us to give certificates to artisans according to their sales and give small prizes as incentives for doing extra good work.  Did they want us to stop?  We wouldn’t continue the practice if it was going to stimulate jealousy and weaken rather than build their community.  One artisan Gisela said, “We really do like the certificates because they give us pride about our success.  The prizes are good as well, but don’t ask us to select any winners.”

Casilda Vasquez with TP028

Casilda with chambira hot pad. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Since that meeting, some things have gotten better, and we have had to face new challenges.  Over the past few years, providing some soda and snacks at the award ceremony, applauding and taking a picture with every winner has made this a fun and more mutually supportive event.  When we announced that Ines was the top-seller again, one artisan Casilda said, “I knew that was coming, but it’s OK, I’m going to keep making more crafts myself.”

I’ve also learned that while Ines has a big heart, she can also be a tough cookie.  During one recent artisan meeting, we were talking about ways to encourage artisans to plant more chambira palms when suddenly Ines and another artisan leader began yelling at each other.  Apparently our survey of chambira in their fields had reignited an old dispute about whose family had the rights to harvest plants in one small section of recovering forest.

Artisans playing crocodiles and frogs

Artisans playing “crocodiles and frog” during meeting at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The incident helped me realize that artisans’ periodic troubles cooperating may be rooted more in historical frictions in the community than personality clashes in the present.  We’ve been trying to bring people together in our project and navigate around hazards that appear like the tips of Amazon village icebergs.  I’m glad that we have at least won the trust of talented and caring and sometimes feisty artisans like Ines to help guide us.

Boost your support for Amazon conservation and communities

Give your support for Amazon conservation and communities a boost today with a donation to the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Donations made to CACE today after 9:00 am (EDT) through GlobalGiving at www.AmazonAlive.net will receive a 30% matching donation until matching funds run out.

If you live in Iquitos, Peru, please come meet CACE director Dr. Campbell Plowden and project manager Yully Rojas at the Dawn on the Amazon Café on Tuesday, March 24 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.

See photos below of a recent CACE artisan workshop, armadillo ornament, hot pad and belt made by artisans from Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo.

Bora artisan Rode R from Brillo Nuevo with a woven Shushupe snake model belt made in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan Rode R from Brillo Nuevo with a woven Shushupe snake model belt made in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan training workshop sponsored by CACE at Puca Urquillo with one group of particpants thanking GlobalGiving for their support of the project Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan training workshop sponsored by CACE at Puca Urquillo with one group of particpants thanking GlobalGiving for their support of the project Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan Milda Q from Puca Urquillo Bora with her hot pad made from chambira palm fiber in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan Milda Q from Puca Urquillo Bora with her hot pad made from chambira palm fiber in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan Ines C with her woven armadillo ornament.. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan Ines C with her woven armadillo ornament.. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Woven armadillo ornaments made by Bora and Huitoto artisans with Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Woven armadillo ornaments made by Bora and Huitoto artisans with Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Exploring a new partnership with Maijuna native communities

March 5, 2015

Maijuna boys in boat. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna boys in boat. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I just returned to Iquitos after a successful four day visit to the Maijuna native community of Nueva Vida in the Napo River region of the northern Peruvian Amazon. The main purpose of the trip was to meet their artisans and see if they wanted to work with CACE to develop and market several new models of handicrafts. I also wanted to explore the potential for harvesting copal resin with them and distilling it into fragrant essential oil as a new source of sustainable income for the village.

Campbell Plowden and Shebaco at Maijuna party in 2009.  Photo by German Perilla/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell Plowden and Shebaco at Maijuna party in 2009. Photo by German Perilla/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

My journey began with a speedboat ride at dawn from Iquitos to the Amazon River town of Mazan with my CACE videographer companion Tulio Davila. After stocking up on supplies, we eventually met up with our Maijuna guides Everest and his father Sebastian “Shebaco” Rios Ochoa.

Michael Gilmore discussing map with Maijuna in Nueva Vida (2009).  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Michael Gilmore discussing map with Maijuna in Nueva Vida (2009). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I first met this friendly confident native leader through long-time Maijuna friend and CACE board member Michael Gilmore. We had danced together after a Maijuna federation congress in 2009, and he hosted me last summer in Sucusari when we conducted a quick search for copal trees near his village. I much appreciate that he gave me the name “Baiyiri” – the Maijuna word for copal.

Maijuna leader and elder photo at FECONAMAI congress 2009.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna leader and elder photo at FECONAMAI congress 2009. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Our original host for this visit was going to be Walter Perez from Nueva Vida, but on two days’ notice he had flown to Lima with two other Maijuna to meet with the Peruvian President. This was a critical meeting that marked the final hurdle to winning government approval for a regional protected area that would encompass the four main Maijuna villages in the Napo and Putumayo River region and the forest in between. This struggle to gain legal recognition for their traditional lands coincided with a multi-year battle against a road project that would go through the heart of it. I wished Walter well on his mission and was happy to have Shebaco with me again for mine.

Maijuna statue at Puerto Huaman. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna statue at Puerto Huaman. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Like many native groups, the Maijuna are striving to improve their standard of living and standing in modern Peruvian society and maintain certain aspects of their culture that give them pride and sustenance. The Maijuna were once called by the derogatory term “orejones” (big ears) because they had the custom of placing increasingly larger disks into their ear lobes. They gave up this practice a generation ago, but they embraced a program led by linguists from U.C. Berkeley that has reinvigorated the teaching and use of the Maijuna language by all generations.

Chambira palm fiber basket woven by Maijuna artisan.  Photo by Michael Gilmore

Chambira palm fiber basket woven by Maijuna artisan. Photo by Michael Gilmore

Half a dozen women from Nueva Vida learned how to make decorative baskets from chambira palm fiber that were similar to ones made by campesino artisans from the Tahuayo River, but their skills languished for several years because the workshop’s sponsors did not provide follow-up support to market any baskets they made. Since there was a new spark to this enterprise, Michael thought that this would be a propitious time to connect with these budding artisans.

Campbell Plowden discussing basket design with Maijuna artisan.  Photo by Tulio Davila/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell Plowden discussing basket design with Maijuna artisan. Photo by Tulio Davila/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Due to our late start from Mazan, we didn’t get into Nueva Vida in Shebaco’s peque-peque (motor canoe) until well after dark. After setting up our tents in our host’s main room and a quick supper of tuna fish and crackers, we went to sleep. My visit began in earnest the next morning by meeting almost the whole community. I spoke no Maijuna beyond my nickname, but showing and discussing a video of our handicraft project with other artisans quickly established a common language dealing with chambira palm fiber and other plants used in making woven crafts.

Maijuna artisans of Nueva Vida. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna artisans of Nueva Vida. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

There was no doubt they could make the kind of baskets we wanted, but it took a patient dialogue to sort through which dye plants they had available to make certain colors and which colors we should avoid using in our initial designs unless we wanted to provide artificial dyes from the city. Our discussion about pricing for the baskets was uncomfortable for a time because their scale was different than other villages we have bought similar products from.

Maijuna elder sleeping next to copal flame. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna elder sleeping next to copal flame. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

While the Maijuna were all familiar with the basic uses of copal resin – burning it for light or boiling it to caulk their canoes, they were fascinated to see and hear the stories about the intimate relationships that copal resin exuding from the trees has with various weevils, flies, ants and bees.

Maijuna harvesting copal at Nueva Vida.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna harvesting copal at Nueva Vida. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

For two days I accompanied Shebaco and rotating four-man teams from Nueva Vida to search for copal. We had most luck finding large fresh lumps on trees on or near the tops of little hills and spent the other half of our time slogging through swampy low lying areas.

Maijuna harvesting copal with machete lashed to pole. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna harvesting copal with machete lashed to pole. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Harvesting a lump was sometimes as simple as cutting it off with a machete at chest height. A team member lashed his machete to a pole and thrust the blade under lumps that were attached to the trunk ten to twenty feet from the ground. In a few cases, a spry Maijuna wrangled his way up a nearby small tree or vine to get at some lumps that were twice as high. Two men tried to catch the dislodged lumps below (in Tulio’s long-sleeve shirt the first day and an old cassava carrying bag on the second) while trying to keep dry resin bits from falling in their eyes.

Maijuna tossing copal lump down.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna tossing copal lump down. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The teams quickly adopted our protocol of not harvesting small fresh resin lumps so the weevils inside them could mature and stimulate more resin lumps in the future. They also understood that while they could take old black lumps back to their homes to stoke cooking fires, the dry odorless lumps were not worth distilling because they had lost most of their essential oil. We collected GPS points at all of the trees to aid in finding these trees again in five or six years and combine them with satellite landscape data to help identify other good sites for finding copal trees in more distant Maijuna forest areas.

Maijuna artisan Elena and dolphin ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna artisan Elena and dolphin ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Other highlights of my time in Nueva Vida included fishing with Shebaco and Everest and meeting Elena, an artisan who had woven a beautiful river dolphin as a sample keychain. After Tulio talked with her, I commissioned her on the spot to make fifteen more as Christmas tree ornaments. I was impressed that Tulio was able to sincerely engage with people who are understandably often very shy in this situation to become comfortable enough to share something about their craft making and other aspects of their lives. In the final hours of light, I was very happy to reach an agreement with the president of the artisan association about making an initial batch of baskets for us.

Yully Rojas measuring copal tree with Maijuna team.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Yully Rojas measuring copal tree with Maijuna team. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Our Nueva Vida hosts were accepting if circumspect in sharing their evaluation of our visit with us. Every community in this region has had multiple experiences with visitors from various groups coming in to pitch one project or another – many of which lack follow-up or don’t go well for other reasons so I understand why they temper their enthusiasm for a new venture until it proves worthwhile. I already felt a bond with Shebaco, but I was encouraged that several people from Nueva Vida asked me one and only one simple question: “When are you coming back?” So the dance has begun. I hope to see thirty beautiful baskets in three weeks as the next step.

Shebaco observing copal distillation in Iquitos. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Shebaco observing copal distillation in Iquitos. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Back in Iquitos, our project manager Yully set herself to the task right away of distilling the resin collected at Nueva Vida. It was great to learn that it shared the highest yield of essential oil we have produced so far from any region. Analyzing a sample of it will help determine its composition and commercial potential. If these aspects prove positive as well, the next step will be to formulate a management plan to guide the development of this local enterprise in the years to come.