By Natalya Stanko and Campbell Plowden
It’s been a busy year at the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. The Center is advancing its research on the ecology of copal resin, developing new projects to turn copal and other plants into sustainable sources of income for forest peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, and establishing strong relationships with several indigenous communities.
In the summer of 2009, the Center and its team in the Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo gathered and distilled hard, black copal resin into a golden, sweet-smelling oil, which has commercial potential in the fragrance industry. The Center continued to collaborate with several communities of artisans and began to build an online store that will market handicrafts and other items from the Amazon. Center President Campbell Plowden also joined a team of researchers committed to working with Maijuna native communities to preserve their culture and natural resources. This spring Plowden returned to Brazil to check in with Tembé and Ka’apor Indian villages and other traditional communities as potential Center partners.
IN THE FIELD
The Center’s laboratory is a network of small communities in the Peruvian Amazon. There are few roads here, and most days are hot, humid and buzzing. To get around, the Center team travels by boat and peque-peque, an elongated motorized canoe. Here is a whirlwind tour of the team’s travels and accomplishments this year.
THE BORA OF BRILLO NUEVO
Brillo Nuevo is a village of about 425 people and 82 families in the Ampiyacu River region. It is blanketed with thatched roofs, about a quarter mile of sidewalk, a cinder-block school, and two soccer fields. The villagers speak both Spanish and their native language, Bora.
The Center began working with Bora woodsmen and artisans in 2008. It is now developing a two-part non-timber forest product project in partnership with the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu (FECONA) and the Instituto del Bien Comun (IBC) with financial support from The Rufford Small Grants Foundation and the Marjorie Grant Whiting Center.
The copal project began in the summer of 2009 when Plowden, agronomist Yully Rojas,and six Bora woodsmen conducted a five-day rapid inventory of copal trees on about 95 hectares of upland forest near Brillo Nuevo. The Bora team learned to measure the girth of the copal trees and to record their location with a GPS device. The team harvested about half of the resin lumps, leaving the other half containing young weevils to continue producing the next generation of adult weevils and resin lumps.
The team then distilled four batches of resin into a pale-yellow oil using a copper alembique, or a traditional distillation pot. According to Haley van Oosten, president of the L’Oeil du Vert fragrance company, copal oil could become a unique and valuable ingredient in some blends of fine perfumes.
Producing this oil could then give the communities a profitable source of income. Project manager Rojas and local coordinator Rolando Panduro are now leading monthly searches for copal in the region and distilling the resin from different species to find the varieties, ages, and techniques that produce the best aromas. If the first phase of the project is successful, the Center will work with the communities, non-governmental partners, and government agencies to implement a sustainable harvest system for the resin and to develop a self-sufficient local enterprise.
The Center is also working with the Bora and their Huitoto and Ocaina neighbors by encouraging several dozen skilled artisans to brainstorm new crafts and ideas in a series of workshops. Inspired by the patterns of local snakes, the Bora women are weaving chambira fibers into elegant belts with stunning, colorful designs.
They are also creating snake patterns for custom guitar straps and spider web designs for shopping bags. The Center will help market these items buy exhibiting them at presentations, craft fairs, reptile club meetings, and its online Amazon Forest Store.
THE MAIJUNA OF SUCUSARI AND NUEVA VIDA
The Maijuna are a native group with about 400 people who live in four villages in the Napo River region of Peru. The group has formed the Federation of Maijuna Native Communities (FECONAMAI) to halt the loss of their land and language and improve basic conditions in their communities.
Michael Gilmore, an ethnobotanist from George Mason University and Center board member who has collaborated with the Maijuna for eleven years, invited Plowden and other researchers to attend the 2009 FECONAMAI Congress in the village of Sucusari. With the enthusiastic approval of the Maijuna, the researchers formed a team to support federation efforts to preserve the biological and cultural diversity of the Maijuna.
The team includes German Perilla, a veteran bee-keeper who will teach the Maijuna how to produce honey for sale, and Christine Beier, a linguist who will document the Maijuna language and encourage its teaching in schools. Gilmore is currently finishing a project that maps the interaction between plants and people on Maijuna lands.
Rojas and Maijuna woodsmen who surveyed the lands around the Maijuna village of Nueva Vida were encouraged by the abundance and diversity of copal trees and resin in the region. The Center also interviewed about three dozen Maijuna women, who said they were interested in selling handicrafts through the Center, but would first like to attend workshops to increase their craft-making skills. Rojas again attended the FECONAMAI Congress in 2010 (read Maijuna Congress account in Spanish) and won formal approval for a Center project with Maijuna villages when funds become available.
The artisans of Chino are talented basket-makers. Their “paneras”, or flat baskets, are tightly woven and elaborately decorated with rainforest seeds and carved wooden pieces.
In addition to paying artisans individually, the Center returns 20 percent of its handicraft sales from that community to support needs in the areas of health, education or conservation.
With almost $600 in craft rebates received so far, Chino has chosen to buy notebooks and pencils for school children, desks for the school, medicines for their pharmacy; electric wires and lightbulbs for village common areas and food supplies for women replanting chambira palm trees.
RESEARCH AND HANDICRAFTS AT JENARO HERRERA
Jenaro Herrera is a town of about 5,000 on the Ucayali River. It has a few paved roads, motorcycle taxis, several convenience stores, and many water buffalo, whose milk is used to make the town’s famous cheese (See CACE video: Introduction to Jenaro Herrera).
The Center conducts most of its copal research at the Jenaro Herrera Research Station, which is an internationally recognized outdoor laboratory operated by the Institute for the Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP). Project manager Angel Raygada, who is an agronomy student at the National University of the Peruvian Amazon (UNAP), and the local resident brothers Italo and Melaneo Melendez have been monitoring over 300 study trees in the station’s arboretum, natural forest and copal plantation for the last three years.
The copal team has been learning about the development of resin lumps and observing how weevils and bees interact with the copal tree. They recently completed a two-year study about the yield of resin produced through the manual wounding of copal trees – the most common technique for collecting resin in Central America.
The Center has begun to collaborate closely with Dr. Paul Fine, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, to determine how many weevil species are involved in this fascinating system and to explore how these weevils stimulate more or less resin on some trees depending on the chemical and physical features of its resin and bark.
The team has encountered many challenges. The research station is legally protected, but intruders have still harvested resin lumps, destroying years of data.
The town of Jenaro Herrera is home to many artisans that create jewelry and belts out of chambira and local seeds. The Center now works with several small cooperatives including Artesanias Wicungo, which specializes in making earrings with carved coconut shells.
Jenaro Herrera also has also benefited from Center sale of handicrafts from its artisans.
OLD AND NEW PARTNERS IN BRAZIL
Center director Campbell Plowden did his first studies on non-timber forest products with the Tembé Indians in the eastern Brazilian Amazon. During a recent month-long trip to Brazil, Plowden reconnected with many Tembé and Ka’apor colleagues he once worked with in the Gurupi River region. He learned that many things have changed in these communities in the past ten years.
On the positive side, greater support from state governments has improved health and education services through better staffed clinics and schools. On the down side, the same roads that were built to facilitate these improvements also led to the expansion of illegal logging into the heart of the indigenous reserves – now often with the support of community leaders.
Unchanged is the community’s need to generate revenue without causing severe damage to the forest. Plowden visited an old friend who lives in the Ka’apor village of Xi’e and found that this group is now making a range of beautiful necklaces, bracelets and rings from the carved nuts of the tucumã and inaja palm trees. The Center is now exploring ways to help market this natural jewelry in the U.S. Some Tembé are still making beautiful crafts, but since many of these contain feathers from macaws and other wild birds, the Center cannot buy nor sell these items.
Plowden said, “One highlight of the visit to Xi’e was jumping into the back of the community pickup truck one afternoon with a bunch of kids and the seedlings of the ipê tree that they had grown in a rustic nursery. We drove out to an area that had been occupied by some illegal colonists and planted the seedlings there in a first effort to encourage the recovery of the natural forest.” One other project the Ka’apor are investigating is collecting seeds that may be sold to other reforestation efforts.
Plowden also spent time in several caboclo (traditional forest dwellers) communities along the Tapajós River to learn about the progress of their furniture-making enterprise. Instead of logging, the six communities are trying to generate income by selling hand-crafted benches, tables and animal figures from downed wood or carefully cut trees. Since some of their designs are woven from vine roots, the Center may work with the project’s lead organization, the Amazon Research Institute (IPAM in Portuguese), to help communities develop a plan to sustainably harvest this non-timber resource.