June 25, 2012
I have always looked forward to going to the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo because it has come to feel like my village home away from home. I liked and felt accepted by most people I had gotten to know since my first visit there in 2008 and felt genuine friendships were slowly evolving with a few. I also recognized that such personal matters were usually irrelevant to the success of our work there. People in the village tend to judge us based on the degree they benefit from our presence in monetary and other ways. I knew from stories that Yully shared with me on the way that this visit could be very difficult. Discontent about the way we had been hiring field assistants had put our copal monitoring on hold. Progress building a community pharmacy with social rebate funds from our craft sales had been very slow, and two factions seemed to be emerging within the group of artisans that reflected an axis of tension between two large groups of families in the community. The general mood of the village was not helped by the debilitation of many with malaria. Yully and I would need to face these realities and hopefully gain the consent of the community to continue at least some of our work there.As we reached the bank of the river just below her and Oscar’s house, Ena took the sharpened wooden pole that lay near the front of the boat, jammed it into the mud, and stirred it around until it sunk in about a foot. She then picked up our thin rope bow line and secured it to the pole with a simple knot. We wrestled our gear up the slippery bank without falling, but we needed help to carry it to the other end of the village – not reachable by water since the river level had dropped. Oscar and another able-bodied man each hoisted one of our large bags onto their backs and headed off. One fellow who was moderately drunk offered his help by hoisting a six-pack of 3 liter bottles of Oro – a domestic brand clone of Inca Cola onto his shoulder. His poor grip on the plastic wrap promptly jarred one of the bottles onto the ground. A sober mate picked up the loose one, so off we went. A few hundred yards down the path, another bottle fell out of the disintegrating package and hit the ground. I thought I saw one of the men pick it up, but when I stowed everything in my room at the house we were going to stay, I only found five bottles. Our inebriated porter swore up and down that he didn’t know what happened to it (he had actually stashed it in his house when its fall cracked it open) and then proceeded to tell us he intended to have us expelled from the village because we hadn’t been giving equal opportunity to all the men in the village to work in our project. We temporarily diffused his harangue by assuring him we were going to address this matter with the whole community.
Our next order of business was to seek out the President of the community to arrange an “assemblea” (community-wide meeting). We were told this young leader wasn’t around so we walked back to the lower end of the village to ask the Vice-President if he could do so. Sitting on a bench on the first floor of his home, Felix first updated us on the status of the community pharmacy. Flooding of the village had delayed the start of construction for several months. I asked why it wasn’t being built in the area with higher ground; Felix said the site was chosen to provide equal access to people at both ends of the village. Work had begun when the water receded, but one fellow needed a new part for his chainsaw to cut more large planks, and another man wanted to be paid for the lumber he had cut even though the community had originally said all labor would be donated. It also seemed they needed more long nails to proceed even though Yully had sent all the supplies they had asked for.
We then discussed the concerns regarding field assistants in the copal project. In the first year of the project, we relied heavily on the most experienced woodsmen to help us find copal trees and trunks of a few other target species. We included some younger fellows in these surveys, but many of them couldn’t detect the subtle differences in the trunk, leaves, and bark between different trees. At the community’s urging, we included more new men in the teams to monitor the recovery of resin lumps on trees that had been harvested the previous year. They often wondered about a lot, though, since they weren’t familiar with the areas. The frustration of such outings was aggravated by the off-base GPS positions recorded by the first local coordinator. We consequently brought back people from the original teams to find the marked trees. Several points became clear. We needed to contract enough capable veterans to get the job done and provide equitable access to the work for new people. We also needed to expand our training so more Bora could learn how to conduct an inventory with a compass, map tree locations in a computer, and extract oil from resin and leaves with our distillation equipment.The other sensitive issue concerned the position of the local coordinator – the person responsible for getting Yully to and from Brillo Nuevo in his boat and lining up men for the survey work. Although it was the community, not we, who chose this person, some people complained that each of our three coordinators had all been from the same extended family; others griped that any one person could earn a regular salary, however modest. All we could say to Felix was we hoped the community would next choose someone ready to learn new skills and discharge their duties with competence and fairness. After a brief but intense shower, Felix went house to house to invite people to the afternoon meeting with us. Yully and I regrouped at Oscar’s house where I was pleasantly surprised to see that their dog Rambo’s leg had healed well after a break suffered during a fall off their elevated platform. Two hours later about twenty-five people had gathered in the wooden bleachers next to the village center soccer field. I had written an outline of the key points I wanted to cover in my notebook, but I was still nervous, not knowing if our work there was really in jeopardy.
I relaxed considerably when Felix opened the meeting with a positive introduction, highlighting the training opportunities in our project. I first summarized the status of our forest work. We had measured the abundance of copal in more than fifty plots, follow-up visits showed decent levels of resin regeneration, and our fragrance company advisor told us the oil distilled from the resin of one copal species had a rich complex aroma. The disappointing news – this species was widely dispersed, and the oil from the more abundant ones showed little promise for use in perfume.
I told the group we wanted to explore a new tact – producing essential oil from the leaves and branches of copal, “palo de rosa” (rosewood) and other closely related species. Palo de rosa was very rare in this area, but our joint project with the group Camino Verde created an opportunity to plant about 1,200 palo de rosa seedlings in a few plots at Brillo Nuevo. These trees should be able to sustain a modest leaf harvest in three to four years and provide seeds for wider-scale reforestation.
We paused and asked if anyone had a question or comment. Positive response to the palo de rosa proposal was immediate. Even though families that planted these seedlings in their area would need to care for them without financial compensation, Felix had to calm the excitement of willing volunteers with assurances the hosts would be chosen in a later meeting. A few men asked questions and voiced support for our request to wrap up our copal monitoring work and do our leaf distillation trials. I took a deep breath when the still inebriated fellow who carried and dropped the soda bottles to our house voiced his concerns about the hiring issue. I answered him as clearly and honestly as I could. He then repeated his point. Yully amplified my earlier remarks. When he raised it a third time, his mother harshly whispered to him to be quiet. I didn’t want the fellow to be publicly shamed, so I was relieved and impressed how Felix adroitly moved the meeting forward. I reviewed our handicraft sales, and the village approved the continuation of our project.In contrast to my jitters before the community meeting, I looked forward to meeting with the artisans as they gathered around the few tables in the outdoor kitchen area with a corrugated aluminum roof. I first explained that the different levels of certificates were based on the number and value of crafts of theirs we had sold. As I gave them out one at a time, most recipients offered me an awkward smile, quiet thank you, or gentle handshake. A few gave me a warm hug while the others voiced a discreet cheer. As it got dark and we progressed to giving out the awards, the mood shifted from sober to somber. We gave prizes to the artisans who had created the most popular designs, demonstrated the most consistent quality, and made the greatest number of crafts we had sold. These included colored pencils, a drawing pad, and some basic pantry items (salt, sugar, soap for the design prizes with milk and coffee added for the top prizes). The winners politely acknowledged these items, but the awards were otherwise received in total silence.
I thought about quitting before we got any farther behind, but went on to say that we next wanted to give an award to the person who had shown the most cooperative spirit in helping her fellow artisans. We felt they would be better suited to fairly choose this winner than us so we asked them for nominations. Silence. More silence. More silence. Finally, Ines said she thought her sister Monica had done a lot to help others improve the quality of their weaving. A few other women then voiced their appreciation for Monica’s help with their craft making. I then asked if there were any other nominations. Silence. I finally asked if everyone thought that we should give the prize to Monica. Silence. Then someone in the back called out, “Angelina has been really helpful to me.” This sentiment was then echoed by two other women. We had originally planned to have the women vote to choose a winner, but when someone suggested that the two nominees could split this prize, I quickly assented. Both women came forward and amiably split the prize items – Angelina with her quiet grace, Monica with a grim smile that she pushed through her malarial malaise.With the prizes all awarded, I circulated through the group handing each woman in turn a little plastic cup and filled it with the bright yellow soda. Thank god the drunk fellow had only damaged one of the bottles. As I made it around the room for the second time, women were thrusting their cups toward me for refills from both sides of the table. Conversation in animated Bora resumed. By the third round, women started drifting back to their homes for the night.
Back at our house, Yully and I tried to what had just happened. While the award ceremony had seemed like a debacle to us, Ines and her sister Marcelina both said that they still thought giving prizes was a good thing. They would be a potent motivation for the artisans to produce more and better handicrafts. She said that the silence during the awards, though, just reflected raw jealousy. She was all too familiar with its expressions in the village and suggested that we should present future awards to winners in private to reduce inflaming this destructive sentiment. I collapsed in my hammock to contemplate and let go of my first day back in Brillo Nuevo.