By Campbell Plowden
For the past three years, the Center for Amazon Community Ecology has been working with the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo to measure the abundance of copal trees in their forests and evaluate the quantity and quality of aromatic essential oil that could be produced from its sustainably harvested resin. We are now also exploring the rosewood tree (Aniba roseaodora) and a few of its relatives as new sources for community production of fragrant oils.
Rosewood grows in wild in Brazil and almost every other country in the Amazon region. It has been used for centuries as a source of oil for perfumes and wood for making fine furniture. Unfortunately the whole tree was routinely harvested to make these products. Severe rosewood exploitation led to concerns about its possible extinction and eventual restrictions on international trade in the species through Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The Brazilian government also passed national legislation to protect the species domestically. CACE is now developing a project to produce a sustainable supply of rosewood oil by distilling its leaves and small branches and planting a new generation of rosewood trees in secondary forests at Brillo Nuevo.
We had never encountered rosewood in any of our forest surveys around Brillo Nuevo, but our former local coordinator Oscar told us in late June that he could lead us to one “palo de rosa” tree where we collect enough material to distill a test batch of oil. Oscar’s parents brought several rosewood seedlings with them when they moved from the Rio Algodon to the Ampiyacu River region around 1945. One of the trees they planted in front of their house survived and filled the air with a memorable pleasant aroma. When Oscar and his family moved from Ancon Colonia to the larger village of Brillo Nuevo so his children could attend school, it was understood he retained rights to the tall rosewood at the old site. Our five-person team piled into Oscar’s “peque-peque” (motorized wooden canoe) and headed an hour up the Yaguasyacu River to a small clearing just past past Ancon Colonia. We hiked through the forest and crossed slippery log bridges for about 20 minutes until Oscar found his old homestead and the sixty-five year old legacy rosewood tree. After two failed attempts to climb the tree itself, one team member scooted up a neighboring tree with our claw-like climbing spikes and snipped off seven one-inch thick branches with a pruning saw attached to a long aluminum pole. We weighed the leaves that drifted down to ensure we had at least five kilograms for our first trial. Later that afternoon we got a bag of leaves from a few species of copal and “moena” trees – relatives of the rosewood for other distillation tests. The next day our task was to extract as much oil from rosewood and other kinds of leaves we had collected. We set up our copper alembique pot and other parts of our distillation apparatus in the open kitchen area of the school. We shredded rosewood leaves and finely chopped the branches, stuffed them into the top of the vessel, filled it with water, and sealed the onion dome with caulking. After burning the plastic face off the thermometer in our first trial using firewood (instead of a gas stove), we shielded the lower part of the still with a few pieces of “calamina” (corruguated aluminum used for roofing). An hour after the fire resumed, an amber-colored oil starting dripping into the separatory flask. We measured the weight of oil that came out every half-hour until the process ran its course in four hours. The amount was less than hoped for, but it had an exquisite aroma. It was not hard to see why rosewood oil has been a classic scent for millennia. A specialty fragrance company President in Los Angeles later confirmed that we had distilled a promising product. This was a good step forward, but we knew that we couldn’t produce enough oil from one lone rosewood tree to establish a community enterprise. We could, however, plant some more to expand our supply of raw material for making oil and assist the recovery of a valuable endangered Amazon tree. The Marjorie Grant Whiting Center had given CACE two grants to support our Ampiyacu project and also funded an NGO called Camino Verde that did reforestation projects and documented traditional plant uses in the southern Peruvian Amazon. MGWC introduced Robin van Loon, its Executive Director to us and then funded a CACE/Camino Verde pilot project to sustainably harvest and develop several non-timber forest products in both of our areas. A key element of this joint project involves planting about 1000 rosewood seedlings at Brillo Nuevo. To start this process, we commissioned the Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) to produce the seedlings in their nursery at their research station in Jenaro Herrera – the same site as our long-term copal research. During my visit to this station in early July, the manager showed me the seedlings that would hopefully become the founders of a rosewood population in the Ampiyacu. They began by laying cuttings from a few small trees onto a planting bed that would be transferred to individual planting bags once they had a good root. We expect these will be large enough by late January for Robin van Loon, the Executive Director of Camino Verde to bring them to Brillo Nuevo for planting. The community had enthusiastically approved this project and chose five families by lots to plant and care for about 200 young rosewood trees in fertile “purma” – a patch of secondary forest in the fallow phase of a slash and burn growing cycle. We expect these trees will grow enough in three to four years to sustain a modest harvest of leaves that can be distilled into marketable rosewood oil.
When I learned that a group of campesinos at Tamshiyacu had already planted several thousand rosewood trees and had experimented distilling some oil from their leaves, Yully Rojas (our Ampiyacu Project Manager) and I took the one hour “rapido” (fast motorboat) there with hopes of finding someone who could tell us about this operation.We eventually found our way to the house of Sr. Juan Silvano who shared 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 IIAP, ten residents formed a group that collected and germinated seeds from a few remnant trees and planted about 7,000 seedlings in their properties. In meantime they collected enough leaves from some older trees to produce one liter of oil. They gave this batch to IIAP and the university to analyze, but never got any results. Juan then invited us to visit the area where he had planted most of his rosewood seedlings, some food crops and built a bunkhouse and lodge to host ayuhuasca ceremonies. He also carved hunks of tawari and palo sangre wood into jaguars, snakes, eagles, and abstract human figures inspired by shamanic visions for sale to his clients and other tourists. 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 pruned them according to IIAP recommendations for several years so they wouldn’t grow taller than four meters – a nice height to keep the top leaves and branches within easy reach for harvesting. IIAP dropped its support for the project for some years and then renewed it temporarily 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 failed to offer any concrete way for them to make or sell any rosewood oil.
The group’s most recent hope to use this resource came two years ago when a French woman came to the area to make fragrant essential oils with a high capacity distillation apparatus. She had bought batches of 300 kg. of leaves and branches from the five remaining active members of the association for a year, but their collaboration fell apart when they failed to reach an agreement on payment terms. After this venture failed, even Juan stopped maintaining his young rosewood trees and top branches now exceeded six meters. He could still start to manage them again, but he is content to let them grow into large trees if he can’t profitably harvest the leaves to make oil.
Yully and I left Tamshiyacu knowing that Juan would be a valuable advisor for our rosewood oil project at Brillo Nuevo so we are now exploring ways to work with him and his group to get a hard start on learning the finer points of distilling rosewood leaves and find the best ways to market its oil.
For full versions of the stories in this article please see these other posts in Campbell’s Amazon Journal:
The Legacy of a Rosewood Tree (Brillo Nuevo)
Steaming Leaves and Heated Emotions (Brillo Nuevo)
A Dying Copal Tree and Rosewood Seedlings at Jenaro Herrera
Visions of Rosewood Oil and Ayahuasca (Tamshiyacu)