Tag Archives: achiote

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.

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Achiote – a dye plant for fiber, food and faces

Bixa orellana is the scientific name for a small tree whose spiny pods contain seeds covered with an oily red substance that is used around the world to dye food, fiber, and faces. While often known as annatto when used to give naturally white margarine a hint of yellow to make it look more like butter, people in Peru usually call it achiote. Below is a gallery of photos of achiote plants and its use by native and campesino artisans in the northern Peruvian Amazon to dye chambira palm fiber various shades of red and orange for weaving handicrafts. All photos were taken by CACE director Campbell Plowden with artisan partners from the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo on the Ampiyacu River and campesino artisans from the town of Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River.

Achiote flower in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Achiote flower in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Achiote flower and budding fruit in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Achiote flower and budding fruit in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Immature achiote pods in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Immature achiote pods in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mature achiote pods in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mmature achiote pods in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mature achiote pods with seeds in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mature achiote pods with seeds in native artisan field. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan harvesting achiote pods. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan harvesting achiote pods. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding small branch of achiote pods. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding small branch of achiote pods. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding achiote pods in her garden. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding achiote pods in her garden. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding achiote open seed pod in her hand. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding achiote open seed pod in her hand. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding achiote open seed pod with red finger. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan holding achiote open seed pod with red finger. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan soaking chambira fiber with achiote seed oil. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan soaking chambira fiber with achiote seed oil. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan preparing to dye chambira fiber with achiote seed oil. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan preparing to dye chambira fiber with achiote seed oil. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan removing red oil from achiote seeds to dye chambira fiber. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan removing red oil from achiote seeds to dye chambira fiber. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Boiling chambira palm fiber with achiote to dye it red. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Boiling chambira palm fiber with achiote to dye it red. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chambira dyed with achiote, sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) and guisador. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chambira dyed with achiote, sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) and guisador. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) plants and chambira fiber dyeing

The Center for Amazon Community Ecology is working with native artisans from the Peruvian Amazon to develop and market innovative handicrafts to increase their livelihood and support health, education and forest conservation in their communities. Most of these crafts are woven with the fibers of chambira palm trees – most are dyed with plants the artisans collect from their backyard gardens, farm fields, or forest. Native artisans in the Ampiyacu River region commonly use leaves from a vine species of Arrabidaea in the family Bignoniaceae. Bora and Murui artisans usually call this plant “sisa,” “cudi,” or “cudi-i’.” Leaves are mashed and boiled with bleached fibers of chambira to dye it a dark red. Red fibers can also be mixed with clay rich mud to darken the fiber to maroon or near black. These photos taken in the Bora village of Brillo Nuevo show plants in different conditions and stages of processing.

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) dye plant growing in artisan field (2).  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) dye plant growing in artisan field (2). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) dye plant growing in artisan field (3).  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) dye plant growing in artisan field (3). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arribidaea spp.) leaves on vine on ground. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arribidaea spp.) leaves on vine on ground. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arribidaea spp.) vine growing up tree.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arribidaea spp.) vine growing up tree. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arribidaea spp.) vine.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arribidaea spp.) vine. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan planting sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan planting sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Murui artisan harvesting sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Murui artisan harvesting sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan harvesting sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan harvesting sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mashing sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves with wooden pestle.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mashing sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves with wooden pestle. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mashing sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves in a cooking pot.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Mashing sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves in a cooking pot. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan cooking chambira with sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves (2).  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan cooking chambira with sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves (2). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan cooking chambira with sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves (3).  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan cooking chambira with sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves (3). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves and sisa dye chambira fiber.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves and sisa dye chambira fiber. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan dying chambira with sisa (Arribidaeae spp.). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan dying chambira with sisa (Arribidaeae spp.). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan dyeing chambira with sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan dyeing chambira with sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan hanging chambira fibers dyed with sisa (Arribidaeae spp.). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan hanging chambira fibers dyed with sisa (Arribidaeae spp.). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan hanging chambira fibers dyed with sisa (Arribidaeae spp.)(2). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan hanging chambira fibers dyed with sisa (Arribidaeae spp.)(2). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chambira dyed with achiote, sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) and guisador.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chambira dyed with achiote, sisa (Arrabidaea spp.) and guisador. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Brillo Nuevo artisans create dye plant gardens

by Campbell Plowden

Sisa vine with leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Sisa vine (Arrabideae spp.(?)) with leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

All artisans from native communities in the Peruvian Amazon use a wide variety of roots, fruit, leaves and bark to dye the fiber of chambira palm trees to weave and sell beautiful handicrafts. These materials come from herb, shrubs, and vines planted in backyard gardens and from trees that grow naturally on river banks, fallow fields and/or old forests. Artisans can usually access enough dye plants from season to season to create the full range of colors, but two successive years of strong rainy seasons flooded most of Brillo Nuevo and other villages close to the river level throughout the northern Peruvian Amazon. These inundations killed many dye plants or damaged them so much that they may take up to five years to recover.

Manuel Mibeco curaca. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Manuel Mibeco curaca. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

On June 20, CACE helped the artisans of Brillo Nuevo to create a dye plant garden in higher ground so future floods would not prevent artisans from collecting an adequate supply of dye plants to keep weaving their handicrafts. The Brillo Nuevo curaca (traditional leader) Manuel Mibeco kindly allowed the village’s artisans to convert a small plot growing yuca (also known as manioc and cassava) to this garden that would be available to all of them in hard times.

The process began by harvesting (and peeling) the roots of maturing yuca plants. The artisans then laid out lines to plant seeds, seedlings and rhizomes of key dye plants vulnerable to flooding including guisador (Curcuma longa), sisa/cudi (Arrabidaea spp. ?), jangua, and achiote (Bixa orellana).

Kori Vasquez carrying yuca roots. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Kori Vasquez carrying yuca roots. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Below are some other photos of preparing the dye plant garden and dying chambira fiber.

See the CACE video Mishquipanga – a Peruvian Dye Plant to see how one dye plant is harvested and processed.

See the CACE video Artisans of the Ampiyacu for a visual and musical overview of craft-making by Bora and other native artisans of the region.

Lidaberna Panduro harvesting yuca. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Lidaberna Panduro harvesting yuca. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Lucila Flores digging hole with machete. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Lucila Flores digging hole with machete. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Beetle grub in soil. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Beetle grub in soil. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Graciela planting achiote seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Graciela planting achiote (Bixa orellana) seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Achiote seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Achiote (Bixa orellana) seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Claudel planting guisador. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Claudel planting guisador (Curcuma longa). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Dye plant fruit and seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Dye plant fruit and seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Hilda Campos planting sisa dye plant. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Hilda Campos planting sisa (Arrabideae spp. (?)) dye plant. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Amrit Moore and Bora children at dye plant garden. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Amrit Moore and Bora children at dye plant garden. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Hermelinda Lopez planting guisador. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Hermelinda Lopez planting guisador (Curcuma longa). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Casilda Vasquez and sisa dyed chambira. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Casilda Vasquez and chambira dyed with sisa (Arrabidaea spp). leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Rainbows of Chambira, Boots, People and Parrots

July 11, 2012

I had a bit of a false start getting to Chino. I had always gone there before in the speed boat belonging to the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF), but since it was occupied, I need to take a public lancha. Unlike the big ferries that carry up to 300 people and heavy cargo that are run by companies with a public office and phone number, some communities off the main rivers are lucky to be served by small “colectivos.” Yully accompanied me in a motor car that wove through the narrow streets of the Belen public market until we got to a small landing near the port. A water-taxi peque-peque took us to the boats bound for the Tahuayo River, but when we called out asking where the boat was going to Chino, the response was “there are none today, come back tomorrow.” Yully told me she’d heard that one of these boats had sunk here a few weeks ago. It was just coming into dock when a crowd of wholesale buyers swarmed on board to get first crack at the fish, charcoal and other forest produce the passengers were bringing from their settlements upriver. The surge of the extra human weight apparently tipped or outright swamped the small overladen vessel.

Later than evening I finally spoke to one of my artisan friends in Chino on the only public phone in the community. Norma said there was no lancha leaving the next day for Chino either, but I could take the colectivo bound for Esperanza – a community downriver from hers where her husband could pick me up in his peque-peque if I could pay for his gas.

Trusting to the fates, I returned to Belen the next morning and boarded the Guevara. I stripped off the mosquitero (mosquito netting), and strung my hammock across the beams in the middle of the lower deck. Swaying in comfort seemed preferable to sitting on one of the narrow wooden benches along the sides for the next seven hours. I put my duffle bag under me to give my bottom some clearance. Later arrivals had fewer choices as adjoining spaces were stacked with palettes of Inca Cola and other merchandise to stock little bodegas upriver.

Top deck of the lancha Guevara bound for the Tahuayo River.  Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Top deck of the lancha Guevara bound for the Tahuayo River. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

The trip proceeded slowly but tranquilly. I marked the location of a few larger settlements along the way for future reference with my GPS with names provided by a kind older man also going to Esperanza. I half-jogged up the hill during a half-hour break at Tamshiyacu to have some lunch at a three seater open-air restaurant. As usual, I asked the lady serving me to take off two-thirds of the mound of rice she’d piled on my plate and go easy on the noodles.

As the number of passengers thinned out by mid-afternoon, I learned that the fellow in the hammock next to me was the husband of the woman who was the President of Mi Esperanza – the little company that organizes the production and sale of woven chambira baskets to the U.S. with the help of the regional government agency PROCREL. Sales had been really slow for a year, but as the economy began to recover, the buyer had placed another large order. Artisans in four villages from the Tahuayo and three more from other areas had just made about 700 baskets that were now being packaged and readied for export. A cargo ship would take them from Iquitos through the Panama Canal to Houston, Texas where they would be transferred to a truck for delivery to San Diego. The gift shop in the Museum of Natural History there was apparently the biggest U.S. outlet for these beautiful crafts.

We arrived in Esperanza around 5:30 pm, and I was happy to see Norma’s husband Ezekiel waiting for me. I got in his 15 foot-long peque along with a family of four bound for a lodge just beyond Chino. It was a blessedly clear evening as we headed up the Tahuayo River. Our only stop on the way was the village of Buena Vista where I needed to get out and register with the local police – a requirement for all foreigners entering the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Regional Conservation Area. This formality is usually handled by a tour operator taking visitors to their “albergue” (ecotourism lodge). In the past trips, Gerardo from RCF had always been on hand to vouch for me. This time when I when I walked into the little police station and handed my passport to the officer on duty, he asked me instead for a copy of it. He showed me a book full of the photo pages of other foreigners and said I couldn’t go into the reserve without leaving them one of these to keep on file. I had a moment of panic since there was no photocopy machine within five hours of the place. I told him I had been visiting Chino for four years and had honestly never heard of this practice. He then asked me who my guide was, and I replied that I was on my own. My sincere explanation of why I was going to Chino and mentioning a dozen people waiting for me there, though, seemed to convince the officer I did not pose a threat to the communities in the reserve. He let me pass with the reminder to bring a copy of my passport next time.

I was expecting to go directly to the RCF for a quiet dinner but when we arrived in Chino just before 8 pm, a party was underway in the public meeting space – a round open air structure with a conical thatched roof and cement floor. The community was feting the presence of Jim Penn, President of RCF, his group of a dozen students from Grand Valley University (GVU) in Michigan where he teaches geography, and a few other guests from the Amazon Adventure Lodge located a short distance upriver. A three piece band including two drums and a flute were playing lively Peruvian folk tunes while Chino women coaxed visitors to dance. I greeted Jim and was immediately offered a glass of “masato,” a slightly alcoholic beverage made from homemade fermented yucca root by Jorge – one of the village officers and accomplished carver.

Jim and I made a plan for my quick visit and then migrated to a local pub with the students to enjoy a few beers. It was a welcome night out for them since they had spent the last two weeks doing an inventory of chambira palm trees in the community’s forest. This hardy group had suffered one casualty when one girl stumbled onto a fallen chambira trunk. Over the next two days, her comrades removed more than thirty sharp spines from her foot and legs. Buoyed with antibiotics and a tough spirit, she returned to the field three days later.

Collecting bark from ovos tree and applying mud to wound. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Collecting bark from ovos tree and applying mud to wound. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

I spent the next morning of four of the GVU students at Romelia’s house in Chino watching her and her neighbor Rosa dye chambira fiber with three different plants. Romelia’s husband Jorge first climbed up a huito tree in their backyard and tossed down a batch of its fruits. Romelia used her machete to scrape some bark from a cedro tree, but they were too dry to use. She and Rosa had better luck collecting pinkish shavings from an “ovos” tree. Afterward, she rubbed some mud on the wound to prevent termites from invading it. Oval scars on the trunk showed that she had been able to carefully harvest patches of bark for many years. Romelia said the ovos bark could be boiled to dye fiber or squeezed to release a liquid used to treat cuts and ulcers.

Chino artisans preparing guisador root dye. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Chino artisans preparing guisador root dye. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE


She then pulled up the last few roots of a surviving guisador plant. The prolonged flooding had killed the rest of these along with her cocona, pijuayo, and achiote plants. The guisador and cocona would recover in four to six months, but it would take three years or more before new achiote and pijuayo trees would grow back near her home. In the meantime, she would need to go to the higher forest to collect the leaves and fruits she needed to make green, red and orange dyes.

Grand Valley University student Katrina and Chino artisan grating huito fruit dye. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Grand Valley University student Katrina and Chino artisan grating huito fruit dye. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Rosa and Romelia then sliced, grated, and pounded the fruit, roots, and bark they had collected with some help from the GVU students. They put each batch in an aluminum pot and boiled them with a handful of chambira for five to fifteen minutes. The guisador turned its fiber a deep golden yellow, the ovos produced a dark red, and the huito turned its chambira black. Romelia added some fresh guisador to the water from the huito batch and boiled it with some fresh chambira to dye it a dark green.

Chambira dying at Chino with Grand Valley Univ. student observers. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Chambira dying at Chino with Grand Valley Univ. student observers. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

When each batch reached the proper shade, the women took it off the heat, washed it, and then laid the strands over a wooden post to dry in the shade. Laying them in the open sun could dull the color of the newly dyed fiber.

Washing and drying guisador dyed chambira at Chino. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Washing and drying guisador dyed chambira at Chino. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Rainbow of dyed chambira fibers. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Rainbow of dyed chambira fibers. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

When these fibers were ready, Romelia and Rosa each brought out samples of the other colors they had made with other plant dyes including achiote (orange), cumaca (brown), huacamayo caspi (pink), mishkipanga (purple), and huitillo (dark grey). It was a morning of earthly rainbows with diverse colors of chambira, skin tones, and feathers of Romelia’s parrots.

Green parrot at Chino with string. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Green parrot at Chino with string. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Multi-colored parrot at Chino. Photo by .C. Plowden/CACE

Multi-colored parrot at Chino. Photo by .C. Plowden/CACE

Grand Valley University students with Chino artisans Romelia and Rosa. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Grand Valley University students with Chino artisans Romelia and Rosa. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE


Ezekiel and Lilly measuring flood height in purma. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Ezekiel and Lilly measuring flood height in purma. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

After a quick stop at the RCF lodge to gear up, the whole student group and local materos went back to Chino to survey chambira palms for a few hours. I joined a small team with Lilly from GVU and Ezekiel (Norma’s husband who had driven me to Chino the day before) to record the number of leaves, position and condition of these spiny palms in a large area of purma (secondary forest) where many of the village artisans harvest the cogollos (leaf spears) to make their baskets and other crafts. Periodically my lead pair would also measure the height of a water mark on a tree in our survey area. The flooding didn’t seem to have killed adult chambira trees. Intensive harvesting in this area, though, hadn’t allowed much natural regeneration, and a number of the few young palms we found were dead or dying – apparent victims of the high water.

Amazon Forest Store hat next to jungle leaf. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Amazon Forest Store hat next to jungle leaf. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

I appreciated the chance to join this crew since it gave me ideas about ways to improve our own chambira surveys with the Ampiyacu native communities. I also got a kick out of seeing a climbing vine whose large leaves were similar to the Philodendron leaf on the Amazon Forest Store logo of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology.

Rainforest Conservation Fund poster and rubber boots at RCF lodge. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Rainforest Conservation Fund poster and rubber boots at RCF lodge. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE


Chino artisan showing basket to Grand Valley University student. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Chino artisan showing basket to Grand Valley University student. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

My task for late afternoon was shopping for baskets and other crafts in Chino. Most of the members of the Huacamayo association prepared a “feria” and laid out their wares from their designated spots behind two long tables. I made one quick round to greet every artisan and missed seeing a few of the regulars who were occupied in their field or away from the village in Iquitos. I laid a little white tag in each item that I definitely wanted on the second round, and added a few more to my purchase list on a third time around. The whole student group then arrived to buy a few things for themselves (usually an inexpensive bracelet) or gift (usually a nice basket) to bring home to their parents.

Chino artisan Madita displaying a chambira basket. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Chino artisan Madita displaying a chambira basket. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

When the students were done perusing, I took a picture of every artisan (or sometimes their daughter) with the crafts I had bought from them. These shots give me a nice record of the evolution of the basket designs and the chance to offer people who buy the baskets a photo of the woman who made it in this little Amazon village.

Chino artisan showing huayruru and etched wingo necklace. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Chino artisan showing huayruru and etched wingo necklace. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

As the sun started going down, we went back into the “feria” building and gathered a table for a crash course in speaking English to tourists at a “feria” – an event that happens every week or two when Amazon Adventures brings a group staying at their albergue to visit Chino. I covered the basic greetings, phrases like “How much is that basket?, This basket costs……” and the numbers for the most common prices for their crafts. As expected, a few of the women were painfully shy and too embarrassed to voice our strange-sounding tongue in more than a whisper. Most gave it a valiant effort, and a few showed real potential for connecting with visitors who often spoke little or no Spanish. They all said they would like to practice these things more.

Grand Valley University students teaching English class at Chino. Photos by .C. Plowden/CACE

Grand Valley University students teaching English class at Chino. Photos by .C. Plowden/CACE

When my class ended, the GVU students were wrapping up a volleyball game outside. We then all went to the school where a few of them led a longer class in basic English with about fifteen kids and a few curious adults. They wrote lists of greetings, terms for family members and numbers on the blackboard. Their students dutifully copied them all into their notebooks and repeated them back to the guest teachers. The GVU students then spread around the room to encourage more direct speaking and listening practice with groups of two or three kids. This energetic group finally called it a night after two hours although they clearly wanted more sessions like this. They had all studied English from a little book, but so welcomed the chance to practice it with friendly native speakers.

Back at the RCF lodge, it was sort of a night at the movies. Someone had been a tasty batch of popcorn, but my talk about CACE’s work with copal resin and handicrafts was the main attraction. We didn’t have an LCD project on hand, but we managed to get all the students a little closer to a screen by showing it on two laptops spaced apart on the dining table.

I got a couple of hours of sleep on a pad in a one-person tent Jim set up for me in the living room and woke up at 3:30 am a few minutes before my watch alarm went off. I finished packing and brushed my teeth while the night time frogs were still peeping. Gerardo emerged half an hour later and took me to the Sanchez lancha docked next to Chino. I said a quick hi to Norma who was going to Iquitos with her daughter, strung my hammock from rafter to rafter and went back to sleep. I needed some rest after a busy day and a half in Chino.

Plants to dye with

I was originally going to go out with Yully and the copal team for a full day of searching for the resin trees in a new area of forest, but I was both tired and wanted to get photos of as many of the dye plants as possible to accompany our description of crafts in the online store.  As ever forthcoming with her willingness to help and equally generous laugh heard clear across a soccer field, Ines offered to show me some plants in her yard and purma.

Guisador plant root used to dye chambira yellow. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Guisador plant root used to dye chambira yellow. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Right next to her house, Ines dug up a few carrot colored rhizomes of a plant in the ginger family called guisador.  These roots are ground up to dye chambira a pleasing yellow; it’s also used to give the same color and slight ginger flavor to rice.

Jangua plant with green pods. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Jangua plant with green pods. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ten yards away were a few two-foot tall “jangua” plants.  Its tiny green kidney-shaped pods immediately identified it as a legume (bean family).  Ines said she needed about a pound of “jangua” leaves to dye one “cogollo” of chambira a dark green.  Although these plants had grown quickly in a month, there was not yet anywhere near enough leaves on these small specimens to harvest.  This past rainy season was unusually rainy (as the previous dry season was extremely dry) and Ines yard along with almost the entire upper field of the village was flooded.  People needed their canoes to go from house to house.  This inundation had killed most of the herbaceous plants in Ines’ yard that were not adapted to standing water.

Sisa leaf and dark red chambira. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Sisa leaf and dark red chambira. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While her mature “sisa” vines had survived, the younger plants whose leaves are boiled with chambira to turn the fiber a dark red also succumbed to the high water.  New ones were just growing back.

Achiote pod with oily red seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Achiote pod with oily red seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Our dye plant tour next passed on to several small and medium-sized “achiote” trees.  Ines broke open a few of the prickly pods of two kinds she had in her yard.  The seeds are coated with an oily red substance that readily transfers to fingers, fiber and food.  It’s better known as annatto in western cooking, but it is one of the most common face and body paints among native Amazonians and also turns chambira a beautiful orange-red.  One downside of this plant as a fiber dye is that it tends to lose its color when wet unless fixed with other materials.

Mishquipanga fruits and leaf. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Mishquipanga fruits and leaf. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ines, her husband Manuel and I then headed off to their recently fallowed purma.  En route we passed by a dense patch of a tall herbaceous plant called “mishquipanga.”  It has oblong fruits are about the size of a large pecan, but the easily cracked shell of a ripe pod turns one’s fingers a deep wine red.

Brillo Nuevo artisan daughter mashing mishquipanga pods for chambira dye. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Brillo Nuevo artisan daughter mashing mishquipanga pods for chambira dye. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The pumpkin-colored pulp and seeds are discarded, and the shell is crushed and boiled with chambira to turn it a slate blue.

Another few hundred yards down the trail led us to a “rifari” tree whose leaves are also boiled with chambira fiber to turn it black.

Nearby was a plant that Ines call “huito.”  I was first confused, because this is the common name for a tree also called genipapo whose fruit rinds are ground up to produce a dye that turns chambira a dark grey.  It’s also used as a body paint throughout the Amazon that turns the skin dark purple to black for several weeks.

Ines Chichaco with huito leaves in her purma. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ines Chichaco with huito leaves in her purma. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

This “huito” of the purma, however, was different.  Ines said it spread more by sprouting than dispersing any fruits.  More importantly, it was not used to dye chambira.  Its’ leaves are crushed and boiled and applied to people’s hair to heal the scalp (from afflictions such as dandruff and possibly head lice) and turn the hair black.  This process needed to be done with some care to avoid dying the person’s face black as well.

Tembé headwoman Veronica painting Campbell with genipapo (huito) dye in 1997. Photo by Bruce Hoeft

Tembé headwoman Veronica painting Campbell with genipapo (huito) dye in 1997. Photo by Bruce Hoeft

Looking back at photos of me with Tembé colleagues in the summer of 1996, my hair was still mostly dark brown with a small shock of white.  Fifteen years later, it’s now almost entirely silver.  I think my family and friends would agree that vanity is not one of my major weaknesses, but I am strongly considering accepting Ines’ to apply this native treatment to my hair since I have not been drawn to an expensive application of chemical dyes in a U.S. salon.

Chambira drying at Ines' house in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira drying at Ines' house in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Returning to Ines’ house where chambira was drying outside, she showed me the one regular huito tree in her back yard, but even though it had grown to well over fifteen feet, it had not yet borne any fruit.  She had planted it from a seed acquired elsewhere, and I didn’t know enough about the tree to know if it was still too young to fruit or was lacking some important biological requirement.

Suelda con suelda dye plant vine in Ines Chichaco's hand. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Suelda con suelda dye plant vine in Ines Chichaco's hand. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Manuel got a long pole and pulled down a long strand of a slender vine called “suelda con suelda.”  Its leaves serve as a decent but less common way to dye chambira black when mixed with mud.  It’s mostly considered a nuisance plant because it can wrap itself around and envelope a variety of fruit and other useful trees to the point of killing them.

Manuel next to huitillo tree on the Yaguasyacu River.  Photo by Campbell Plowden

Manuel next to huitillo tree on the Yaguasyacu River. Photo by Campbell Plowden

Manuel led us on our final foray down to the river to point out a “huitillo” trunk by the edge of the water.  Its fruits are commonly used as another natural dye to turn chambira black.  Like some tropical trees, “huitillo” produces a flush of leaves, flowers and fruits in the months leading up to and during the rainy season.  Once it has finished its reproductive cycle for the year, it drops all of these.  Manuel pointed across the river to many other bare trunks that were all the same species.  Since “huitillo” fruits like many other fruits in the region are only available in a certain season, the Bora and other artisans need to have multiple sources for certain colors to make their crafts with a full palette year-round.

Campbell Plowden eating guaba fruit. Photo by Ines Chichaco/CACE

Campbell Plowden eating guaba fruit. Photo by Ines Chichaco/CACE

Ines handed me a two-foot long bean pod called “guaba” as a midday snack.  It came from a legume tree also known as “inga” in Brazil.  Cracking open the pod along the seam revealed a dozen large kidney shaped seeds surrounded by succulent white flesh.

A bit later, I was hoping I could muster the energy to interview artisans who had recently joined our project group, but decided I most wanted to just relax a bit with my book.  Before I got far, though, one of the teachers came into the house and asked me if I would serve as a judge in the “juanes” competition for classes in the village school.  I had a passing acquaintance with this regional dish of Loreto in years past, but got to know it better recently when I asked Yully and Angel to send me some recipes of typical Peruvian food we could serve at our Spirit of the Amazon party.  My friend Judy who is a professional cook followed one recipe for the preparation of the rice with chicken, boiled eggs, olives and some spices, but she had to substitute corn leaves typically used for making tamales because banana leaves were nowhere to be found in State College, Pennsylvania.

There was certainly no lack of banana leaves in Brillo Nuevo.  I made my way to the conical thatched roof open shelter near the edge of the soccer field where every child and teacher in the village had gathered around.  The two entries from the primary school and four entries from the secondary school were all laid out on a big table.  I was reminded again that Peruvians can turn almost any occasion into a formal one when the convener of the event called for the group to gather in silence and then rise to sing the national anthem.  He then introduced all of the judges and dignitaries and explained that juane was the traditional provincial food associated with the festival of San Juan – an important day to mark here because it was a celebration dedicated to campesinos (rural people).

Juane dish entry in Brillo Nuevo school competition. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Juane dish entry in Brillo Nuevo school competition. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

My three fellow judges and I each then went to work.  The director solemnly asked to rate each dish according to its presentation, contents and taste on a composite scale of 0 to 10.  A few entries were very simple; they consisted of a juane formed in the shape of a giant Hershey’s kiss except it was a green banana leaf tied off at the top.  Other entries included side dishes like cooked bananas, red onion sauce, and roasted macambo nuts.

Judging juane dish in Brillo Nuevo competition. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Judging juane dish in Brillo Nuevo competition. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Unsure that I was an appropriate judge of a food I had not tasted in its authentic form, I nonetheless tried a spoonful of every item trusting that all of the hands that touched these many dishes had been clean.  Most of the rice tasted about the same to me except for one batch that was too crunchy while a yellow batch had a nice spicy flavor (probably from being cooked with some guisador).  My favorite entries had yummy plaintains and a fresh juice (“kawana”) made from aguaje fruit.

Winning secondary school class in juanes competition at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Winning secondary school class in juanes competition at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Not wanting my uncultured vote to carry too much sway, I assigned scores ranging from 6 to 8.  I recorded the scores of my fellow judges and was pleased or perhaps relieved that my relative scores matched theirs quite closely.  I reported our results to the director who announced them with appropriate fanfare and awarded the top prize (3 large bottles of soda) to the winner of the primary and secondary school groups.

After a few other people had spoken, he turned to me and asked if I would like to address the group.  It wasn’t the finest impromptu speech ever delivered, but I thanked the group for the honor of serving as a judge at this important cultural event and hoped I could have some aguaje kawana later.  After four or five more speeches (which were both sincere and blessedly brief), the director released us.  I truly felt like a member of a jury who had just been thanked by a judge for their service to the community.

Band practice at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Band practice at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Shortly after the juane competition was finished, many of the older kids returned to the field with their instruments including trumpets and both large and small drums.  As they revved up the song they are going to play in a competition in Pebas on Peruvian Independence Day (July 28), they marched a bit to a cadence set by their leader and girls periodically tossed a tambourine into the air.

I sincerely appreciated being asked to participate in a community event like the juane competition (even though I was recruited about 20 minutes before it started), but I couldn’t help thinking so much of the education offered in the village is geared toward building their identity and allegiance as citizens of Peru and Loreto with little or no teaching or recognition of them as unique indigenous people.  It’s fortunate that most people in Brillo Nuevo still speak their native language, but as the influence of evangelical Christianity and consumerism becomes more and more ingrained in daily life here, the celebration of Bora festivals has become increasingly rare.  Our friend Beder said he saw no conflict between the church and their traditions.  It was the responsibility of the curaca to convene these festivals.

Volleyball at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Volleyball at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While it is not unique to this particular culture, one of the things that I most appreciate about being in Brillo Nuevo is the strong sense of community here.  There isn’t perfect social harmony, but day after day I’ve men and women gathering to play vigorous games of volleyball over threadbare nets strung on wooden poles.  Kids love to play soccer almost any time they are not in school – particularly while it’s raining when they can slide for their body length in the mud.  Family members are in and out of each other’s home all day long, and friends have seamless contact with each other as they wander from one end of the village to the other carrying water, share songs in church, or pass each other in their boats going fishing.  Our life in a small city in the U.S. where social etiquette requires that parents call parents to arrange for their children to play together for two hours five days hence would seem unbearably strange to my friends here.

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