Tag Archives: Amazon River

Visions of Rosewood Oil and Ayahuasca

July 20, 2012

After my presentation to the Grand Valley University students at the Rainforest Conservation Fund lodge near Chino, one of their Peruvian field assistants gave me a golden tip – the name and phone number of a fellow from Tamshiyacu whose group had produced some oil from “palo de rosa” rosewood. We couldn’t get anyone at this number for a couple of days so Yully and I decided to take a rapido there and see if we could find Weninger Vasquez or someone else who could tell us about this operation.

Elbita Tangoa Pinedo with maraca. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Elbita Tangoa Pinedo with maraca. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Yully knew about another Vasquez in this town so we went there first. By luck Weninger’s house was next door. His wife told us he wasn’t involved with the rosewood project anymore, but she told us that another man who lived down by the cemetery might be able to help us. Juan wasn’t home, but while we waited for his daughter to fetch him, his wife pulled out several bags of handicrafts and passed them to us one by one to inspect (and hopefully buy). I passed on the carvings but got one nice maraca and a few pashaca seed necklaces.

Juan was very happy to receive us and share 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 the Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP), a group of ten residents collected and germinated seeds from some of the remnant trees and planted about 7,000 seedlings in their forest properties. In meantime they collected enough material from some older trees to produce one liter of oil. They turned this over to IIAP and the university to analyze, but they never got any results.

Ayahuasca ceremony accessories. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Ayahuasca ceremony accessories. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

At this point Juan invited us to visit his property about 15 minutes away by motorcar where he had planted most of his rosewood seedlings. It was immediately apparent that Juan was a man of many talents. He raised some pineapple and his basic crops there and had a little building where he carved hunks of tawari and palo sangre wood into jaguars, snakes, eagles, and abstract human figures inspired by shamanic visions. There was a simple bunkhouse, eating area, and conical building where he led lodged, fed and guided guests in an ayahuasca ceremony. The sacred vines growing nearby showed that he prepared his potion from fresh material.

Double-snake design on Shipiba fabric. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Double-snake design on Shipiba fabric. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Ayahuasca vine at Juan's lodge. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Ayahuasca vine at Juan’s lodge. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Juan Silvano with young rosewood tree. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Juan Silvano with young rosewood tree. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

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 followed IIAP’s recommendation for a time to prune them so they wouldn’t grow taller than four meters – a nice height to keep the top leaves and branches within easy reach for harvesting. Juan had learned the importance of pruning the branches in the right way since poor technique caused unnecessary damage to the tree.

IIAP showed renewed interest in the project 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 again failed to offer any concrete way for them to make or sell any rosewood oil.

Putting palo de rosa leaves in bag at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Putting palo de rosa leaves in bag at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

The most recent glimpse of hope to use this resource came two years ago when a French woman came to the area with a plan to create multiple types of fragrant essential oils. While the group had only been able to process up to five kilograms of plant material in the distillation apparatus belonging to IIAP, this woman supposedly had a unit with at least ten times this capacity. For a year she had periodically bought batches of 300 kg. of leaves and branches from the five remaining active members of the group, but their plan for longer-term cooperation stalled when they failed to reach an agreement about how to pay for the association’s renewed registration. Juan heard that one of their members had sold several hectares of his land fully stocked with the young rosewood trees to her and left the area so she may be producing oil on her own now. Yully will try to track her and the last IIAP advisor to this project down so we can get the full story from their side.

Rosewood tree pruning scar and new branch. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Rosewood tree pruning scar and new branch. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

After this recent opportunity fell away, even Juan stopped maintaining his young rosewood trees. It was easy to see where top branches that now topped 6-7 meters emerged from the last pruning scar. There is still time to bring them back into a tighter management system for leaf production, but if he can’t convert the leaves to oil, he is content to let them grow into large trees for the future. He has clear fondness for this tree, though, since he recently planted a few new rosewood seedlings near his lodge.

Even if a large-scale project doesn’t materialize, Juan would like to make some oils on his own using the clean water from the stream that passes through his land. He once made some oils from several medicinal plants with a borrowed distillation unit and put them in old (and well cleaned) medicine vials he got from a friend at the hospital.

Campbell and Juan Silvano at Tamshiyacu lodge. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

Campbell and Juan Silvano at Tamshiyacu lodge. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE


Yully and I came away knowing that Juan would be a valuable advisor for the development of our rosewood oil project at Brillo Nuevo since he knew so much about what it takes to grow the trees, harvest the raw material and turn them into fragrant rosewood oil. We now needed to learn a lot more about different strategies for marketing the product. Ideally we could figure out a way to get started with Juan’s group and then expand to include the Brillo Nuevo group when they are ready.

Pinneapples ready for shipment at Tamshiyacu. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Pinneapples ready for shipment at Tamshiyacu. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

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Vagaries of the Shifting Amazon

June 25, 2102

While Yully and her husband Victor zipped off on his motorcycle to get a few last minute supplies, I wandered into the modestly appointed Bar La Rejita just outside the main gate to Puerto de Pescadores. My request for a small beer didn’t seem to compute with the waitress, so she just brought me a 650 ml (about 22 oz) bottle of Barena that was the cheapest (3 soles – about $1.15). To my right were three men engaged in animated conversation who filled and emptied their glasses in quick succession. I was more interested by a pair of fellows on my other side who shared one bottle, one glass and even fewer words. One man took periodic sips until the golden liquid was gone. He then poured the remaining suds back into the bottle and handed the glass to his mate across the table. When they moved onto their second bottle, they deposited their residual into the first. As the time for my lancha’s departure neared, I offered the remaining third of my bottle to this pair. Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked one of the men if their ritual had any particular meaning. He smiled and just said it was a custom between his friend and him.

Hammock deck on the Lucho

Hammock deck on the Lucho. Photo by C.Plowden/CACE

Settled into our little cabin on the Lucho, Yully and I discussed how we wanted to handle the first set of “premios” (prizes) for artisans from Brillo Nuevo. We had encouraged these women to form their own quality control committee, but many of them didn’t like getting feedback on their work from artisans outside their family. Noting the community’s gusto for its competition for the best “juane” (a pyramidal shaped block of rice with meat and condiments), I had asked the group last summer if they would welcome prizes recognition for their craft making as a different kind of incentive for careful and creative work. Based on their enthusiastic response, I had prepared certificates for each artisan whose products had sold above a certain amount; Yully and I also decided to award prizes for distinction in sales, design, and cooperation. We also wanted to give one for conservation, but couldn’t yet define proper criteria for this category.

After having some fried fish and platanos for dinner, Yully and I retreated to our bunks to listen to our MP3 players and drift to sleep expecting to arrive at Pebas sometime the next morning. Wandering onto deck around dawn I wondered why we were stopped far from the nearest bank with no settlement in sight. This answer was simple; we were grounded on a hidden mud bank. We in fact had run aground near the mouth of the Napo River around midnight only three hours after leaving port. The Amazon River is always a dynamic channel, but this year’s heavy flow contorted it more than usual. The spring rains hadn’t seemed particularly heavy. Many speculated the river’s swelling was due to greater snow melt in the Andes – perhaps due to a warming climate.

Baron lancha pushing Lucho off a mud bank

Baron lancha pushing Lucho off a mud bank. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Another lancha eventually arrived to help dislodge us. The Baron was smaller and less powerful than ours, but its shallower draft at least made it less likely to getting stuck as well. After several hours of revving our engines and sideways pushes on our stern, the Lucho eased off the bank to deeper water. Yully and I used the ten hour delay to get some more work done on our laptops, but it might require compressing the rest of our itinerary.

Amazon town

Amazon town. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

After passing by the series of little towns on the north bank of the Amazon, we finally got to Pebas just before sunset. We had originally hoped to make it to Brillo Nuevo that day, but knowing it wouldn’t be safe traveling so far up river in the dark, we transferred our big bags to the “hospedaje” (little hotel) just beyond the bridge to the floating dock. It only had one room available, so I packed up my toiletries and blanket to find lodging elsewhere. Yully advised against going back to Hostel Arcely where we had stayed in February since she had encountered a greater than usual number of rats there in her most recent visit. I got a basic but clean enough room at a place in the center of town. The only downside was that its common roof with a restaurant next door offered no barrier to the loud music, dancing, and other sounds of merriment emanating from its patrons celebrating the finale of the Festival of San Juan. I appreciated my hotel’s owner offer to move me to another room a few doors down the hall.

Cindy Alicia menu

Cindy Alicia menu. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Yully and I bought sundry food items to supplement our artisan prizes and then had dinner at the Polleria Cindy Alicia, our favorite (not quite the only) restaurant in Pebas named after the owners’ daughters. You get to choose either 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 or a full roasted chicken with your choice of either French fries, fried plantains or fried rice. The choice(s) of beverage tonight was Coke and ……Coke since they were out of the other Peruvian favorite Inca Cola (now also owned by the Coca-Cola company). Somewhat numb from our trip, Yully and I focused on our bird, dipped our potatoes in mayo and ketchup (quite sweet for my taste), and half-watched a dubbed version of Bourne Supremacy playing on the TV with Cindy and Alicia parked in front of the set.

It felt good to lie down for the night once I found the right position to minimize feeling the wooden slats below the thin mattress. While a rooster had been my early morning nemesis at the Hostal Arecely, I woke up around 3 am this morning to the lustful calls of the hotel’s skinny orange and white tabby in heat. I dozed for an hour before conceding this round to the cat and got up to write and edit photos until dawn.

game meat vendors in Pebas

Game meat vendors in Pebas. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

I made my way to my favorite juice bar run by a husband and wife couple at the public market. Breakfast consisted of a toasted egg sandwich and two tall glasses of a “jugo sortido” (mixed juice smoothie) that included fresh papaya, banana, pineapple, and orange. Bits of a beet gave it a deep pink color. While waiting for Yully to pick me up, I chatted with another couple across the aisle who sold game meat at their stall. I’ve seen large land turtles there before. This morning they were displaying organs, haunches, and legs of a jungle deer (mostly identified with the two-toed hoof) and a paca (medium large spotted rodent). Their young daughter periodically waved a stick with a bit of pink ribbon over the bloody hunks to shoo off the flies. Commerce in wild animals is technically illegal, but it provides an important source of income for many native men and is openly accepted in such places as well as the big market in Iquitos.

Oscar and Ena loading peque-peque in Pebas.

Oscar and Ena loading peque-peque in Pebas. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Yully and Oscar, our local project coordinator from Brillo Nuevo, finished their errands so we carefully carted our bags down the steep steps and slippery mud flat to his motor-canoe where his wife Ena was waiting. She looked very tired, but her malaise had more to do with her slow recovery from a recent bout of malaria than lack of sleep. We had earlier bumped into another woman artisan from Brillo Nuevo, walking through Pebas whose face was so pale; her eyes also showed the fatigue of the debilitating disease. Ena and Amalia were far from alone.

Another consequence of the prolonged river rise in the final months of this year’s rainy season was that virtually every village in the region had abnormally high and prolonged flooding. People living near the rivers almost always build their homes on stilts, but this year many moved to a second story if they had one or abandoned their houses altogether for higher ground if they didn’t. Many crops were wiped out to the extent that the federal government had to send in food aide to curb starvation. As the waters receded, the shallow ponds left in their wake around their homes created ideal breeding habitat for mosquitoes. Malaria reached epidemic proportions, and the rural health authorities were pushed to their limit doing blood tests and giving out pills to treat it.

Everyone agrees that are several important ways to reduce the risk of contracting malaria. These include trying to limit one’s exposure to mosquitoes – primarily by trying to stay protected during the few hours around dawn and dusk when they are most active and sleeping under some kind of netting at night. There is a major difference of opinion among health authorities, however, about the role of chemical prophylaxis. Travel clinics and doctors from the north firmly urge people going into areas with malaria to take one of several types of pills that supposedly make it difficult or impossible for the malaria parasite to survive in a person’s system. Doctors and many other people who live here, however, say that this type of prevention is counter-productive. They say that these pills in fact do not stop a person from contracting malaria if they are bitten by a mosquito carrying it. It only diminishes or masks the symptoms and actually makes it harder to definitively diagnose its presence. Consequently many people who take such pills get the parasite but only start to feel its effects some weeks after exposure. Taking the pills for a month after being in a high-risk area is supposed to deal with this concern, but there is still a sharp north-south split about this practice.

I don’t know which side is right, but if I know I’m going to be in an area where malaria is a moderate risk, I take the pills. I prefer not to go into an area where the risk is considered high. Some researchers seem to recount their bouts with malaria and other exotic tropical disease with some degree of pride. This is one kind of experience common to many in the Amazon and other tropical regions that I would be quite happy to never share.

Yully Rojas and Ena Chichaco climbing stairs at Puca Uquillo

Yully Rojas and Ena Chichaco climbing stairs at Puca Uquillo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

We finally got underway in Oscar’s peque-peque just after 8 am and made a brief stop at Puca Urquillo to check in with FECONA – the native federation representing the 14 villages in the Ampiyacu region. In the past month, the river level had dropped considerably and its pull on water-saturated earth steadily erodes man-made structures. Yully, Ena and I had to climb up fractured cement steps barely suspended by exposed pieces of rebar. Several years ago, a whole section of the sidewalk leading into the village had collapsed into a mini-ravine.
The FECONA president wasn’t around, but we left word with one of her colleagues that we would return in a week. Ena completed her mission of dropping off a bag of chambira fiber ready for weaving to a Bora friend.

We had a blessedly easy day of travel heading up the Yaguasyacu River to Brillo Nuevo. I put on sun screen and stretched out in the boat’s middle section. I sat comfortably on my folded fleece blanket, leaned against the padded back of my daypack, watched kingfishers darting about, and took in a collection of Stephen King stories through my MP3 player. I love the natural sounds of the jungle, but I prefer listening to a narrator telling a good story through earphones rather than soaking in the unrelenting roar of a diesel engine for five hours.

Amazon Biodiversity Teaser #3 – What type of animal could have an impact on the diversity of the Amazon rain forest?

Question: Which type of animal could have an ecological impact on the abundance and diversity of the Amazon rain forest?

Answer Choices:

A) Fish

B) Snakes

C) Frogs

D) Butterflies

Click HERE for answer, explanation, and links.

Amazon Biodiversity Teaser #3 – Answer

Question: Which type of animal could have an ecological impact on the abundance and diversity of the Amazon rain forest?

Answer Choices: A) Fish B) Snakes C) Frogs D) Butterflies









Correct Answer: A) Fish

Summary: Seed dispersers are crucial players in any forest ecosystem. Seed dispersal studies have traditionally focused on species of birds, bats, monkeys and rodents, but a new study by Jill T. Anderson of Duke University suggests that there could be a correlation between the populations of large fruit-eating Amazonian fish and the abundance and diversity of certain tree species in the Amazon rain forest. The fish involved in the study are the tambaqui and the pirapitinga (photo), both known as pacu fish, are massive fruit-eating fish that live in the Amazon River and its tributaries. The tambaqui have an average weight of about 33 pounds and the much larger pirapitinga are an average of 200 pounds each. These fish are classified as long-distance dispersers. They eat the seeds of trees that drop into the water and later drop them in a new place along the river. These fish are being overexploited by local fisherman and in turn the species are dropping in population. Dr. Anderson explains that a drop in these species’ populations could result in less abundance and diversity in the Amazon rain forest.

Source: FAO Non-Wood News 23rd Edition; Giant fish help the Amazon rain forest grow; November 2011; http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2455e/i2455e00.htm

Amazon Geography Teaser #7 – Answer

Question: The Amazon River accounts for what percentage of all fresh water entering the world’s oceans?

Answer Choices: A) 5% B) 10% C) 15% D) 20%








Correct Answer: D) 20%

Summary: On average, the Amazon River discharges about 1,300 cubic miles per year (that’s about 6 million cubic feet per second). This number is higher than the combined discharges of the next eight largest rivers, by volume. The United States’ largest river, the Mississippi, only discharges about 75 cubic miles per year. The peak of discharge for the Amazon comes between the months of November and March, during which the river can discharge up to 500 billion cubic feet of water into the Atlantic Ocean. This is comparable to the freshwater needs of all of New York City for nine whole years! This is also the same as filling the 102 floors of the Empire State Building with water and pouring it into the Atlantic… 13,500 times! Also, during the high water season, the mouth of the Amazon can be up to 300 miles wide, which is about the distance from Philadelphia, PA to Boston, MA.

Source: Monga Bay, Rhett Butler; http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/;
USGS, Earth’s water: Rivers and streams; http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/earthrivers.html

Amazon Geography Teaser #6 – What is the longest river in the world?

Question: Which do you believe is the longest river in the world?

Answer Choices:

A) Nile River

B) Yangtze River

C) Mississippi River

D) Amazon River

Click HERE for answer, explanation and links.

Amazon Geography Teaser #6 – Answer

Question: Which do you believe is the longest river in the world?

Answer Choices: A) Nile River B) Yangtze River C) Mississippi River D) Amazon River









Correct Answer: D) the Amazon River

Summary: Approximations of the length of the Amazon River usually fall between 3,900 miles and 4,100 miles. However, a recent study by Brazilian researchers has proposed a new source for the Amazon River on Mount Mismi in southern Peru which would make the Amazon River the longest river in the world at 4,250 miles. The Nile would be the next longest and is believed to be 4,160 miles long. The new proposed length could be contested and it is likely that there are many scientists who won’t agree but for the time being the Amazon is believed to be the longest river in the world. In addition to this length, about 1,100 tributaries of varying length and volume merge with the Amazon River at different locales. These rivers provide freshwater, food, and transportation routes for the many inhabitants of the region, both human and animal. One of the most astonishing features of the Amazon River system is the “Meeting of Waters” located where the dark Rio Negro meets the silty Amazon River. Overall, the rivers that flow through the Amazon Basin account for almost one-fifth of all free-flowing fresh water on earth. See the online source listed below for the whole article and maps showing the proposed new source.

A portion of the Kayapo River, an Amazon River tributary.

Source: Monga Bay; NASA maps newly proposed source of the Amazon River; July 3, 2007; http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0703-amazon.html