Tag Archives: chambira

Bringing artisans together and getting out of the way

Ampiyacu skill-sharing workshop. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ampiyacu skill-sharing workshop. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

One of CACE’s most successful programs working with artisans in the Ampiyacu River region has been to organize skill-sharing workshops where five or six veteran artisans show other artisans how to make a new special kind of handicraft.  While these workshops have steadily increased the number of native artisans who know how to make CACE’s best-selling models of hot pads, belts, guitar straps, and Christmas tree ornaments, we and our partners recognize that they also needed to become better organized to fully use this growing capacity to make and sell more high-quality crafts.

We did done some leadership training workshops with the Field Museum in 2014, but progress in this area has been slow.  I had told the Ampiyacu native artisans about several groups of campesino artisans along the Tahuayo River that had successfully formed associations and a community enterprise to improve their craft sales, and they seemed enthusiastic about meeting them to learn from their experiences.

Chino artisan Sartia with chambira basket. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chino artisan Sartia with chambira basket. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While CACE has focused a lot of resources organizing workshops and other activities in the Ampiyacu, our relationship with the Tahuayo communities has been much simpler.  I have visited the village of Chino once or twice a year since 2008 to buy the beautiful chambira baskets they make primarily to sell to visitors from a nearby tourist lodge operated by Amazonia Expeditions (AE).  We have also worked with them to develop a colorful line of woven frog Christmas tree ornaments.

Exiles with new bathroom for Chino school. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Exiles with new bathroom for Chino school. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

As CACE has sold products made by the Chino artisans, we have regularly returned part of our profits to support local development needs. Unlike the Ampiyacu where discussions about the use of this social rebate have often been contentious, Chino village meetings have openly discussed all ideas presented, and quickly and amiably reached consensus about the best way to use the funds available.  These projects have included buying new desks and building a new bathroom for the school, buying medicines for the village pharmacy, and providing food for work parties to care for chambira palms used to make woven crafts.  When I asked Estelita, the president of the Chino artisan association whether I could bring along a few guests from the Ampiyacu on my next visit, she readily agreed.

Our two Ampiyacu artisans were Liz C., president of FECONA – the federation that represents the 15 native communities in the Ampiyacu watershed and Segundina, a savvy artisan chosen by 20 Bora artisans from Brillo Nuevo to represent them during this artisan exchange trip.  We left Iquitos early on a Saturday morning on a speed boat belonging to the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF) – an NGO partner that has been working to improve forest and human health in the Tahuayo region for many years.  Our drivers were RCF staffers Gerardo and Exiles who coordinate RCF community programs to reforest depleted populations of aguaje palm trees and train people to climb the trees with harnesses to collect their popular fruits rather than cut them down.

We bought some extra gas and water in the town of Tamshiyacu and passed the small lancha that takes 10 to 12 hours (instead of our four) to ferry local residents, bags of charcoal, sacks of aguaje and camu camu fruits and crates of fish from Tahuayo villages to market in Iquitos.  We briefly stopped once more at the village of Buena Vista where fellow American Matt (a student working with RCF) and I checked in with the police manning the official entry point to the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Regional Conservation Area.  We arrived in Chino in the early afternoon and were distressed to find that our host Estelita was laying sick in her hammock barely able to speak.  The other artisans assured us, however, that we were welcome.

Campbell inspecting chambira baskets in Chino. Photo by Matt VanderMolen/CACE

Campbell inspecting chambira baskets in Chino. Photo by Matt VanderMolen/CACE

After getting settled in the guest house formerly operated by RCF two minutes upriver, we returned to Chino to inspect the group of baskets that the Chino artisans had made to fill the CACE order.  In the past I had bought all of my baskets there at a “feria” – a fair where every artisan in the cooperative would place all of the crafts she had available for sale on a table in front of her.  This is the way that they also sell their products to tourists visiting from the AE lodge.  I had bought over 400 baskets with unique designs this way, but I had found that the styles and quality of baskets had changed a lot from visit to visit over the past eight years.  Sometimes for better; sometimes for worse.  In order to develop a reliable supply of consistent quality baskets, I had sent photos of 32 models of baskets that we have sold asking the artisans to make one to three more of these specific designs.

The artisans had readily complied with our request to make more medium and small baskets since our customers had continued to admire but had been buying fewer of the more expensive large ones.   I had also asked the artisans to make the baskets using the same colors as the models showed in the photos without using the seeds they used in the past to use to adorn the baskets since they might harbor insect pests.  The seeds of “ojo de vaca” (cow’s eye) had a large deep brown center with a black rim.  Huayruru seeds were naturally orange with a black patch in one corner of their oblong shape.  Rosario seeds were a medium-sized grey pearl, and achira seeds were small black spheres.  These seeds were readily available, cheap, and had distinct shapes, sizes and colors that provided beautiful accents to the woven chambira baskets.  As I began to inspect the new baskets, I immediately spotted a big problem.  Finding good substitutes for the seeds had proven more challenging than I thought.

Chambira basket with ojo de vaca, huayruru and rosario seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira basket with ojo de vaca, huayruru and rosario seeds. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira basket with wooden beads. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira basket with wooden beads. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Some artisans in the Tahuayo have gotten used to using wooden and other types of beads to finish their baskets for a separate export channel, so I didn’t think it would be a problem to do the same for our order.  The Chino artisans, however, had just made due with whatever beads they had on hand to complete the CACE order in three weeks.  I learned that these beads were not cheap and were difficult or impossible to buy in Iquitos.  Some of the beads the artisans used were beautiful matches; others led to horrible clashes of colors and poor fits in open spaces.

I was still feeling weak and sick from my second trip to the Ampiyacu so I welcomed Segundina’s help to figure out how to handle this challenge.  In this situation, some buyers simply say “this order is rejected because these products don’t meet our specifications.”  We have worked hard, however, to establish trust in our relationships with our artisan partners.  We acknowledge that while their job is to make quality crafts; CACE needs to recognize their reality which sometimes means admitting that we have asked them to do something that just wasn’t possible.  We all need to be flexible and figure out the best solution available.

Segundina giving pointers to Pilar about basket color and finish. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Segundina giving pointers to Pilar about basket color and finish. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

In this case, I was fortunately able to offer some useful resources because I had stopped in Lima on my first day in Peru.  After an exhaustive search of a market area focused on craft-related products, I had found one shop that sold a wide variety of painted wooden beads and huassai seeds (not a kind that hosts any insects).  They were out of several colors that I had wanted, but I had at least been able to bring a good assortment of medium-sized colored beads to Chino.

Segundina and I inspected all 70 baskets and placed them into one of three piles: acceptable, acceptable if the beads were changed, and not acceptable if the chambira weaving or color was too poor to fix.  Segundina asked Romelia, “Do you have any more of these large tagua beads?  They would nicely accent the orange ring in this basket.”  She asked Rosa, “Could you replace these pink beads with purple ones in these middle rows – they would go really well with the violet center of the basket.”  She patiently explained to Pilar, “Your weaving is good, but the intensity of the color needs to be a lot stronger.”  What amazed me and Segundina was that while she had come to Chino as an outsider to observe and learn, the Chino artisans readily recognized her as a fellow artisan with a keen eye and welcomed her suggestions for ways they could improve their work.

Flooded "chacra" (farm field) at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Flooded “chacra” (farm field) at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The Ampiyacu artisans soon got to see and hear how the Chino artisans have persisted through many tough times, particularly the ebb and flow of visiting tourists and river levels.  The flux in tourism produces alternating seasons with good income and almost no income from craft sales.  Extreme floods in these villages have sometimes killed most of their chambira palm trees and farm crops.   Some artisans have left the village so their families could seek more income or better education for their children in the city. The Chino artisans have survived simply because they have learned to trust each other, work together, and have the support of their whole community.

Romelia sewing in new beads to basket. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Romelia sewing in new beads to basket. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Estelita rallied from her hammock to share the history of the Chino artisans with their new friends from the Ampiyacu.  “Long ago we had a few women who had learned how to weave chambira in other places, but Dolly (co-owner of the AE lodge) inspired us to learn how to make baskets the tourists would like and to get organized.  We worked with the name “Huacamayo (macaw) Association” for a long-time, but when we decided to formally register our group, this name was taken, so we are now officially called, “Manos Amazonicos” (Amazon Hands).  In the beginning, some of our husbands seemed threatened by the idea of women working together and potentially making more money than them.  Fortunately, this has now completely changed.  The men in Chino recognize that selling crafts generates a very important source of income for the whole village.  Everyone also appreciates that selling crafts to CACE has helped our school and other things in our community.”

Milda from Puca Urquillo with woven hot pads. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Milda from Puca Urquillo with woven hot pads. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Later in the evening, I showed the Chino artisans pictures of the diverse crafts that the Ampiyacu artisans have been making with us.  Norma remarked, “Wow, those placemats are beautiful!  I bet making a belt so straight is not easy.”  Liz and Segundina nodded in agreement.  Madita said, “I’ve made a few bottle carriers before, but they haven’t sold so well.  Now I think I know how to make them better.  I’m sure the tourists who visit here will love them!”  After closely watching the Chino artisans make baskets all day, Segundina said, “When I go back to Brillo Nuevo, I’m going to try making a basket adapting the base of a hot pad.  I don’t need to copy the patterns here – I’ve got my own ideas.”

 

I had been reluctant to share images of one community’s unique crafts with artisans from another region for a long time because I had thought it was important to respect each community’s creativity.  I learned during this trip that while my desire to respect each group’s intellectual output was well-intentioned, trying to keep these groups a part was restricting their collective creative potential.

Chambira basket with etched bird calabash pod center. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira basket with etched bird calabash pod center. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

This visit not only sparked ideas for ways that each group of artisans might improve their respective crafts but generated a proposal for a collaborative handicraft project.  In the past, a few Chino artisans have etched wildlife figures onto calabash pods that have been woven into the center of baskets.  They were great when done well, but many baskets which were beautifully woven seemed spoiled when their centers were adorned with mediocre carvings.

While committed weavers could improve their carving, they are unlikely to get as much practice refining this craft as the handful of Ampiyacu artisans who are now producing hundreds of gorgeous carved calabash pod ornaments with a range of Amazon birds, mammals, frogs and fish for CACE.  We will now ask these carvers to see if they would like to produce four to five inch wide carved pieces that Chino artisans can sew into some of their chambira baskets.

Estelita measuring chambira basket length. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Estelita measuring chambira basket length. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The next day, the Chino artisans stacked up their finished baskets on a table where Estelita measured each one to make sure its size and price were correctly recorded on the tag and in her ledger.  She told one artisan, “this basket is half a centimeter less than its proper length; you can’t get full price for it.  Please pay better attention to the standard sizes.”  Liz and Segundina were stunned to see how the Chino artisans had direct responsibility for quality control and agreed to consistent pricing among their members.  Segundina said, “My fellow artisans often criticize each other, but they find it hard to ask for and accept suggestions for ways to make their crafts better.  We have to figure out how to encourage and trust each other to improve our quality and hold each other accountable; this will help all of us.” Liz added, “When tourists come to my village, they often shop from house to house because some artisans try to undercut their prices to make a sale. We have to get on the same page so everyone gets a fair price for making the best crafts.”

Campbell with artisans in front of Chino "Escuela de artesanas." Photo by Matt VanderMolen/CACE

Campbell with artisans in front of Chino “Escuela de artesanas.” Photo by Matt VanderMolen/CACE

One highlight of the visit was visiting the new “Escuela de artesanas” – the artisan school under construction in Chino.  After major floods destroyed the last simple building the artisans used to sell their crafts to tourists, the artisans decided they needed a larger and stronger building where they could gather to dye their chambira with roots, fruits, leaves and bark and weave their crafts under one roof.  They could then demonstrate these traditional techniques to visiting tourists – giving them a more personal experience and incentive to buy the crafts offered for sale.

The ability to work together will also help the Chino artisans improve the consistency of their work by using the same batch of colored chambira to make multiple baskets with the same design.  The structure built with sturdy wooden beams, cement and rebar was progressing, but costs had surpassed donated funds available from Amazonia Expeditions.  I was glad that CACE was able to contribute the most recent batch of our social rebate funds from our sale of baskets and frog ornaments to help complete this worthy effort.  I was sorry that we were going to miss helping out in the big village work party set to happen the next day to get the walls and roof up.

Chino artisan Yermeth with woven frog ornaments. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chino artisan Yermeth with woven frog ornaments. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

As we headed back to Iquitos at dawn on Monday, Segundina told me, “I can’t wait to get home to share everything that I’ve learned on this trip with my fellow artisans.  I didn’t believe you when you kept saying that the artisans at Chino cared so much about each other and cooperated so well.  Now, I know you were telling the truth.  These women are really inspiring, and we need to learn from them.”

Perhaps my best reward of this trip was seeing Segundina and Estelita hug and exchange phone numbers when they parted.  That instant confirmed that bringing these dynamic artisans together was the right thing to do.  CACE is now thinking about launching a region-wide school for artisan leadership to promote more of this kind of exchange.  We also just need to know when to get out of the way.

To support this project, please vist: www.AmazonAlive.net.

To find the village of Chino and the Ampiyacu native communities on a map, visit CACE Field Sites in Peru.

Blue headed parrot (double-image) at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Blue headed parrot (double-image) at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

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Listening to artisans in the Ampiyacu

Angelina Torres and her family of artisans in the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Angelina Torres and her family of artisans in the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The Center for Amazon Community Ecology aims to promote conservation, create sustainable livelihoods and build stronger communities in the Peruvian Amazon by helping native and mestizo artisans to develop and market innovative handicrafts and novel essential oils.

We began working with the Bora community of Brillo Nuevo as a pilot project site in the Ampiyacu River area in 2009.  In recent years we have organized skill-sharing workshops so veteran artisans can teach others how to make new kinds of crafts.  This growth in the number and skill of partner artisans as well as our increasing capacity to market their crafts has allowed us to gradually expand our program to eight of the fifteen villages represented by the native federation in the region.

CACE intern measuring chambira yield with Bora artisan at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

CACE intern measuring chambira yield with Bora artisan at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Surveys done in the field with artisans have given us an idea about the current stocks of chambira palm trees and the amount of palm fiber needed to make different types of crafts.  While our general goal has been to continue building artisan capacity to make and sell more quality handicrafts, the GlobalGiving Feedback Fund has given us a valuable opportunity to ask our partners about their economic realities and dreams, and how making more crafts with our without our assistance could help them achieve their goals.

With assistance from GlobalGiving staff and a team of international affairs students studying monitoring and evaluation at the New School, we designed a survey to ask artisans to respond to questions in four areas: sources of family income, expenses, assets, education levels, personal and family goals, and handicraft production.

We contracted Peruvian videographer Tulio Davila to conduct the survey because he was well known and trusted by the artisans due to his previous work with them in workshops and making instructional videos.  In the course of two weeks, Tulio spent an average of one hour speaking with 18 artisans from three villages – about one third of the artisans we routinely work with.

CACE paying Bora artisan for woven hot pad at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

CACE paying Bora artisan for woven hot pad at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We learned a lot from this first round of surveys.  It’s been obvious from the beginning that our partners don’t have much money; this survey gave us a sense of the upper and lower range of income in the village and how important selling crafts is to many families.  It was also interesting to learn that CACE is the major craft buyer from some artisans and a minor one for others.  We had assumed artisans wanted to sell more, but asking them to describe their goals for one year and five years gave them a chance to set craft production targets and showed us how many more crafts we would need sell to help artisans meet their goals.

Two-story house in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Two-story house in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Learning how artisans spend their limited income now and what they want more for has given us valuable insights into their evolving expectations and aspirations.  In the past, people wanted enough money to buy a few basic items (like soap, salt and kerosene) to supplement their subsistence lifestyles.  As access to electricity increases through wider use of gasoline generators and connections to power lines from cities, lighting, TV, and DVD players have become common.  Many people now want bigger houses, bigger boats and engines, chain saws, refrigerators, and nicer clothes.  A few want to raise fish, raise cattle or expand the size of their fields.  Some goals are focused on increasing their means to increase income while others describe the amenities they could get with more money.

Confirming that our partners have materialistic aspirations was not surprising but revealed something important.  While artisans are well aware of the challenges, most families want to at least try to stay and improve their standard of living in their remote villages.  Recognizing this has significant implications for our work and forest conservation.  One is that we need to try and help our partners increase their income from sustainable enterprises even more than we had expected.  Their desire to make money is growing, and it may not matter much if the way they attempt to do so is illegal or damages the forest.

Bora children playing at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora children playing at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The stakes for success seem higher in another way we hadn’t considered before.  Families have often worked hard to help their children learn a professional trade so they can build a life outside the village, but it seems the trickle of entire families leaving the villages is increasing.  Adults want to get regular and higher paying work, and they want their children to attend higher quality grade schools.  This emigration threatens to create a downward spiral in local development because the regional government will close down secondary schools if their enrollment drops below a minimum number of students.  If the villages at the frontier of the forest continue to shrink, there will be fewer and fewer people with a vested interest in keeping the forest intact to support their low-impact lifestyles. This will leave the forests more vulnerable to predatory exploitation by outsiders.

The other types of lessons we learned from this first survey were that questions need to be asked in a way that matches peoples’ normal frames of reference.  We initially thought that since most people do not keep any records about their earnings or expenses, we would get the most accurate responses by asking people to provide monthly “averages” for certain sources of income or types of things they paid for.  It turned out that the artisans we spoke with had the best overall recall when asked about the previous six months of economic activity combined.

Bora artisan with daughters and woven bag in Puca Urquillo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora artisan with daughters and woven bag in Puca Urquillo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Our imprecise phrasing of one question greatly slanted its perceived meaning.  We expected that many families would say that a key long-term goal would be to provide a better education for their children.  A few did express this, but this response may have been low because our question unintentionally seemed to ask them to mention concrete objects they could buy like a TV or chain saw rather services they might need to pay for like school tuition.  We corrected these issues before carrying out a second round of interviews.

Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo making chambira palm fiber bracelet. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo making chambira palm fiber bracelet. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While artisan surveys provided thoughtful and insightful answers about their goals, the amounts of time, material and money they thought they would need to achieve these goals often seemed based on imprecise and unrealistic estimates and faulty basic math.  The message to us is clear.  Artisans need to continue mastering their craft, but we also need to help them better understand the quantitative aspects of managing trees, processing fibers, and selling crafts.  We have done studies that provide solid data about these issues.  Our next task is to teach the artisans how to derive and work with these numbers on their own.  This will be a critical step toward truly empowering them to improve their lives and safeguard the forests.

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.

Ines – the laughing and feisty artisan from Brillo Nuevo – July 27, 2015

Ines lighting copal incense

Ines lighting copal incense. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

I first became aware of Ines during my second visit to the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo in 2009 because she was enthusiastic about everything.  When we first tried to make incense candles from copal resin, she immediately got her hands blackened with the burnt sticky stuff and suggested they might look nice in the half-shells of macambo fruit pods.  She pulled me aside, though, and said, “You know these are really pretty ugly.”  I said, “I know,” and she burst out laughing.

Ines and Graciela drawing snake patterns

Graciela and Ines drawing snake patterns for belts. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ines is a quintessential artisan from the Peruvian Amazon.  She said, “I live by selling bags and hammocks made from chambira palm that I cultivate in my fields.”  While meeting with artisans in a Brillo Nuevo classroom to discuss weaving new products to expand their income, Ines jumped at the chance to go the blackboard to draw the patches and wavy lines of a cascabel (tropical rattlesnake) as a design for a woven snake-pattern belt.

Ines weaving belt with cats eating fish 800 px

Ines weaving cascabel pattern belt with cats. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Ines soon welcomed me into her home while making the prototype on her hand-made loom with her two cats munching on a little fish in front.  Ines’ voice stood out in the animated mélange of Spanish and Bora of artisans discussing their creations and her distinct laugh could mark her location more than a soccer field away.

Ines grating mishquipanga montage

Ines grating mishquipanga fruits to dye chambira fiber. Photos by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Over the past six years, we have shared many adventures, triumphs and challenges with Ines.  She showed us how she grew, collected, and prepared half a dozen plants used to dye chambira palm fiber various shades of yellow, orange, red and deep purple and then dyed my silvery hair black with roasted leaves from a huito tree.  She has proudly showed us new styles of bags and guitar strap designs that she invented and readily shared these with her fellow artisans in skill-sharing workshops.

Ines dying CP hair with huito 800 px

Ines dyeing Campbell’s hair with huito leaf mash. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

Ines’ hard work made her the most prolific craft maker with CACE.  She once told me, “I really like working with your project because it has given me a chance to create new kinds of crafts and improve the quality of my weaving.  The extra income has allowed me to help my sons study at a better school.”

Amrit and Ines with certificate

CACE volunteer Amrit and Ines with certificate. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Giving Ines an award for being the top-selling artisan in her community, though, first generated more resentment than accolades from her peers.  One evening, she came to talk and began to cry. “My sisters and I love working with your project, but we are thinking of dropping out because people can be so mean.”

I soon met with other artisan leaders and families to hear their view of the situation.  They had said they wanted us to give certificates to artisans according to their sales and give small prizes as incentives for doing extra good work.  Did they want us to stop?  We wouldn’t continue the practice if it was going to stimulate jealousy and weaken rather than build their community.  One artisan Gisela said, “We really do like the certificates because they give us pride about our success.  The prizes are good as well, but don’t ask us to select any winners.”

Casilda Vasquez with TP028

Casilda with chambira hot pad. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Since that meeting, some things have gotten better, and we have had to face new challenges.  Over the past few years, providing some soda and snacks at the award ceremony, applauding and taking a picture with every winner has made this a fun and more mutually supportive event.  When we announced that Ines was the top-seller again, one artisan Casilda said, “I knew that was coming, but it’s OK, I’m going to keep making more crafts myself.”

I’ve also learned that while Ines has a big heart, she can also be a tough cookie.  During one recent artisan meeting, we were talking about ways to encourage artisans to plant more chambira palms when suddenly Ines and another artisan leader began yelling at each other.  Apparently our survey of chambira in their fields had reignited an old dispute about whose family had the rights to harvest plants in one small section of recovering forest.

Artisans playing crocodiles and frogs

Artisans playing “crocodiles and frog” during meeting at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The incident helped me realize that artisans’ periodic troubles cooperating may be rooted more in historical frictions in the community than personality clashes in the present.  We’ve been trying to bring people together in our project and navigate around hazards that appear like the tips of Amazon village icebergs.  I’m glad that we have at least won the trust of talented and caring and sometimes feisty artisans like Ines to help guide us.

Boost your support for Amazon conservation and communities

Give your support for Amazon conservation and communities a boost today with a donation to the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Donations made to CACE today after 9:00 am (EDT) through GlobalGiving at www.AmazonAlive.net will receive a 30% matching donation until matching funds run out.

If you live in Iquitos, Peru, please come meet CACE director Dr. Campbell Plowden and project manager Yully Rojas at the Dawn on the Amazon Café on Tuesday, March 24 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.

See photos below of a recent CACE artisan workshop, armadillo ornament, hot pad and belt made by artisans from Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo.

Bora artisan Rode R from Brillo Nuevo with a woven Shushupe snake model belt made in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan Rode R from Brillo Nuevo with a woven Shushupe snake model belt made in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan training workshop sponsored by CACE at Puca Urquillo with one group of particpants thanking GlobalGiving for their support of the project Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan training workshop sponsored by CACE at Puca Urquillo with one group of particpants thanking GlobalGiving for their support of the project Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan Milda Q from Puca Urquillo Bora with her hot pad made from chambira palm fiber in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan Milda Q from Puca Urquillo Bora with her hot pad made from chambira palm fiber in cooperation with CACE. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan Ines C with her woven armadillo ornament.. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora artisan Ines C with her woven armadillo ornament.. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Woven armadillo ornaments made by Bora and Huitoto artisans with Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Woven armadillo ornaments made by Bora and Huitoto artisans with Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Photo by Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Exploring a new partnership with Maijuna native communities

March 5, 2015

Maijuna boys in boat. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna boys in boat. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I just returned to Iquitos after a successful four day visit to the Maijuna native community of Nueva Vida in the Napo River region of the northern Peruvian Amazon. The main purpose of the trip was to meet their artisans and see if they wanted to work with CACE to develop and market several new models of handicrafts. I also wanted to explore the potential for harvesting copal resin with them and distilling it into fragrant essential oil as a new source of sustainable income for the village.

Campbell Plowden and Shebaco at Maijuna party in 2009.  Photo by German Perilla/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell Plowden and Shebaco at Maijuna party in 2009. Photo by German Perilla/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

My journey began with a speedboat ride at dawn from Iquitos to the Amazon River town of Mazan with my CACE videographer companion Tulio Davila. After stocking up on supplies, we eventually met up with our Maijuna guides Everest and his father Sebastian “Shebaco” Rios Ochoa.

Michael Gilmore discussing map with Maijuna in Nueva Vida (2009).  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Michael Gilmore discussing map with Maijuna in Nueva Vida (2009). Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I first met this friendly confident native leader through long-time Maijuna friend and CACE board member Michael Gilmore. We had danced together after a Maijuna federation congress in 2009, and he hosted me last summer in Sucusari when we conducted a quick search for copal trees near his village. I much appreciate that he gave me the name “Baiyiri” – the Maijuna word for copal.

Maijuna leader and elder photo at FECONAMAI congress 2009.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna leader and elder photo at FECONAMAI congress 2009. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Our original host for this visit was going to be Walter Perez from Nueva Vida, but on two days’ notice he had flown to Lima with two other Maijuna to meet with the Peruvian President. This was a critical meeting that marked the final hurdle to winning government approval for a regional protected area that would encompass the four main Maijuna villages in the Napo and Putumayo River region and the forest in between. This struggle to gain legal recognition for their traditional lands coincided with a multi-year battle against a road project that would go through the heart of it. I wished Walter well on his mission and was happy to have Shebaco with me again for mine.

Maijuna statue at Puerto Huaman. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna statue at Puerto Huaman. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Like many native groups, the Maijuna are striving to improve their standard of living and standing in modern Peruvian society and maintain certain aspects of their culture that give them pride and sustenance. The Maijuna were once called by the derogatory term “orejones” (big ears) because they had the custom of placing increasingly larger disks into their ear lobes. They gave up this practice a generation ago, but they embraced a program led by linguists from U.C. Berkeley that has reinvigorated the teaching and use of the Maijuna language by all generations.

Chambira palm fiber basket woven by Maijuna artisan.  Photo by Michael Gilmore

Chambira palm fiber basket woven by Maijuna artisan. Photo by Michael Gilmore

Half a dozen women from Nueva Vida learned how to make decorative baskets from chambira palm fiber that were similar to ones made by campesino artisans from the Tahuayo River, but their skills languished for several years because the workshop’s sponsors did not provide follow-up support to market any baskets they made. Since there was a new spark to this enterprise, Michael thought that this would be a propitious time to connect with these budding artisans.

Campbell Plowden discussing basket design with Maijuna artisan.  Photo by Tulio Davila/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell Plowden discussing basket design with Maijuna artisan. Photo by Tulio Davila/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Due to our late start from Mazan, we didn’t get into Nueva Vida in Shebaco’s peque-peque (motor canoe) until well after dark. After setting up our tents in our host’s main room and a quick supper of tuna fish and crackers, we went to sleep. My visit began in earnest the next morning by meeting almost the whole community. I spoke no Maijuna beyond my nickname, but showing and discussing a video of our handicraft project with other artisans quickly established a common language dealing with chambira palm fiber and other plants used in making woven crafts.

Maijuna artisans of Nueva Vida. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna artisans of Nueva Vida. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

There was no doubt they could make the kind of baskets we wanted, but it took a patient dialogue to sort through which dye plants they had available to make certain colors and which colors we should avoid using in our initial designs unless we wanted to provide artificial dyes from the city. Our discussion about pricing for the baskets was uncomfortable for a time because their scale was different than other villages we have bought similar products from.

Maijuna elder sleeping next to copal flame. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna elder sleeping next to copal flame. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

While the Maijuna were all familiar with the basic uses of copal resin – burning it for light or boiling it to caulk their canoes, they were fascinated to see and hear the stories about the intimate relationships that copal resin exuding from the trees has with various weevils, flies, ants and bees.

Maijuna harvesting copal at Nueva Vida.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna harvesting copal at Nueva Vida. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

For two days I accompanied Shebaco and rotating four-man teams from Nueva Vida to search for copal. We had most luck finding large fresh lumps on trees on or near the tops of little hills and spent the other half of our time slogging through swampy low lying areas.

Maijuna harvesting copal with machete lashed to pole. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna harvesting copal with machete lashed to pole. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Harvesting a lump was sometimes as simple as cutting it off with a machete at chest height. A team member lashed his machete to a pole and thrust the blade under lumps that were attached to the trunk ten to twenty feet from the ground. In a few cases, a spry Maijuna wrangled his way up a nearby small tree or vine to get at some lumps that were twice as high. Two men tried to catch the dislodged lumps below (in Tulio’s long-sleeve shirt the first day and an old cassava carrying bag on the second) while trying to keep dry resin bits from falling in their eyes.

Maijuna tossing copal lump down.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna tossing copal lump down. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The teams quickly adopted our protocol of not harvesting small fresh resin lumps so the weevils inside them could mature and stimulate more resin lumps in the future. They also understood that while they could take old black lumps back to their homes to stoke cooking fires, the dry odorless lumps were not worth distilling because they had lost most of their essential oil. We collected GPS points at all of the trees to aid in finding these trees again in five or six years and combine them with satellite landscape data to help identify other good sites for finding copal trees in more distant Maijuna forest areas.

Maijuna artisan Elena and dolphin ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Maijuna artisan Elena and dolphin ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Other highlights of my time in Nueva Vida included fishing with Shebaco and Everest and meeting Elena, an artisan who had woven a beautiful river dolphin as a sample keychain. After Tulio talked with her, I commissioned her on the spot to make fifteen more as Christmas tree ornaments. I was impressed that Tulio was able to sincerely engage with people who are understandably often very shy in this situation to become comfortable enough to share something about their craft making and other aspects of their lives. In the final hours of light, I was very happy to reach an agreement with the president of the artisan association about making an initial batch of baskets for us.

Yully Rojas measuring copal tree with Maijuna team.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Yully Rojas measuring copal tree with Maijuna team. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Our Nueva Vida hosts were accepting if circumspect in sharing their evaluation of our visit with us. Every community in this region has had multiple experiences with visitors from various groups coming in to pitch one project or another – many of which lack follow-up or don’t go well for other reasons so I understand why they temper their enthusiasm for a new venture until it proves worthwhile. I already felt a bond with Shebaco, but I was encouraged that several people from Nueva Vida asked me one and only one simple question: “When are you coming back?” So the dance has begun. I hope to see thirty beautiful baskets in three weeks as the next step.

Shebaco observing copal distillation in Iquitos. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Shebaco observing copal distillation in Iquitos. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Back in Iquitos, our project manager Yully set herself to the task right away of distilling the resin collected at Nueva Vida. It was great to learn that it shared the highest yield of essential oil we have produced so far from any region. Analyzing a sample of it will help determine its composition and commercial potential. If these aspects prove positive as well, the next step will be to formulate a management plan to guide the development of this local enterprise in the years to come.

Hello Peru rainy season

February 24 – Panama City airport

I’m excited to be leaving for Iquitos today. It will be in the middle of the rainy season when both tasty Amazon fruits and mosquitoes (with and without malaria) are abundant. I’m ready, though, because I get to spend a whole month away from the coldest winter I remember after living in central Pennsylvania for almost 20 years. The snow has been pretty, but repeatedly freezing my fingers and toes while shoveling my and a neighbor’s driveway has grown tiresome.

Squirrel on snowy porch in Pennsylvania. Photo by Campbell Plowden

Squirrel on snowy porch in Pennsylvania. Photo by Campbell Plowden

As I started packing two days ago, I saw a squirrel perched on the hand rail of our back porch with her tail curled onto its back giving it a Mohawk look. As she looked at me through the window, I wondered if she was just curious about me or wanted to come inside for a reprieve from the extra chill. I donned five layers to walk my lab-mix Juno, but I did smile when I saw her running with her head lowered to plow fresh powder into her open mouth. It reminded me of a black skimmer slicing through the ocean surface with its open beak to scoop up tiny fish.

Ania teaching Jill to make hot pad. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Ania teaching Jill to make hot pad. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I’m also excited about spending a month to advance CACE projects in Peru. It’s hard to believe we are now nine years old! I will again visit the native villages of Brillo Nuevo and Puca Urquillo where we are doing back to back workshops to help 80 Bora and Huitoto artisans learn to make popular models of hot pads, belts and ornaments. I also want to ask them about their goals for their families and communities to gauge how much time they really want to invest in craft-making compared to other ways of making money and tasks of daily life.

Yermeth Torres with frog ornaments. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Yermeth Torres with frog ornaments. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I’ll return to Jenaro Herrera to begin winding down our basic research on the ecology of copal resin as we apply results from these studies to help our community partners sustainably harvest resin from their forest and distill it to marketable essential oil. I’m looking forward to seeing the women artisans from Chino to pick up a new batch of woven frogs whose expressions reflect their creators’ warm personalities. I also want to record how they’ve used CACE social rebate funds to tend young chambira palm trees planted to supply fiber for making the frogs and their signature Tahuayo region baskets.

Campbell dancing with Maijuna. Photo by German Perilla/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell dancing with Maijuna. Photo by German Perilla/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Thanks to CACE board member Michael Gilmore, I will return to the Maijuna village of Nueva Vida to help their artisans make six models of small baskets we can try to market in the U.S. I’m hoping for good health and energy since I spent several days languishing in a hammock after eating something funky at an otherwise wonderful festival.

Rode making guitar strap. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Rode making guitar strap. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

After my trips to our partner villages, our project manager Yully Rojas and I are going to host our first CACE public gathering in Iquitos. Almost 200 people who live there have “liked” our Facebook page, so we’re going to invite them to a combo presentation and little party. My hope is that we can start to kindle local and interest and support for our project with the people who live in the heart of the region.

Tracy Stayton. Thirtyfourtunate.com

Tracy Stayton. Thirtyfourtunate.com

Near the end of my trip, we will welcome Tracy Stayton to a CACE Amazon Field Volunteer for ten days as part of her remarkable Thirtyfourtunate project. Having turned 34, Tracy has begun a year-long global giving adventure when she will do 34 acts of service to give back and bring awareness to NGOs and their causes around the world. Follow her journey at: Facebook.com/34tunate.



Thank you to my loving family and many friends for your warm wishes as I head south again. May you enjoy the winter outside as much as you can and savor a cup of hot tea when you come back inside.

I also offer thanks to the Rufford Foundation, New England Biolabs Foundation and GlobalGiving Foundation for support of our work in Peru. Please visit wwww.AmazonAlive.net to support our proect.