Tag Archives: Rainforest Conservation Fund

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

A fountain of frogs and new bathroom for children at Chino

by Campbell Plowden

Romelia Huanaquiri with woven bowl. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Romelia Huanaquiri with woven bowl. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Melodi Tuesta with woven bowl. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Melodi Tuesta with woven bowl. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Every time I go to Peru, I look forward to spending at least a few days in the campesino village of Chino on the Tahuayo River. I go there primarily to buy some of the beautiful baskets and other woven handicrafts made by women in the Huacamayo artisan cooperative. What makes these trips possible is that we enjoy an easy working relationship with the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF) to help arrange short stays at their lodge, meetings with artisans and leaders, and the purchase and delivery of materials for community projects funded with the CACE social rebate from craft sales. Finally, Chino is a very welcoming community in an incredibly beautiful place where I usually get to go fishing on a free morning.

Yully Rojas paddling RCF boat with floorboard in 2010. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Yully Rojas paddling RCF boat with floorboard in 2010. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I have sometimes taken a small lancha from Iquitos to Chino (an 8 to 10 hour journey often shared with a boat full of people, chickens, fish and bags of charcoal), but Luke, Amrit and I were lucky that our friend Gerardo, an extension worker with RCF, was available and willing to take us there in their motorboat as long as we paid for the gas. While these trips are not guaranteed to be speedy (we once had to paddle the boat to a nearby village with floor boards when the engine conked out), we made it comfortably to Chino on this Tuesday without incident.

The rainy season was over, but water marks more than a foot above the already elevated first floor on the walls in the RCF lodge showed that this year’s floods had been very high for the second year in a row. In past visits, I’ve share the four bedroom space with as many as a dozen students from Grand Valley University doing an Amazon field course with RCF President Jim Penn, but this time, we had the place to ourselves with Gerardo. The house is no luxury eco-lodge, but having access to a flush toilet, cold shower, gas stove, a generator for light and laptop, and a bed covered with a mosquito net canopy was a welcome upgrade after much more rustic conditions in the Ampiyacu.

Campbell Plowden buying chambira basket from Chino artisan. Photo by Amrit Moore/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell Plowden buying chambira basket from Chino artisan. Photo by Amrit Moore/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

We spent most the next two days watching the artisans and buying their handiwork. They have a well-deserved reputation for making a great variety of baskets woven with chambira palm fiber that has been dyed with a rainbow of local plants. I had bought many of these during past visits at a “feria” (fair) in the same simple building where coop members display their crafts to visiting guests from the Amazon Adventures lodge upriver. This time I had placed an advance order to buy dozens of woven frogs, particularly small ones designed as Christmas tree ornaments.

Dina Peña with yellow frog. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Dina Peña with yellow frog. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Estelita Loayza with woven frog. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Estelita Loayza with woven frog. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

When arriving in Chino, I learned that my request for woven frogs had generated some confusion and discontent. The cooperative had split the order among interested members so the benefits would not be limited to the one artisan who had specialized in the making these frogs in the past. This division led to a fountain of new designs for woven frogs including the neat innovation of well-defined feet. See other photos of artisans with woven frogs. See photo album of Chino woven frogs on CACE Facebook page.

Orange woven frog ornament made by artisan from Chino, Peru. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Orange woven frog ornament made by artisan from Chino, Peru. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Red woven "jewelry box style" frog with clasp. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Red woven “jewelry box style” frog with clasp. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Unfortunately some women did not make their first frogs with a pleasing shape or imbue them with the personality of their master creator. To compound this problem, the original frog lady had not understood the details of my order so she and her fellow artisans presented me with a squadron of larger than life bullfrogs and only one of the ornament sized peepers I had wanted as a tree ornament. I bought as many of the colorful mid to super-sized hoppers as I thought I could sell in the next few years with hopes that tourists would buy the rest in time. Few artisans left empty-handed, though, since I also purchased my usual quotient of 40 woven baskets and pots.

Woven basket made by Chino artisan. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Woven basket made by Chino artisan. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

The lesson for me (that I learned the hard way three times the hard way this trip) and the artisans was very clear. Handicraft orders should include very specific dimensions and photos of the desired models. It is wrong to assume that just because someone has made something one year that they will remember how to make it the same way the next. That evening I did a slide show of all the baskets I had bought from Chino since 2008 and gave a CD copy of these images to Exiles (an RCF extension agent who lives in the community) to share with other artisans so they could see and replicate some of the stunning designs they have made in recent years. See sample photos of Chino baskets.

Chino artisan with rosario and huayruru seed necklace. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chino artisan with rosario and huayruru seed necklace. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chino artisans are also looking to expand their craft-making beyond weaving chambira. The day after the “feria,” most coop members gathered in the open-air common area (with a conical thatched roof) to practice making some complex necklaces with huayruru (Ormosia spp.) and rosario (Nothoscordum spp.) seeds. They used a hand drill mounted upward to drill a hole through the center of each seed and then strung them in patterns according to design specifications of a potential buyer. It was neat to see pairs of artisans working comfortably together to figure out the nuances of different models.

Amrit Moore drawing artisan with girl at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Amrit Moore drawing artisan with girl at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Amrit attracted the attention of girls and eventually a few boys as she sketched women stringing beads and weaving bags. She admired one multi-strand shiny red, black, and grey necklace so much that she asked Rosa to make a duplicate for her.

Pijuayo fruit at market in Pebas.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Pijuayo fruit at market in Pebas. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

While most Peruvian artisans have many plants to dye chambira various shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown, it is surprisingly difficult to find green plants that can impart a durable green color to this otherwise receptive fiber. This visit to Chino, I was happy that two artisans left the necklace-making session to show me how they use leaves of pijuayo palm (Bactris gasipaes) and cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum) plants to dye chambira green. Both plants are common in home gardens and fields throughout the region, although their fruits are harvested more for food than dye.

Pounding cocona leaf with rock. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Pounding cocona leaf with rock. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Artisan Romelia Huanaquiri who had demonstrated other dye plants to me before escorted us to her backyard and used a pole saw to cut a long leaf hanging out from a modest-sized pijuayo palm tree and plucked the spear-like leaflets off the petiole (stiff central stem of the leaf). She then picked a handful of large plate size leaves from a cocona plant and brought them all back to her house. The next stages of processing both plants were the same. Romelia and her artisan colleague Lastemia took turns folding and smashing the leaves with a round smooth stone onto a large flat one.

Cooking chambira with pijuayo leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Cooking chambira with pijuayo leaves. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Each batch of mashed leaves was then put into a pot with some water and a hank of clean chambira fiber to boil over a fire. Romelia removed the pot from the flame after ten to fifteen minutes, sifted out the chambira, and laid the strands on a table to dry in the shade. The pijuayo dyed chambira had a pleasant medium green tint while the cocona dyed batch seemed quite pale.

Romelia Huanaquiri soaking chambira with pijuayo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Romelia Huanaquiri soaking chambira with pijuayo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Romelia said that it had probably needed a stronger concentration of leaves and longer time boiling. The main reason why Ampiyacu artisans said they didn’t use these plants was that the color in dyed in chambira faded too quickly if exposed to water or sun. We plan to do some controlled studies with these and other plant dyes to test their durability.

Yellow catfish and bananas on canoe. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Yellow catfish and bananas on canoe. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Luke, Amrit and I had a chance to go fishing with Exiles, but the best fish we had were from a couple of large striped (Psuedoplatystoma spp.) and yellow catfish that Gerardo had bought from a local Chino man who had been dropping his line in the water all night. As we enjoyed our supper of fresh doncella, we were also treated to a gorgeous rainbow over the Tahuayo River.

Rainbow over forest on Tahuayo River. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Rainbow over forest on Tahuayo River. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Last year, Chino had decided to use its social rebate funds from CACE sales of its crafts to build a basic bathroom for its school children. It took many months to complete, but I was very happy to see that the job had been done well. It was a two-stall wooden structure with basic toilets. A tube had been connected to the gutter from the school roof to funnel runoff water from rain into a large barrel that stood next to the bathroom doors. Kids would need to scoop water from this barrel with a bucket to flush the toilet.

Exiles from Rainforest Conservation Fund at new bathroom in Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Exiles from Rainforest Conservation Fund at new bathroom in Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Luke made his own contribution to the kids in Chino by teaching English to the high school students for both days we were there. Teaching these classes in Chino and other villages was both inspiring for him and gave him an even deeper appreciation for the advantages of his education opportunities at home – benefits that many of his peers at his high quality public school take for granted.

The community meeting convened to decide how to use CACE social rebate funds from the past year of craft sales was due to start at the typical time of 7 pm. While it was a convenient time to gather after work and family dinners, it also coincided with the peak dinner time for mosquitoes. As people casually arrived, the growing assembly resembled an unchoreographed jerky dance as people randomly swatted their shoulders and thighs and stamped their feet. Within half an hour, Solis Zandromo, the Agente Municipal (top elected official in Peruvian villages) felt that a sufficient quorum of residents had arrived to proceed.

Gerardo Bertiz from Rainforest Conservation Fund helping to buy water pump for Chino bathroom. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Gerardo Bertiz from Rainforest Conservation Fund helping to buy water pump for Chino bathroom. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I presented a brief summary of CACE craft sales from Chino and the amount now available. Proposals came from the floor to carry out various projects, but the group finally reached consensus on a plan to build a cement patio in front of the school so the kids could gather on a dry spot that was often pure mud. If there were sufficient funds, they would also upgrade the school bathroom with a larger tank on the roof so the toilets could be flushed at any time with water pumped from the river because there were often times in the dry season when there wasn’t enough rain to fill the barrel. I passed around a bag of buttered and salted popcorn to the attendees with appreciation for their reaching a decision before the mosquitoes totally devoured me.

Chino leader with water tank for bathroom. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Chino leader with water tank for bathroom. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Back in Iquitos, Gerardo and Solis shopped around for supplies at hardware stores and quickly concluded that we actually had enough budget to finance both projects. I didn’t feel a need to accompany them to buy cement for the patio, but it was fun joining them to purchase the giant water tank and test out the pump. I look forward to seeing the upgraded bathroom during my next trip to Chino in the summer of 2014.

Other photos from the trip to Chino

Amrit Moore in palm spate hammock. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Amrit Moore in palm spate hammock. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Girls playing on monkey bars at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Girls playing on monkey bars at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Two kids at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Two kids at Chino. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Doncella catfish caught in the Tahuayo River. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Doncella catfish caught in the Tahuayo River. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Checking out chambira in Beder’s purma

Lucio separating chambira leaves destined for craft making in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Lucio separating chambira leaves destined for craft making in Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Wednesday morning Yully and I headed off with Beder again to one of his “purmas” to begin a survey of his chambira palm trees.  Chambira is by far the most important raw material that goes into the handicrafts made in this region.  While the tree readily grows on its own in young secondary forests, large –scale production of chambira baskets has depleted the stocks of chambira near several villages along the Tahuayo River.  They are now planting lots of new chambira, but we are hoping to stimulate a pro-active approach to chambira management and planting here before demand for new products overtakes the local capacity to make them with sustainably harvested plants.  The first step in this process is going to be a series of inventories of current stocks of chambira in the purmas of the artisans we work with as well as some survey of the density of these trees in the forest where it is also harvested.

Beder cleaning termite mound off chambira while Yully records GPS position. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Beder cleaning termite mound off chambira while Yully records GPS position. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Beder led us to a “corner” of his purma where Yully recorded a GPS waypoint.  Beder used his machete to whack his way along the perimeter of his area while Yully stopped to record additional points where the border made a sharp turn.  After returning to the starting point, Yully drew a rough map of the boundary.  Trying to follow the methods used in similar studies, we decided to count all of the chambira trees inside a group of circular plots with a 10 meter radius.

Yully Rojas and Beder Tilley count cogollos in chambira tree. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Yully Rojas and Beder Tilley count cogollos in chambira tree. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While measuring the diameter of “regular” trees has some challenging fine points described above, wrapping a tape around a spiny multi-trunked palm tree like chambira would be pointless and painful.  We, therefore, prepared a 4 meter tall pole to estimate the height of the palms, counted the number of the mature leaves, cogollos (leaves that could possibly be harvested now or in the next few months) and stumps of stalks that had already been cut.

Chambira palm (cogollo) growth tip. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira palm (cogollo) growth tip. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Beder explained that they only began cutting one cogollo from a chambira plant when it had reached a certain level of maturity.  After that a young stem had to be cut when it still looked like a spear since its fibers would become too dark and tough to make handicrafts if it was cut after its leaves began to unfurl.  We saw many trees with gashes in their healthy leaf stems made by harvesters whacking at a cogollo with a machete.

Pruning saw cutting chambira cogollo in Tahuayo community. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Pruning saw cutting chambira cogollo in Tahuayo community. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The Rainforest Conservation Fund has introduced pruning saws on long poles to some chambira harvesters on the Tahuayo River so they can better cut off a cogollo without damaging non-target stems.  Beder thought this would be a good tool to adopt at Brillo Nuevo as well.

Chambira maturing stem. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Chambira maturing stem. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Making our way around his purma, we found that the number of palms on one side varied from six to nineteen and then dropped to zero in several successive plots.  I asked if there was something different about this section that made it less hospitable for chambira.  Beder said no.  The reason there were so few chambira in that section was because he hadn’t planted any there.

Young chambira plant. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Young chambira plant. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Some eleven years ago, he and his wife Monica had spread around some 500 chambira seedlings transplanted from the forest.  Yully and I looked at each other with the same thought.  Why hadn’t Beder mentioned this detail to us at the beginning of the day?  The answer was straightforward.  We hadn’t thought to ask.

Campbell Plowden eating tuna and farinha from leaf bowl. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

Campbell Plowden eating tuna and farinha from leaf bowl. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

It seemed like a good time to break for lunch.  I had handful of farinha (toasted manioc flour) mixed with a third of a can of tuna with some water in a leaf bowl made on the spot by Beder.

Spider web in chambira palm. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Spider web in chambira palm. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We walked around the border of the area that Beder and Monica had planted with chambira.  While we probably could have counted all of the surviving chambira plants inside it, it seemed like a better idea to keep using some kind of sampling procedure since Beder said that some other people had hundreds of mature chambira plants in their purmas.  We were too tired to use either procedure in Beder’s plot, but we considered it a good day for learning more about this plant and different ways that Bora manage it.  When we talk with the artisans on Saturday, we will at least know more of the right kinds of questions to ask to figure out a practical way to stimulate good management of this critical resource.  It wasn’t hard to see how more intensive marketing of crafts made from these plants could greatly enhance or vastly deplete its status.

Returning to the village, Yully and I pried off our boots, hung our dirty field clothes over round cross-beams in Marcelina’s house, borrowed a bowl and a bucket and headed to the river.  Our favorite bathing spot is a five by six foot raft tethered to a pole stuck in the muddy bank.  Yesterday we waited for one woman to gather her washing before venturing across the plank onto the unevenly balanced “balsa.”  When we appeared at the top of the hill today, one mom called out to three boys fishing with tiny stick poles to yield their platform to us.  Nothing is more refreshing than dumping buckets full of cool river water over my head after a sweaty day in the forest.

Brillo Nuevo artisan Maria with tapete. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Brillo Nuevo artisan Maria with tapete. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Back at the house, a few more ladies including the daughter of one of our veteran artisans, brought by “tapetes” (hot pads) they had finished.  I was content with a pack of crackers with jam and several cups of chicha morada (purple corn) flavored punch for dinner followed by some writing and early retirement to my hammock.  I had slept the first few nights without my mosquito net, but there were just enough of the buzzing critters in early morning to prompt me to slide this protective mesh over my hammock.  It definitely helped me sleep a bit better.

**************************************************************************

For more information the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, please visit us on Facebook and our homepage at www.amazonecology.org.