In the summer of 2007, the Center for Amazon Community Ecology began its second summer of field work researching the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin at a research station on the outskirts of Jenaro Herrera – a town of 5,000 people reached by a 12-hour ferry ride up the Ucayali River from Iquitos. On one trip to town, I met Dora and her “family” of artisans and bought an assortment of their shicras (shoulder bags that were loosely woven with chambira palm fiber) and seed jewelry to bring back to the U.S. Their handicrafts were similar to ones made by many other artisans in the region so I asked them how they thought they might make their crafts more distinctive.
Dora volunteered, “I could sew a satiny lining into a chambira bag – what about red?” Great, let’s try it! My 17-year old daughter Marissa who was with me on that trip suggested the idea of making a chambira choker decorated with achira seeds. Dora’s “aunt” Hilda said, “I could make that.” We then walked out to their fields to watch them collect oblong-shaped pashaco seeds to accent some longer necklaces. Several weeks later we got some well-made examples of the standard crafts and some examples of the new ones.
Our sales of earrings made by other artisans from Jenaro Herrera did well, but the new woven crafts made by Dora and her relatives hadn’t yet struck a chord. After some Christmas tree ornaments made by artisans from the Ampiyacu region began to sell well, I brought the challenge to Dora and her group. We brainstormed different ideas, and they decided to try making colorful miniature versions of the woven baskets and plates that were usually 8 to 12 inches across. Doilith who was a younger relative that had recently joined the group made chambira stars with black and red seeds in the five points and center.
It was encouraging to see that people liked many of these ornaments, but the spark of success came the following summer when Dora modestly told me, “My daughter Rosa has woven some critters that I think you will like.” It was a wonderful understatement. Arriving at her house, I marveled at the first examples of a butterfly, bee and dragonfly that she had woven from chambira. The normally shy teenager beamed when I asked her if I could take her picture displaying her creative efforts.
Over the next few years, we experimented with different colors, models and sizes of these unique insect ornaments. It didn’t take long to figure out that people buying one for their Christmas tree or a gift much preferred ones with bright colors like yellow and orange to dark ones and generally liked small to medium sized-ones more than giants. We gradually improved, but Dora and friends produced some batches that still mostly sit in boxes because I failed to understand that certain Spanish words for colors are different from their English equivalents and their meanings may vary from region to region.
I appreciated that in spite of these glitches in communication, the Association of Chambira Artisans as they now called themselves worked very diligently to comply with any craft order and were always ready to discuss and try new ideas. They in turn appreciated that while CACE was their only regular craft buyer once or twice a year, these sales were making a difference in their lives. When I got to Jenaro Herrera in the summer of 2014, I noticed that Dora’s house was completely new. She said, “thanks to making these ornaments, Eliazar and I were able to buy enough wood and palm thatch to put up new walls and a roof.”
While the Dora group will continue using their imagination to make new crafts, we are now trying to develop some chambira ornaments based on actual species of Amazon insects. They have made good-looking models of the blue morpho butterfly, scarlet peacock butterfly, (day-time flying) uranid moth, and the Amazon darner dragonfly. Attempts to make a bright green orchid bee and yellow and red tailed “ronsapa” bee that are important pollinators and collectors of copal resin are still in progress.
Since Rosa left town, Doilith has become the master weaver of these new critters. She said, “I love the challenge of trying to figure out how to make the details of these beautiful little animals that live in our forests. Before we started making insects ornaments, I wasn’t really aware that they have six legs instead of four. My goal now is to bring them to life as best as I can so people can have a better understanding of our art, culture, and nature in the Peruvian Amazon. Making crafts is already helping my family meet its needs, and (placing her hand gently on her tummy) I’ve got another baby on the way.”
Amazon darner dragonfly and ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology
Uranid moth and ornament. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology.
GETTING STUFF DONE IN IQUITOS
While it can be very hard to get certain kinds of things done in Peru in an efficient way (like standing in line for hours to pay a bill at a bank), it’s a fun adventure to get other stuff done in a fun, timely and affordable way. I went out on Sunday to get some basic supplies for our house and got most of them at a modern store called Quispe, but right around the corner I found a fellow named Elmo who is the owner of one of the typical mobile micro-stalls (about 3 x 2 x 5 feet) that is his shop for his business to make copies of keys and help people with other kinds of locks. He first used one of those simple machine to make a rough cut of the key copy from the original. He then used a narrow grinder to fine-tune the copy.
I was really impressed that he used a hand caliper to measure the depth of each notch in the original key and the copy he was making. He eyeballed any minute differences because the calipers had no graduated lines on them. Elmo had been doing this work for 30 years so I felt pretty confident that his keys that cost me $1.25 each to make would work. He gave me his phone number to reach him just in case. His copies got me in my house just fine, but I’d like to see him again just to learn more about his life.
While the lease that we signed to rent our new house for CACE in Iquitos said everything was in good working order, we’ve discovered a few things that needed fixing to make the place more comfortable, safe and functional for our needs. As soon Tulio moved into the house, he met our neighbor Jorge who quickly became our go-to motorcar driver. When we mentioned to Jorge yesterday that we had a few plumbing issues that needed tending to, he said he had a friend who could handle them.
Julio showed up ten minutes later. They quickly determined that the threads in the faucet in the kitchen sink were stripped, the sink in my bathroom was leaking because the pipe under it was totally rusted through, and the sink in Tulio’s bathroom was clogged and just needed cleaning. After several trips to the hardware store to get various new pipes, glue, and tape, Julio donned my headlamp and used his and Jorge’s collection of old saws and wrenches to replace or clean all of the degraded items.
Julio returned this morning and spent the better part of the day doing four more tasks: 1) installing new pipes connecting our elevated water tank in the back patio to faucets in the work sinks so we could distill our rosewood material with an abundant supply of cooling water, 2) installed a new section of mosquito netting in my bedroom, 3) installed a new section of mosquito netting in the space above my bathroom, and 4) fixed up a wire in the back patio that was loosely connected by duct tape that was hanging out of a busted piece of PVC pipe.
We paid a total of about $25 in materials and $50 in labor for all seven jobs and everyone felt good about the tasks that were done. Julio looked around the house as he was leaving and said “please call me if you need anything done. I can fix your roof, put up a wall…….” Tulio told me tonight that Julio is someone who is referred to here as a “mil oficios” – someone who can do a thousand things. I know we have handymen in the US, too, but I’m awfully glad that I met Julio here.
STINGLESS BEES AT CHINO One of the houses I also visit first at Chino belongs to the veteran artisan Romelia and her husband Jorge. Jorge is one of the folks in the village who has maintained several wooden box nests with stingless bees as part of a honey producing project developed under the guidance of German Perilla from George Mason University in Virginia. While these bees don't produce as much honey as their stinging honeybee counterparts, their honey is highly valued for its strong flavor and medicinal properties.
During my last visit, Jorge's nest boxes were in his back yard. This time, he had placed both at opposite ends of his kitchen to keep a closer eye on them. I took several shots of bees coming and going out of the entrance tube as well as the guard which is always on duty to prevent the entrance of unwelcome visitors (other bees, flying ants, etc.) who might wish to invade to prey on their young.
Check out the video Beekeeping in the Amazon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca2kYBJN4tI) focused on a stingless bee project developed with Maijuna native communities by OnePlanet.Org and its director (and CACE board member) Michael Gilmore.