Chambira, Chess and Shiripira

by amazonecology July 14, 2012

June 30, 2012 – Brillo Nuevo

While the canela moena and copal leaf distillations didn’t produce much oil, their briefness let us begin the next round of surveying chambira palms in the purmas (fallow forest-farm fields) of the artisans. Over the past eight months, Yully and Oscar had been mapping the shape and area of fields where the artisans harvest most of their chambira leaves. We now wanted to start measuring the abundance of this plant that is the most important raw material for all woven crafts. These inventories would indicate how many palm leaves they had available to make their own crafts and sell to other artisans who didn’t have their own supply.

Chambira palm spiny stems. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Chambira palm spiny stems. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

I planned to survey the chambira palms in four to thirty circular (100 square meter) plots in each purma depending on its size. We devised a special tool to measure the girth of a plant by cutting a notch (about 45 degrees) into a piece of plywood and put a black mark every centimeter along the inside. We pressed the opening into a chambira plant and read off the numbers where it touched the inside angle. Some simple geometry allowed us to convert these numbers to the plant’s “diameter”. This tool allowed us to forgo use of a standard cloth or metal measuring tape which is both problematic and sometimes painful to wrap around a plant covered with long spines. In our survey, we would also count the number of “cogollos” (a tightly coiled leaf spear) on a plant to estimate the yield of harvestable material. An artisan typically cuts one of these from a plant every year. Heavily harvested areas often have medium-age plants with more cut cogollo stumps than healthy live spears, few or no older trees producing fruits, and few seedlings to become the next generation.

Measuring chambira diameter with plywood wedge tool. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Measuring chambira diameter with plywood wedge tool. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

We walked about half an hour from the village to one of Oscar and Ena’s purmas to try out our new tool and survey method. The measuring tool worked very well and extended four pre-marked ropes from a plot’s center was an efficient way to define and count the plants inside our circular plot. After doing three plots, though, we ran into our first problem. According to the map we had made using the GPS points of the purma’s perimeter, we should have been able to place another four plots in the same line, but we could already see we were approaching the purma’s border. Consulting with Yully, I discovered that our mistake was due to an error in the legend scale on our little map. I estimated how much we needed to adjust this for our trial, and we proceeded. For the first seven plots, we had only found one or two chambira plants in each, but when we neared the upper end of his purma, we started finding lots more of the palms.

I asked Oscar why he thought there was so much more chambira here than the rest of his old field. We had learned from test survey of another artisan’s plot last summer that high densities can result from intentional planting, Oscar had been very clear that he hadn’t planted any chambira himself. His explanation for the higher density was simple. There was a chambira “semillero” (seed tree) up ahead. As it put out hundreds of fruits, animals like agoutis and paca would spirit the seeds away and bury them for later consumption. Fortunately for the trees, some of the seeds the rodents failed to find again germinated and grew. It became immediately obvious how important it would be for artisans to have at least one seed tree in their purma. Someone could always plant seeds or seedlings to increase chambira abundance, but having at least one seed tree would be a way to let nature do this with minimal effort from the artisan. Artisans would need to forgo harvesting cogollos from at least a few trees so they could mobilize all of their energy to growth and reach their full reproductive potential in twelve years or so.

Lucio harvesting chambira cogollo.  Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Lucio harvesting chambira cogollo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Our sense was that some artisans exercised enough restraint in their harvesting to have as many as four “semilleros” in one purma. Others seemed to lack this discipline and had none. One challenge that aggravated the growth of any seed trees was the unfortunate cutting (i.e. theft) of some cogollos by some people in someone else’s purma. We heard heard fingers being pointed at a few artisans suspected of this behavior. It’s a problem that had been frequently discussed in community meetings, but dealing with this social concern was beyond our mandate. We just hoped that our surveys would show how much chambira every artisan had available. If they seemed to lack access to a sustainable supply, it would highlight their need to create one if they wished to continue making and selling a lot of crafts. While I pondered these ethical matters and whether our survey design would adequately handle the large differences in chambira density between areas with and without seed trees, it started to rain. Our teams are used to working in the rainforest, but the prolonged drenching made it difficult to take notes and impossible to take pictures. We called it a day and headed back to the village.

After I stripped off my wet clothes and bathed, I wandered back to the school kitchen area where I saw one of the teachers playing checkers with one of his students using chess pieces. I asked him if he also played chess, and he said yes. He was just learning, but he would welcome playing a game with me. Feeling rather proud after playing Stacey at the Karma Café to a draw after an hour and a half, I thought it would be a fun easy game. I launched into the first game with aggressive abandon. After about ten moves, I made a mistake based on my failure to see a little black rock that represented one of his pawns. He generously allowed me to take the move back. After capturing one of his rooks, he then steadily outmaneuvered me, cornered my king, and won the game in about 15 minutes. I retained my cocky optimism part way through the second game until he again outflanked my defenses and check-mated me in 20 minutes. Focusing my best energies and ignoring an invitation to go to dinner, I knocked my king over for the last time with well-earned humility after half an hour. The sun had gone down, my headlamp was weak, and the mosquitos were out in force.

My new friend then explained a bit more what he meant by his “beginner” status. He had been part of a chess club in his home town for many years and later led this group to the finals of a regional chess competition. He was still improving his game by studying the game and playing with better players. I wished I could become one of his students. Ines and Marcelina got a good laugh when I told them without embarrassment that the teacher had slaughtered me in three consecutive games of chess.

Four women artisans at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Four women artisans at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

The highlight of this morning was meeting with most of the artisans at Gisela’s house. This gathering was originally called by Angela to discuss the progress making and then delivery a batch of hammocks and bags to a craft fair in Lima through an arrangement with IIAP (the Institute for Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon). While this institute is primarily dedicated to applied research, it also has a social mission to support sustainable livelihoods in local communities in the region. Angelina invited me to share my thoughts about the certificates and prizes we had given to some of them on my first night.

I began by reiterating that we had undertaken these “award” programs because the artisans themselves thought they would be a good thing. I went on to express my sadness about their subdued reactions to these and concern that the group felt increasingly divided between the artisans who wanted to make crafts for CECAMA and those who wanted to focus on production for IIAP. The group seemed to acknowledge that some personality clashes had made working together hard, but in spite of the possibilities of jealousy, they wanted us to continue giving the awards and prizes since they felt they did provide a positive incentive for improving the quality of their crafts. Angelina voiced her strong desire to help bring all of the artisans together.

Hermelinda with chambira and curved saw at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

Hermelinda with chambira and curved saw at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

On a positive note, the artisans very much appreciated our introduction of the pole saws since they did make it easier to cut chambira cogollos with less damage to other stems and reach some that were higher up. The main problem was that there weren’t enough to go around. We, therefore, agreed that we would buy enough extra saws so they every pair of artisans (often a mother and daughter or two sisters) could share one saw. We would also organize a workshop so Oscar and other experienced people could show the others how to use, sharpen and otherwise take care of the saw.

Before I left the meeting, the group asked me if CECAMA could make a donation to their annual Christmas festivities in the way that other NGOs and partners often did. I promised that we would do so if Yully felt that the group had come together better and showed a genuine spirit of cooperation when she visited Brillo Nuevo in November. I didn’t know if providing some bottles of Inca Cola and other goodies for a Christmas party could actually help people get beyond their differences, but I knew I wouldn’t be feeling very generous if the artisans couldn’t find a way to support each other.

Felix working on community pharmacy at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Felix working on community pharmacy at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Yully’s and my next task was to facilitate the official transfer of the building supplies for the new “botiquin” (community pharmacy) from Oscar’s house to the care of Felix – the community Vice-President who had taken on official responsibility to finish the project. We were happy that when Oscar brought out all of the sundry boxes and bags from his back room, we found all of the “missing” nails and agreed how the two fellows who were preparing most of the lumber with their chainsaws would be compensated. Felix quickly rounded up three fellows to do some work on the botiquin so I could at least take some pictures of the work in progress.

Bora man sawing beam building community pharmacy at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Bora man sawing beam building community pharmacy at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

I recorded a video interview with him discussing the importance of this structure to the community, and he said he thought it could be finished in a week or so. The other related good news for me was that they had already lined up someone with decent training to staff the facility. This meant that one person would be responsible for both providing appropriate medicines to people and taking care of the funds. CECAMA would pay for the initial batches of medicine at wholesale cost with social rebate funds from our craft sales. Villagers would then buy these at cost to restock the botiquin with supplies in the future.

Pacu, shiripira and other catfish at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Pacu, shiripira and other catfish at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

My final task of the day before leaving Brillo Nuevo was to go fishing with Marcelina’s husband Aurelio. We didn’t have any gasoline to go far, so he just paddled us in his boat about 20 minutes up the Yaguasyacu and tied us off at a spot where a stream fed into the main river. We refitted our lines attached to a simple wooden pole with the smallest hooks I had brought from the US which he then baited with a few of the tiny worms he had dug up in his back yard. As far as such outings go, it was pretty successful for me. I lost my share of bait to nibbles, but also caught a variety of catfish such as shiripira, cunchi, and bocon that croaked when they were brought into the boat. Each time, Aurelio would carefully hold the fish and snap the spine next to the fins near the gills before he removed the hook. My biggest catch of the day was a small roundish fish with a partially orange belly. I first thought it was a piraña, but Aurelio said it was a relative called a pacu.

Hernan and copal torch at Brillo Nuevo in 2008. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Hernan and copal torch at Brillo Nuevo in 2008. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

During my first stay in Brillo Nuevo in 2008, I was hosted by a Bora fellow named Hernan who said he planned to build an eco-tourism lodge at a nice spot upriver. He had actually succeeded in doing so and the business attracted clients well for two years. Unfortunately one fellow from another village apparently stole about $5000 from one affluent guest. The thief got six years in jail, but the incident destroyed the reputation of the lodge, and the business collapsed. Hernan then left the village for Iquitos. As we paddled from one fishing spot to another, Aurelio pointed up to a bluff where the remnants of the lodge were now being absorbed back into a tangle of pioneer trees and vines.

Aurelio told me that he and Ena might also be leaving Brillo Nuevo in a year or so. They are thinking of moving to a new settlement on the Iquitos-Nauta road to be closer to one of their grown sons and a place where a few other Bora are now living. They have discussed starting their own “albergue” (tourist lodge) there that would be a lot closer to Iquitos. I am amazed that the number of such jungle lodges has grown so quickly in the area. I would have thought that there weren’t enough tourists to support so many, but the fact that Copa Airlines is now starting a direct international flight from Panama City to Iquitos demonstrates the general optimism that this is still an increasingly attractive destination for people who want to get a taste of life in the Amazon.

Volleyball and soccer at Brillo Nuevo. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Volleyball and soccer at Brillo Nuevo. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

I reluctantly pulled up my line for the last time around 2:30 pm so we could paddle back to Brillo Nuevo. It had been a relatively short but socially intense visit so I relished the calm of being on the river with only one fellow fisherman and darting kingfishers for company. As I walked back to the house to do my final packing, the village was alive with multiple games of volleyball and soccer. Aurelio gave me a quick lesson in weaving irapay palm leaves into the sheets used to make a thatch roof. Lunch was some rice and half of the fried pacu I had just caught. After exchanging hugs with Ines and company, I bid them farewell until next year – hopefully returning with my son Luke.
Aurelio teaching Campbell to weave irapay leaves. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

Aurelio teaching Campbell to weave irapay leaves. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE





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