Listening to artisans in the Ampiyacu

by amazonecology February 09, 2016

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.





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