One grasshopper goes a long way

by amazonecology July 12, 2011

Ayahuasca earrings. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Ayahuasca earrings. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Saturday morning began with a quick outing with Aurelio to collect samples of a few vines.  One popular kind of earrings is made from thin cross-sections of the ayahuasca vine.  Native Amazonians have long used this hallucinogenic plant to induce visions and healing.  Attracting visitors to participate in these ceremonies with shamans of varying pedigrees has become a huge business in parts of Peru and Brazil.  Aurelio told me that “clavo huasca” (which smells like clove), “unha de gato” (cat’s claw – used for medicinal purposes), and “huambé” (a plant whose fibers can be woven into wicker-type baskets) might be good candidates for other vines whose cross-sections might have interesting figures for jewelry.

Clavo huasca vine and leaf. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Clavo huasca vine and leaf. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

I had hoped I could get to these spots in my sandals since my boots were still wet in inside, but urged me to put them on anyway since we needed to walk on some muddy trails to find these plants. After whacking his way through various briar patches near his chacra (farm field), he found a nice-sized clavo huasca. Cutting through a thumb-sized section, though, I was disappointed.  It had a thin dark interior circle, but not much else distinguished it.  Unha de gato sounded more promising since Aurelio said its surface looked like a ring of capital “M”s.  His forays into the woods to find this plant on the way back, though, were not successful.

Aquaculture pond at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Aquaculture pond at Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

The highlight of the outing for me was going down a side trail to see a pond created by a mud dam.  This aquaculture project was carried out by kids from the village with technical assistance from IIAP (Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon) and financial help by the “Padres de familia” (male heads of households) and government money.  The pond was stocked with 3,000 young “gamitana” (a round omnivorous fish also known as tambaqui) and 4,000 sabalo (a long silver fish that is common in the area).  The students feed these a variety of left-over foods.  When these fish reach maturity in a few years, this pond should have an impressive amount of fish available for their lunches or possibly for selling.  There is another government program that is financing aquaculture on a larger scale in the village that almost 30 different families are participating in.  This number would probably be larger if it weren’t for lingering bad feelings and unpaid debts from the sacha inchi bean project mentioned earlier.

Going fishing in the river and finding more dye plants was my main mission of the morning.  After the usual start on Peruvian time (an hour or so after a designated time for doing anything), I went out with Aurelio and Beder in his “bote” equipped with a 5 horse-power peque-peque engine.  We landed on a bank and walked down to a damp wooded section.  They quickly found three “huacamayo caspi” trees by the creek.  Beder fashioned a hook from a tall sapling and snapped off a branch of the huacamayo sapling so we could pin down its scientific name.

Bora man Aurelio with diamond cuts in huacamayo caspi bark for dye.  Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora man Aurelio with diamond cuts in huacamayo caspi bark for dye. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We moved on to a larger trunk, and Aurelio used his machete to cut out four diamond-shaped pieces of bark in a vertical line.  He said you could remove an equal amount on the opposite side of the tree, but if you needed more (it takes about a pound to dye one cogollo of chambira), you would need to get some from another tree.  Seeping from the edge of the cut pieces was a line of scarlet liquid.  When boiled with fresh mashed bark, chambira turns a deep fushia.  While this tree is fairly common in these riparian forests, Aurelio later told me that it was also possible to collect the powder from scraping the bark and use this to dye the fiber – a method that clearly inflicts much less damage to the tree.

Armadillo hole near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Armadillo hole near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

We motored another fifteen minutes up the Yaguasyacu (literally meaning river of the Yaguas – the original native group in the area) and skidded the boat onto another mud landing.  I followed Aurelio up the bank and two steps farther I lurched down with a yelp as my entire left leg broke through a thin layer of dead leaves and sticks covering a deep foot-wide hole – probably a burrow made by a large armadillo.  I felt lucky to climb out with nothing more than dirty pants and a bruise on my arm.  It was an important reminder to pay more attention to where I was walking than where the person in front of me was going.

Huacamayo caspi bark and purple stain from pelejo caspi. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Huacamayo caspi bark and purple stain from pelejo caspi. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Aurelio quickly found his next quarry – a “pelejo caspi” (literally sloth tree).  He removed a branch of this and crushed some leaves.  His hand immediately turned a deep wine red – a contrast to the milder red of the huacamayo caspi bark.

Walking back to the boat (attentive to step around the armadillo hole), Beder plucked an inch-long grasshopper hiding between some brown dry leaves.  His search for worms and grubs in the soil yielded nothing.  While I had a sentimental flinch when he also clasped a rooster-tail cicada in his hand, I knew that if we were going to catch some fish we needed to start with something.

Tying the boat to a branch near a small backwater, the rooster tail dissolved before catching anything, but when our bait supply was reduced to a remnant of the grasshopper, Beder snapped his “barandilla” (five-foot long stick pole with about 8 feet of nylon line) up and pulled a tiny round silver fish into the boat.  He cut this into tiny pieces, and we were set.  I took my barandilla in hand and spent the next few hours fine tuning the art of waiting for the right amount of tug from a fish before pulling up my line.  Yanking too soon or too hard only whipped the line out of the water; waiting too long guaranteed the bait would be gone.

Cachorro fish near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Cachorro fish near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Our next catch were catfish called “cunchi” and “shiripira”– Beder carefully snapped off a sharp spine from their dorsal and pectoral fins before removing the hook.  I landed a “cachorro” whose sharp teeth made it look like a miniature barracuda.

Anyashua fish near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Anyashua fish near Brillo Nuevo. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

My favorite catch of the day was a slender mottled green “anyashua” fish with a spotted tail related to the well-known peacock bass known here as tucunare.

I would have been content to spend the whole afternoon fishing, but I was due to meet with the artisans back in the village.  In spite of local custom, I try to arrive at my appointments on time, but by the time we returned to Brillo Nuevo an hour late, many artisans had come and gone – fortunately with a charitable promise to return later in the afternoon.

Brillo Nuevo artisan Ena Chichaco with tapete. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

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

One person who hadn’t shown up at first was Ena.  She’s a very talented artisan, but she was reportedly pieved when I had sent it back a tapete (hot pad) she had a girl deliver because it had too many spaces in it compared to more tightly woven pads of the same design.  Someone then told Yully and me that Ena was having trouble with her eyes.  This seemed to be a logical explanation for why she was having a hard time with the fine details of making these crafts.

The village has a basic health clinic, but getting eye exams, glasses and attention from specialists requires spending more money than most people can afford.  We were happy to learn that a church-related group that provides free eye care to Amazon communities was going to visit Puca Urquillo in the next few weeks.  We hoped that Ena could get some help from them.

Campbell Plowden with Brillo Nuevo artisans. Photo by Yully Rojas/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Campbell Plowden with Brillo Nuevo artisans. Photo by Yully Rojas/CACE

We gathered in the same school room where we had drawn our first designs of snake patterns on the aged blackboard two years.  The group discussed approaches to managing chambira palm trees, electing a new local coordinator, ways to improve their handicraft quality committee, experiments to find a natural color-fast green dye, and establishing prizes to promote different goals.  These ideas included most productive artisan, best service to the artisans, best adaption of a pattern from nature, chambira conservation prize, and best design to promote Bora culture.

Brillo Nuevo artisan Amalia Arirama with white boa chambira belt. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Brillo Nuevo artisan Amalia Arirama with white boa chambira belt. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While the women now seem comfortable expressing their support or disapproval for concrete proposals, asking them open-ended questions in a brainstorming mode often provokes nothing more than blank stares.  They know each other so well, but they still seem reluctant to put forward their ideas in these group settings.  Sometimes it’s clear my questions were too obtuse or poorly expressed in Spanish for them to understand.  When someone presented them in Bora, they often generated more discussion.

Afraninga snake model chambira Amazon guitar strap. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Afraninga snake model chambira Amazon guitar strap. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Our final agenda item dealt with Amalia’s concern about the use of the Bora logo on the Amazon guitar straps.  After I introduced my views on the topic and apologized for not consulting her first, she launched into a long explanation on the topic.  After an hour and a half of relative calm, the group latched onto this topic with passion; soon at least five were talking in Bora at once leaving Yully and me to ponder what they might be saying.  When the heat subsided, we pieced together that many in the group thought it wasn’t right for one person to claim exclusive rights or request payment for the use of a traditional design even if they had been the first to suggest its application to a particular product.  They could, however, win recognition for such an adaptation.

Brillo Nuevo artisan Monica Chichaco. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Brillo Nuevo artisan Monica Chichaco. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Perhaps in partial deference to Amalia or deciding that the original figure was too hard to weave, the group told us we could sell the most recent batch of guitar straps containing this logo, but they would come up with a new design they all agreed on to use in future models.  This process would never be confused with a Quaker mode of making decisions through attentive listening to different points of view and reflective periods of silence, but this Bora way clearly achieved what seemed to be a solid consensus on how to proceed.  It felt good to be given clear direction from the group on this point; I hope they will become equally engaged with other topics that will determine the success of this venture.

Harlequin beetle. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Harlequin beetle. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

While he hadn’t participated directly in the meeting, Aurelio had paid close attention.  Back in his house he showed me a harlequin beetle with a beautiful pattern on its outer wings that would be stunning design on some type of craft.

Bora man Gregorio with pucafisa dye plant. Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Bora man Gregorio with pucafisa dye plant. Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACE

Later Aurelio introduced me to his friend Gregorio who brought a whole plant with him called “pucafisa.”  He said that it grows wild in wet areas near Puca Urquillo where people use its leaves to prepare a blue (“celeste”) dye for chambira and llanchama bark paintings.  He had transplanted some near his home in Brillo Nuevo to experiment with.

Brillo Nuevo artisan Monica Chichaco with chambira dog leash. Photo by Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Brillo Nuevo artisan Monica Chichaco with chambira dog leash. Photo by CACE

As the sun lost its power for the day, Monica and Kori came by to show us the progress they had made with the dog leashes and collars.  I was excited to see how quickly they had adapted the belt-making techniques to these products.  I can’t wait to have my dog Juno model one of them.

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