My elusive quest to support Amazon forest conservation and communities

by Captain Bill

By Campbell Plowden, Executive Director, Center for Amazon Community Ecology


Campbell Plowden

My first foray into Amazon conservation was a three month trip in 1986 through Brazil and other countries to get a first-hand look at the drivers of deforestation. I visited logging and ranching operations, and toured the giant Carajas iron ore mine, Balbina dam and colonization projects to see how these development schemes were transforming the region’s landscape. I also spent several weeks in the jungle and dry coastal forest of Peru to document how men caught parrots and other wild birds for the pet trade. After falling in love with copuazu in Brazil, I left Iquitos thinking that gnawing the fine layer of orange paste off of aguaje seeds was probably an acquired taste.

In 1990, I helped launch Greenpeace’s tropical forest campaign and lobby the World Bank and other international institutions to stop funding projects that damaged the forest and displaced traditional forest peoples. I could describe the negative consequences of logging, ranching, plantations, and mining and the infrastructure created to support them, but I was increasingly bothered by my inability to answer one basic question. How could local people make a living without damaging the forest?

One potential solution was highlighted by a study conducted around Iquitos by researchers from the New York Botanical Garden. It showed that the combined value of non-timber forest products (fruits, fibers, and resins often called NTFPs) harvested from a forest plot over time could exceed the short-term profits of logging it. This principle fostered the creation of Extractive Reserves in Brazil that gave collective land titles to rubber tappers and huassai fruit collectors. I wondered if the strategy could be applied to indigenous reserves where native people could use their intimate knowledge of the forest to improve their standard of living instead of succumbing to the temptations and pressures of mahogany cutters and gold miners.

I got my first chance to test this idea by studying the ecology, management and marketing of NTFPs in a Tembé Indian reserve in the eastern Brazilian Amazon. I lived in the village of Tekohaw on the Gurupi River and focused my field work on andiroba oil, copaiba oleoresin, amapá latex, tamshi vine roots, and copal resin (called “breu” in Brazil). I didn’t consider edible fruits because it seemed too hard to transport perishable items far from the reserve. The research was fascinating, physically demanding and did not produce the results I had hoped for. While each product had a well-established market in the city of Belém, none of them promised to provide an abundant sustainable source of income for the people in this remote forest area. The trees were too rare, production was too low or erratic, or the plants were easily overharvested. One common factor was that harvesters earned little cash in return for the large amount of time it took them to collect, roughly process and bring these NTFPs to a distant market. The people who refined, packaged and sold the finished products captured far more income from these plants than the people who collected the raw materials in the forest.

It is an understatement that living with the Tembé was a rich cultural experience for my wife, two young children and me. I learned how to lay out a transect in forestry classes, but I had to learn painful lessons about working with forest communities on my own. My desire to be a good researcher and member of the community led me to become my village’s largest employer, occasional medic, family photographer, handicraft trader, chant recorder, and conduit for outside funds to fix a boat and finance a land rights project. I may have escaped global politics, but these multiple roles thrust me into the maelstrom of local indigenous politics that was rife with jealousies and rivalries between different leaders, families and villages of Tembé and other tribes in the region.

I emerged somewhat shell-shocked from the process with a PhD in Ecology and a passionate if quirky desire to learn more about copal resin ecology. I followed this thread back to Peru where I found numerous sites in the Iquitos area to probe the relationships between diverse species of copal trees, the obscure bark-boring weevils that provoke formation of resin lumps on their trunk, bees that harvest this resin to make their nests and people who collect the resin to caulk their canoes. It was great to find a collegial community of researchers and a less onerous government bureaucracy.

After a Quaker healer helped me realize that I could and should try to work with communities again, I founded the Center for Amazon Community Ecology in 2006. CACE’s main goal is to help local communities improve their livelihoods by sustainably harvesting and marketing value-added NTFPs as alternatives to economic activities that damage the forest. Our first project was a study of copal at the Jenaro Herrera research station operated by the Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP). We measured the amount of resin that could be harvested from different species of copal trees and the amount of time that should be allowed between successive harvests for resin weevils and resin lumps to recuperate.

While I had initially decided to focus just on copal, an enterprising artisan named Amalia walked several kilometers from town to show me some bags and fans she had woven from chambira palm leaves and necklaces made with local seeds. It felt like deja-vu from Tekohaw where neighbors often came to my house to trade necklaces, bracelets or rings they had carved from palm nuts and bones for fishing line, hooks or some extra sugar. After giving away as many of these items as I could to relatives for Christmas presents, I found that I could actually sell them at my Friends Meeting and return the proceeds to support needs in the community. OK universe, I get the message. Handicrafts are not only a valid but perhaps one of the best forms of value-added NTPFs available to local communities. The next summer, I met several groups of artisans in Jenaro Herrera and began working with them to develop specific designs of rainforest plant jewelry and woven bags.

In 2008, it seemed time to begin applying lessons from our copal studies in a protected reserve to real conditions around communities in the region. I had gone it alone with the Tembé in Brazil and didn’t want to do so again in Peru. I was fortunate to met Michael Gilmore who had worked with Maijuna native communities in the Napo region. He introduced me to the Instituto del Bien Comun which facilitated my first visits to native communities along the Ampiyacu River and the Rainforest Conservation Fund which invited me to meet their campesino community partners along the Tahuayo River.

These visits gave me a renewed sense of confidence and welcome perspective about working with communities. I tried to clearly explain how working with CACE could benefit the community both in the short-term and long-term without creating unrealistic expectations and making promises I couldn’t keep. Many communities have been involved with research and development projects sponsored by governmental and non-governmental agencies that have failed to help them so they have become understandably cynical about new proposals. A few communities which have escaped such attention for better or worse, however, seemed vulnerable to uncritically embrace a potential project too quickly.

While adhering to certain principles and protocols (like always seeking out village leaders first) can improve the chances of succeeding, I increasingly trust my instincts to sense when working with a particular community would not be a good fit for us if I feel we could not offer what they seem to need, the logistics of working there would be too hard for us to manage, or the social atmosphere would not be conducive to establishing a positive relationship.

In the past six years, we have slowly built trust with partners in about ten villages and small towns in the region. Our largest program focuses on developing and marketing innovative handicrafts and essential oils with native communities in the Ampiyacu region. We began by surveying copal resin around the village of Brillo Nuevo and creating a unique line of belts that Bora artisans have woven with chambira palm fiber and natural plant dyes into patterns of Amazon jungle snakes. As our ability to sell crafts in the U.S. grew, we reached out to new villages with the goal of partnering with at least one village from the four ethnic groups (Bora, Murui (Huitoto), Ocaina and Yagua) represented in the fifteen communities that comprise the native federation FECONA.

This expansion of village partners accompanied the growth of ideas for new products and designs coming from artisans, CACE and craft buyers. These now include guitar straps, dog collars and leashes, hat bands, bracelets, hot pads, cell phone and water bottle carriers, and Christmas tree ornaments. Our overall craft offerings also include woven baskets, ornaments and jewelry made by artisan partners from Chino on the Tahuayo River, Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River, and the Maijuna village of Nueva Vida on the Napo River.

The strongest asset of most of these artisans is their creativity, and CACE has been able to sell a fair number of their beautiful woven crafts at local fairs and church events around central Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C. area. This level of sales, however, has usually only generated enough extra income for artisans to buy some basic materials for their household. In order to increase their income to the level where they can send their children to a better school (one commonly stated goal for families in the region), they will need to be able to make crafts in larger quantities with more consistent quality. Doing so will require surmounting the biggest challenge we face working with many artisans; they are used to making and selling things one at a time, often by themselves.

Telling an artisan that we can’t accept a piece that she may have worked on for several days is the one of the hardest and most important things that we do. Some artisans get frustrated and/or angry at us and give up. Women who have now worked with us for up to six years all say they appreciate that we hold them to a high standard and that giving them detailed feedback on their crafts has helped them become better artisans. Last year we conducted a series of workshops with the Field Museum of Chicago to help artisans improve their communication and leadership skills and work together in small groups. This year CACE has sponsored several workshops led by veteran artisans to teach their fellow artisans how to make specific types of best-selling models of belts, hot pads, guitar straps and ornaments. We are also making instructional videos featuring these artisan “professoras” demonstrating how they make these crafts one step at a time.

Our craft sales have always been strongest in the Christmas season. This year we are going to try to expand sales by displaying our crafts at several “green” product expos and summer music festivals. If our partners continue to build their skills and organization, the step after that would be to bring their products to major gift trade shows to connect them with other business buyers.

In addition to building artisan capacity, the other critical component to scaling up production of handcrafts is to ensure that the plants used to make them are well managed. We followed the lead of another NGO working in the region by providing curved pruning saws to artisans in Brillo Nuevo so they could harvest chambira palm leaf spears with less damage than is sometimes caused by cutting them with a machete. We have surveyed chambira abundance in artisan fields and are sponsoring more reforestation activities to increase the supply of this key fiber to meet expanding demand for crafts in the future. We have helped artisans in Brillo Nuevo to plant more dye plants in upland areas and raised planter boxes so high seasonal floods don’t deprive them of the roots, fruits, and leaves they use to imbue chambira with a wide range of colors.

While some craft buyers take products from artisans on consignment (and sometimes only pay them months later), CACE pays artisans immediately for any product we accept and assume the risk of selling it or not. Beyond promoting sustainability and fair trade, we also give back to the communities where our artisan partners live and harvest their plants. We dedicate 20% of net craft sale revenues to support health, education, and conservation needs in our partner communities. They have so far used these funds to buy school supplies and medicines, build a community pharmacy and a fully equipped bathroom for a village school, and improve their chambira palm management.

Our work with handicrafts is focused on generating income for women; the goal of our copal work is to develop an alternate source of income for men who are often engaged in logging and selling game meat. While copal resin is often boiled with used motor oil to caulk wooden boats, its other traditional use that has been documented back to the Mayans in Mexico is incense. Our early attempts to grind the resin into incense sticks was laughably ineffectual, but I fortunately met the owner of a specialty fragrance company from Los Angeles who told me that the resin could be distilled to extract its essential oil. Oils with the right aromas could be valuable components of custom-made perfumes.

The next summer we brought a copper alembique still to Brillo Nuevo and prepared our first batch of copal oil. We lacked rye flour to make the paste used in the Old World to seal the junctures between the pots and pipes so we applied cassava flour. The hot still baked it well, but too much steam still escaped so we opted for a plumber’s caulk called Moldi-Mix. It was exciting to produce our first batch of golden oil, and I took a sweet-smelling bath in the warm hydrosol that emerged from the process. Unfortunately our fragrance lady said that first sample had a strong lemony aroma. This was fine for a cleaning solution, not for a fine perfume.

Over the next few years we only collected resin lumps from copal trees whose species we could identify. We then distilled small batches within weeks, six months or a year after harvest to see how the type of resin and extent of its maturation would affect the composition and attractiveness of its oil. The good news of this painstaking process was that we identified one great candidate for a high-value fragrance; the bad news was that this resin came from one of the least common species in the area.

While we kept up our studies to monitor recovery rates of copal resin after harvest, an alliance with the NGO Camino Verde that conducts reforestation projects in southern Peru led us to launch a joint project to produce essential oil from rosewood trees – in our case “Brazilian rosewood” – Aniba rosaeodora. This classic oil had a well-established market, but more than a century of felling and grinding up entire trees throughout the Amazon had brought this aromatic rainforest tree to the verge of extinction.

One man from Brillo Nuevo guided us to a lone rosewood tree that survived from five seedlings his father had brought from the Putumayo River over sixty years before to plant in front of his new home in the Ampiyacu River area. It took five spry men over an hour to collect a bag of small branches and leaves from its high canopy. This batch yielded a decent amount of oil, but harvesting material from older trees was not going to be a viable strategy for generating income or promoting rosewood conservation.

We soon commissioned IIAP to produce 900 rosewood seedlings for us at their nursery in Jenaro Herrera. Most came from cuttings from a few bush size plants they had. In early 2013, we brought these two-foot tall plants by truck and a succession of three boats to Brillo Nuevo where they were divided among five families that had won a lottery selection to plant a share in one of their forest fields. By monitoring the survival and growth over the past two years we have learned that rosewood seeks a medium path in life. It of course needs light and water, but young plants withered in open sun and died in saturated fields. We expect to be able to carry out the first limited leaf and branch harvest early next year. The general plan will be to maintain most trees at a height of three to four meters so they concentrate their growth in producing side branches. Other trees in each field will be allowed to grow tall at their own pace into mature trees whose seeds can be used to expand the local oil producing enterprise and replenish the species. Almost every family from Brillo Nuevo now wants to have their own rosewood trees – both to enjoy the soothing fragrance that it naturally emits and to have another source of income.

While waiting for the trees at Brillo Nuevo to reach minimum harvestable size, we wanted to gain some experience working with rosewood trees. Searching around Tamshiyacu where IIAP had acquired its few trees, we found a few families willing to sell us some leaves from trees planted in their farm plots about twelve years ago. Our Bora friends had laboriously cut our first trial batches of rosewood branches into little chips by machete, but in the summer of 2014 we brought in a grinder and stainless steel distiller to improve the efficiency of our budding enterprise. The new equipment worked well, but our initial runs processing rosewood leaves from Tamshiyacu and copal from other sites were hampered by a different technological challenge. We needed a steady flow of water to run through the condenser that cooled the oil and water vapor back to their liquid state, but we quickly emptied the tank connected to the well of our rental house and then the old pump gave out. The operation ran more smoothly when we relocated to a place connected to city water.

It remains to be seen if we will be able to produce enough of the very special copal oil with our community partners to sell to perfume makers, but working with Camino Verde showed us that even our more common varieties may be very attractive to people interested in aromatherapy. We’re now discussing copal oil production projects with several native communities in the region. The next steps will be using the results of our research to formulate management plans to guide the harvest of copal resin and satisfying the other legal requirements to export copal and rosewood oil to buyers in the U.S. and elsewhere. These processes will doubtless involve a new series of challenges, but I am optimistic that we are finally getting close to creating a new source of sustainable income for people in forest communities – even remote ones.

To learn more about CACE’s work, please visit To support our project in Peru, please visit our page on GlobalGiving at: Donations of any size are very welcome.


Campbell Plowden with Huitoto artisans

My elusive quest to support Amazon forest conservation and communities

By Campbell Plowden, Executive Director, Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I’d like to thank Bill Grimes for his sincere counsel and support since I became a regular visitor to Iquitos ten years ago and for kindly offering the use of his Dawn on the Amazon Café for our first public meeting in Iquitos in 2015, March 24, 6:30 – 9:30pm

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Don Dean March 23, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Very fine article, many details I did not know. Last time I saw Campbell we were having dinner at my favorite place 🙂

2 Beth Hunter August 7, 2015 at 5:01 pm


I am presently working an product sourcing for a new online retail business I hope to launch by next spring. I will be selling various items for dogs. I love the weaves created by the Peruvian communities with which you interact and would like to be able to contribute to their well-being by selling dog leashes and collars of selected designs by these communities. Is this possible?

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