In Langscape Magazine Articles

Weaving Reverence, Respect, and Resilience into the Amazon Forest

September 14, 2022
Indigenous artisans rekindle reverence for a plant that has been traditionally used for centuries.

WORDS Clare Dowd, Isabel Carrió, and Leah Struzenski | IMAGES Tulio Dávila

 

chambira palm

Spiny trunks of the chambira palm (Astrocaryum chambira) growing in the rainforest near Iquitos, Peru. Photo: Dr. Morley Read/Shutterstock

 

Armed with long black spines, the chambira plant, a canopy palm that grows throughout the Amazon rainforest, is integral to the economy of the Bora, an Indigenous people living in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon. For centuries, the Bora and other Indigenous communities in the region have been extracting the fibers and twisting them into strings to produce woven hammocks, bags, and nets. The chambira fiber is an essential component of Indigenous identity and, more recently, of economic prosperity.

The chambira fiber is an essential component of Indigenous identity and economic prosperity.

While weaving with chambira fiber is a long-standing tradition, access to the fiber is dwindling because of deforestation at the hands of outside corporations, which is threatening the entire region. In Peru, this is happening at a time when the Bora people have begun selling their handicrafts commercially, as tourism in Peru has caused Indigenous crafts to gain popularity. The Center for Amazon Community Ecology (CECAMA) — an Indigenous-run organization that promotes the well-being of the Amazon ecosystem by supporting its people to create empowered communities and resilient forests — is working with Indigenous groups to prevent the commercialization of the crafts and reduce overharvesting by creating the handicrafts sustainably. The goal is to encourage conscious tourism, maintain native Peruvian traditions, and support financial stability within the community.

Yully Rojas, a Bora woman and facilitator at CECAMA, is determined to keep the handicraft tradition alive. Yully saw her peers struggling to support themselves with the limited fiber supply and brought together a group of primarily women artisans to ensure a bioculturally diverse future.

While weaving with chambira fiber is a long-standing tradition, access to the fiber is dwindling because of deforestation at the hands of outside corporations.

In partnership with the Creative Action Institute, an organization that equips grassroots leaders with resources to fight for gender equality and a sustainable planet, Yully hosted a skill-building clinic to generate community-driven solutions. During the clinic, Yully led the group in activities to analyze the underlying causes and impacts of a threatened chambira supply. Their analysis uncovered a two-fold dynamic: outsiders were overharvesting the fiber, causing scarcity; and the threat of scarcity caused the artisans to stockpile the fiber, steal from one another, and further misuse the resource. Through this clinic, Yully hoped to rekindle reverence for the fiber among community members, help them reconnect to their values, and affirm their commitment to work together to maintain the century-old practice.

The problem that weighed heaviest on the artisans’ hearts was the increase of theft within the community of Brillo Nuevo. Dalia, a local artisan said, “We must identify why people are stealing the chambira and try to help them get their own supply.” The clinic allowed the participants to openly address the strain on interpersonal relationships that the colonizers’ actions have caused. Through interactive processes that foster dialogue, creativity, and collaboration, and through innovative problem-solving methods, the clinic was able to renew and rebuild the inherent reverence and respect that the Bora people hold for the fiber.

In a facilitated discussion on the significance of the fiber to their Indigenous identity, each of the participants spoke about the history of the fiber, the ways in which it connects to their ancestry, and their hopes for future generations. Collectively, they were able to arrive at solutions to overcome the dwindling supply of chambira by harvesting it properly, imposing sanctions on how much an individual can harvest, and creating communal growing plots of the chambira plant. With support from CECAMA, the participants formed a collective to sell their products at tourist retail locations in the region, allowing community members to reduce their dependence on outsiders to sell their products.

Many described the exercise as restorative of their respect for both the fiber and their fellow artisans. Yully was moved by how the participants described their healing: “Hearing them speak to each person with such great emotion about the history of their ancestors and their desire to keep this practice alive feels like an outstanding achievement. I feel so proud to have been a part of this.”

 

The chambira fiber is an integral part of the Bora people’s culture. The women here are weaving bags for their artisan collective to sell to tourists.

chambira palm

The fiber comes from the Amazonian chambira palm. This drawing illustrates how to properly harvest the fiber.

Gisela

Gisela, the president of the weavers’ group, says the group faces theft within the community as the scarcity of fiber increases. She wants to renew the community’s reverence for the fiber.

social identity mandala

Weavers’ clinic participants draft their social identity mandalas, a tool developed by Creative Action Institute to help illustrate an individual’s inner and outer identity.

chambira

“We must identify why people are stealing the chambira and try to help them get their own supply,” said Dalia during a session in which artisans discussed the interpersonal struggles within the community.

traditional weaving methods

While the mandalas are a tool to explore the artisans’ social identities, they are created using traditional weaving methods.

Indigenous identity

The social identity mandalas are used to display the essence of what Indigenous identity means to each participant.

social identity mandala

While creating her social identity mandala, Rose said, “The [Amazon] forest is vital to me as an Indigenous woman.”

Bora

“Bora identity is an integral part of me,” said Gisela. “The symbols on my mandala mean life and forest. Without the forest, we couldn’t work or eat.”

Huitoto artisan

Benjamín is a Huitoto artisan. Here he is pictured weaving his mandala while rocking his sleeping child. His Bora wife is out of town for work.

Indigenous heritage

Teresa shared with the group that her hands are her special tools; they connect her to the traditions of her Indigenous heritage.

fiber supply

After creating the mandalas, the group discussed the issue of the dwindling fiber supply and practiced team building to restore trust among the group’s members.

chambira palm

At a final event open to community members, the participants shared their reflections, analysis, and the messages from their woven mandalas.

Bora

To end the workshop, participants celebrated their connection to the Amazon. They shared ideas about creating sustainable livelihoods, conserving the forest, and building resilient communities.

 

 

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Dowd, Clare

 

Clare Dowd is the founding Executive Director of Creative Action Institute. She has worked with hundreds of international and grassroots partners across Central America and Africa to design powerful programs that leverage creative methodologies to advance girls’ equality and build climate change resilience.

Carrió, Isabel

 

 

Isabel Carrió implements skill-building workshops with Creative Action Institute that integrate arts for social change on issues related to gender equity and climate justice. She holds an MFA from Argentina and was trained at The Art Students League and the National Academy of Fine Arts in New York.

Struzenski, Leah

 

 

Leah Struzenski is the Communications Associate for Creative Action Institute and a writer who is passionate about gender equity. She holds a BA in English Literature with a concentration in gender and sexuality studies from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

Tulio Dávila

 

Tulio Enrique Dávila Beteta is a program manager for the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. He has many years of experience using various communication tools to document, create, and engage Indigenous artisans in their efforts to develop sustainable livelihoods. He is also an experienced facilitator working with the rural and Indigenous communities from Loreto in Iquitos, Peru.

 

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