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
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.