Update: Amazon Blockade
April 22. Thousands of Peruvian rainforest people have been blockading roads and river traffic throughout the Amazon in non-violent protests over the Peruvian government's roll-back of indigenous land rights and plans for water privatization. (story) mother and daughter Artisana
Shaman planting a new chakruna tree
The groundbore brought from Holland, now used widely in tree-planting.
Ana Rojas Soria represented the Shipibo at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in 2007
Jungle Reforestation The latest film from the "Report From the Forest" series, on the jungle reforestation work of Julio Arce, Professor Ethnobotany, University of Iquitos, Peru; with a focus on medicinals and other human-ally species. Watch the video here.
The Shipibo-Conibo Amazon Forest People at the Dawn of the 21st Century
A special report from Willem Malten
The Shipibo-Conibo are an indigenous tribe along the Ucayali river in the Amazonian rainforest of Peru. Formerly two groups, the Shipibo (fishmen) and the Conibo, (apemen), they eventually became one distinct tribe though intermarriage and communal ritual. The Shipibo-Conibo are one of the fastest growing indigenous groups, now having some 32,000 members or more.
The Shipibo-Conibo are living with one foot in the 21st century and with one foot in an unfathomably deep past probably spanning millenia in the Amazonian rain forest. They still practice many of their own unique traditions such as the Anisheati ceremony, and ayahuasca shamanism. They have a very distinct artistic tradition and their decorative and geometric designs inspired by shamanic songs (icaros) are found in their clothing, pottery, tools, and traditional textiles. Some of the urbanized Shipibo-Conibo live around Pucallpa in the Yarina Cocha, an extensive urban indigenous zone, while most still live in scattered villages and extended families over a large area of jungle forest extending all the way from Brazil to Equador.
In many ways the situation for the Shipibo-Conibo has deteriorated over the last few years, mainly due to global weather changes. For example, whereas the Shipibo of the village of Pao-Yan used to have a diet of fish, yucca and fruits, now there is mainly yucca and fish. Most of the mature fruit trees died since there has been a drought, followed by flooding, and some of the plantains and banana trees are also struggling. Deforestation and erosion are evident everywhere along the Ucayali river. The global increases in energy and food prices have exacerbated the situation.
Thus the basic needs of the Shipibo-Conibo are more pressing now, which is affecting their ability for longer term planning. Whereas before, the Shipibo counted on minimum subsistence living, now there is a sense that hunger in the farther reaches of the Shipibo nation may not be that far off.
Permacultura Latin America (PAL), based in Santa Fe New Mexico, has sponsored several programs with the Shipibo-Conibo Indians, in particular a program for the establishment of fish-ponds, under the guidance of Ali Sharif. In 2000 Willem Malten (from Ecoversity) started working with Limber Cabrera and the Shipibo-Conibo Shamans on a project of documentation (in film) of the cultural traditions of the Shipibo-Conibo tribe. After publication of the film Shipibo-Conibo this collaboration morphed into Shipibo-Conibo Regeneraccion, a broad collaboration promoting concepts of sustainability among the Shipibo-Conibo with an emphasis on bio-diverse reforestation and women artisans' cooperative development.
Two expeditions into the forest were outfitted in order to locate high value trees in particular Palo Rosa or Rosewood in order to secure seeds and saplings. These large trees (up to 150 feet) are going extinct worldwide, yet have a high medicinal value and produce a perfume oil can be extracted from the tree. The areas that were identified by the Shipibo are very remote and it took an enormous effort to get there, stay for a few days in the wild, and map the area and locations of the trees that were found. In all, less than 50 trees were identified and seeds were gathered in two locations- one near Pueblo Nuevo and the other near Junin Pablo. Their location was logged with a GPS device acquired through the project.
In Pueblo Nuevo a nursery was established to nourish the survival of 260 saplings brought back from the forest. In the jungle itself the rate of survival of such a tree is very slight: rodents eat the seeds and usually a sapling is crowded out before it reaches enough light to survive. Other trees that are being planted now are copaiba trees for a medicinal oil (similar to tea tree oil yet much milder to the skin), and Chirisanango the 'cold tree' (see at right), a medicinal datura tree used in diets and shamanic medicine (see movie: July 08 Shipibo Report).
The Shipibo are working with Professor Julio Arce from Iquitos and Professor Oscar Bareto, in Pucallpa, both specialists in bio-diverse jungle reforestation with access to laboratory facilities, nurseries and processing techniques. Julio Arce furthermore made a commitment to continue to assist and teach the Shipibo in their reforestation efforts and and on securing and creating sustainable economic value from their natural resources. One plant that seems promising in these terms is the Piri Piri, a small bulbous grass like plant, which is high in very complex chemical structures. Though barely studied in the west, the Shipibo shamen identify over a hundred different species of Piri Piri, each with their own medicinal properties and significance. Some of the Piri Piri also have a very pleasant fragrance. The networking between the university and the tribe provides a very rich opportunity for collaboration.
We hope that the Copaiba trees can be sustainably harvested in about 7 years, to give an oil with very similar properties to tea tree oil, but much more pleasant for the skin and with a more appealing fragrance. Currently the US army is investigating a replacement of DEET, the toxic insect repellent, and Copaiba is one of the candidates to be investigated in a laboratory in San Diego. But there is already a market for this oil in the cosmetics industry. We hope these efforts are just the beginning of a much more comprehensive tree planting and reforestation project.
The traditional method for cultivation of a rainforest plot has been slash and burn. The small quantity of ashes left from the burning of the destroyed jungle provide nutrition to the soil, but not much. Counter-intuitively, the Amazonian jungle actually has very little humus topsoil. Limber Cabrera came up with a very different permaculture approach. First clear the area of weeds by slashing them. Install or create drainage which needs to be done with regard to the seasonal flooding. Then plant the cannabal bean, a large white bean not intended for human consumption, but which grows rapidly, crowding out the weeds, while meanwhile fixing nitrogen in the soil. Once gone to fruiting stage, the Cannabal bean provides nutrition to domesticated chickens, and they in turn scratch and open up the soil and deposit more nutrients.
Ali Sharif, working for PAL, introduced the idea of small fishponds to the Shipibo and they have established them since his work was completed. The seasonal flooding of the land provids a unique semi-porous landscape which attracts many species, including bird species and small crocodiles, to carve out a (temporary) niche around the ponds. Fruit trees planted close to the edge of the water provide nutrients to the fish.
Luzmlla Mori, Shipiba Woman
Luzmilla is 50 years old, has 4 children, some of them still in school. Luzmilla works continously to make ends meet, but is not quite able to and is slowly but surely getting father behind. Just the food preparaion and getting the children off to school is a major effort. In order to find dry wood for cooking Luzmilla has the choice of walking up to 4 hours (and pay for a motocar to get back with the load) or pay for carbon, charcoal, to keep the fire going.
Since the dollar collapse in value she has a harder time finding buyers for her fabrics and paintings since there are less tourists. Also the price for the fabrics (and food) has gone up dramatically. Even the most basic foods she depends on such as rice, eggs, flour and cooking oil have done up by about 50-100%.
It takes her up to two months to embroider a new tella, a traditional skirt usually worn by the women themselves but also sold as a commercial product. In order to try to sell something Luzmilla has to walk up to 3 hours to get to the center of Pucallpa and its hotels. Nowadays ofter she doesn't sell anything, and goes back home hungry. The staple in the house these days are plantains, kind of a mealy banana, and yucca- a root, and eaten day after day it gets to be tiresome.
When Luzmilla gets sick she depends on traditional medicines in order to make her better while she is still having to work. Since Luzmilla cannot afford schooling her children too are having to look for work nowadays. If they find some they are tyically paid 10 to 20 soles for a hard day's worth of phsical labor- about 6 dollar.
Luzmilla estimates that she herself makes only 300 to 500 soles per year, between 100 and 250 dollars per year. That makes her now a little depressed (triste) about life itself.
Luzmilla's only hope now is to make the few acres she and her family live on so productive that it will provide their most basic needs. Luzmilla and her family are now very motivated to cultivate their own food crops, raise fish, and process medicines and energy, and so are many of the Shipibos.
Crafts Collectives of the Shipibo Women: The Shipibo artisana women have been participating in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market since 2006. This has sent a wave of inspiration through the women's community, in particular in Pucalpa itself. The proliferation of designs and the sheer quantity of handmade paintings and embroideries is astonishing. Often now the women inform themselves of older designs, and then reinterpret them anew.
There has also been a genuine interest in making plant pigments, an art that had been forgotten as a practical tool. We will see if the market' will respond to these gems of traditional and modern design. It has renewed also the interest is the meanings of the different vignettes and design elements, and there is a conscious effort under way to start cataloguing this pictorial language off the Antiqua and Ronin designs. The aim of the folk art market is of course to make sales but also to establish a series of wholesale contacts for continued marketing of the women's artisan works.
Shipibo Healing Patterns
While the shamen sing their ayahuasca icaros at night, people in the maloca- the longhouse become aware of elaborate visual patterns. The next morning the women concentrate on their work of embroidering and painting these patterns onto fabric.
The process of embroidery can last up to three months - a typical embroidered cloth takes about a month to complete. The various smaller motifs all have meaning such as thinking man, soul of a child, star of the south, leaf of a medicinal plant, stream of rain, etc., and as such can be interpreted as a narrative. The overall pattern is inspired by the different layers of the skin (and insides) of the Anaconda Serpent, in the Shipibo cosmology an earth deity which sang all forms into existence at the beginning of time. Thus when the fabrics are used for clothing, people symbolically wrap themselves in the skin of their deity.
Each pattern is completely unique and in that sense it can be called art, yet this art is not based on the imagination of an individual but rather rooted in the collective consciousness of the whole Shipibo tribe. Ingesting ayahuasca allows access to this archetypical consciousness through the icaros and the induced visions. The intent is a sacred one: Healing through communion with the prime deity. The songs, patterns and healing are one.
Visions of the Black Anaconda
There are different distinguishable patterns here that are based on archetypes of the Shipibo-Conibo tribe and eventually rooted in the subconsciousness of humanity itself. Recently a circle motif has become popular among the women; when asked about it, they reply that the circle represents an egg. It is an announcement of something that is being born at this moment.
First there are the Antigua patterns- they are the oldest patterns, often geometrical and painted with a mud paint not only on fabrics but on ceramics and walls as well. Their meanings can be read simply, but should be understood in a much larger context with multiple levels of significance.
For instance the circular pattern with a square in the middle is called Torokene and signifies the pattern of turtlebacks. Since the turtles were also used for medicine, it also means medicine.
"Coruskone" is the Shipibo expression of relationship like in the word crossing or coming together.
"Shawkene" signifies bones or also backbone or the force that gives shape.
The final Antigua pattern is called "Vinuntope", derived from the pattern that the palm leaves make when woven. These palm leaf rugs were used to sit or sleep on. So the Vinuntope pattern also means to sit down or to relax.
Not too long ago a Shipibo woman by the name of Wasamego started radically diverging from the older Antigua patterns in a style that is now known as "Classico". She was the one to be inspired by the patterns of the skin of the Anaconda and are called Mayakume. The various smaller motifs all have meaning such as thinking man, soul of a child, star of the south, leaf of a medicinal plant, stream of rain, etc. and as such can be interpreted as a narrative. However the whole of the pattern is inspired by the different layers of the skin (and insides) of the Anaconda Serpent, "Ronin" an earth deity which at the beginning of time sang all forms into existence. Thus when the fabrics are used for clothing, people symbolically wrap themselves into the skin of their deity.
This is the "Wayvana" pattern: the wavy lines mimicking each other are people eating together underneath a tree (the little square in the middle). Of course the people that eat together, through time, are really the tribe itself. So the wayvana pattern is the symbol of the tribe itself. The circle represents the river that is visualized surrounding the community. Outside of that lies the unknown, the realm of the deity which envelopes the communidad. In the Shipibo-Conibo case, the main deity is Ronin, or the Anaconda, and in the design outside of the circle is painted the Mayakune pattern, the kin of the Anaconda.
This Case Focus was prepared by Ecoversity's Willem Malten, who has taken a longtime personal interest in the fate of these Shipibo families, and who has just returned from his most recent visit. The Shipibo are considered by the other forest peoples of the region to have the richest and most artful culture of all. How can this rich pre-modern culture survive? Moreover, can the Shipibo themselves survive? We've set up a playlist of Willem's videos of the Shipibo at Ecoversity TV:
"Report From The Forest".
In working with the Shipibo-Conibo communities there are a few constant challenges which are worth mentioning here since we usually cannot imagine them from our western perspective.
Communication: It is hard to follow through with these communities because the usual communication infrastructure such as phones or computer access are completely lacking. The only way to follow up on the progress that is being made is by physically going there- a trip that may take several days by boat.
Transportation: Regeneracion doesnt have its own boat, so we have to rent one usually with motor and crew in order to visit the communities. This is costly and takes time and resources away from the core of the operations.
Ongoing leadership within the communities: Whereas most communities are really happy to see activity coming to their shores and are quite willing to engage in the initial setup, it is much harder to manage follow-through after the Regeneracion Project leaders such as Limber Cabrera leaves.
Finally, it is always a challenge to engender and maintain a sense of equal empowerment between the sexes.