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Campbell Plowden: Working With Amazon Communities

began my conservation career as an activist and investigator with Greenpeace working for the protection of whales and tropical forests. I then shifted to studying the ecology, sustainable harvest and marketing of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and founded the Center for Amazon Community Ecology to develop value-added NTFPs as alternatives to economic activities that degrade diverse rainforests.

Name: Campbell Plowden

Project: Community Ecology

Location: Peru

Twitter: @AmazonEcology

Bio: I began my conservation career as an activist and investigator with Greenpeace working for the protection of whales and tropical forests.  I then shifted to studying the ecology, sustainable harvest and marketing of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and founded the Center for Amazon Community Ecology to develop value-added NTFPs as alternatives to economic activities that degrade diverse rainforests.

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Research Site:

My main field sites are a research station on the Ucayali River and several native communities in the Ampiyacu River region of the northern Peruvian Amazon.

These are all fairly remote locations located in or near diverse lowland tropical rainforest. It takes about 12-18 hours by a “lancha” (large ferry) and another 5 hours in a “peque-peque” (motor canoe) to get from the city of Iquitos to the Bora Indian village of Brillo Nuevo. Brillo Nuevo has about 80 families whose thatched roof houses are spread around a few clearings (soccer fields). People get most of their food from backyard gardens, forest farm fields, hunting and fishing. They also collect a wide variety of forest products (both timber and non-timber) for both subsistence use and to generate some income.

Aims of the Project:

The overall goal of our project is to work with our native partners to apply their knowledge of local plants and creative talents to develop and market high-quality essential oils and innovative handicrafts made from sustainably harvested plants.

Our main research project has been studying the relationship between a group of trees called “copal,” resin lumps often found on their trunks, some unclassified bark-boring weevils that provoke the formation of these lumps, and various bees and wasps that harvest this resin to make their nests.

We have also conducted experiments to see how much resin we can harvest by carefully wounding the bark and measure how long it takes for resin lumps to come back after people harvest them.  We have distilled copal resin lumps and the leaves and branches of the rosewood tree to produce essential oils the community may be able to sell to a perfume company.

We also work closely with women artisans from Brillo Nuevo and other native villages to weave new types of handicrafts with sustainably harvested chambira palm leaves and natural plant dyes for sale abroad.  These products include jungle snake pattern belts and guitar straps, dog collars and leashes, hot pads (trivets), coin purses, and Christmas tree ornaments.

ABOVE: Campbell with local people in the field. 
"Many reefs lie among the world’s poorest communities, isolated from modern conveniences and living well below the poverty line."
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Highlights:

One of my favorite things to do in the field is to walk around the forest with young and elder Bora native men.  They are totally comfortable moving through the dense green foliage with graceful swishes of their machete and curious to examine a new insect or flower.  They climb trees to gather fruits (or leaf samples) with fearless gusto and casually fashion an elegant bowl or instant backpack with a few nearby leaves.  I’m not a good climber but I love to photograph these guys doing anything or wander off a bit to photograph a weird vine or mottled pattern of bark.

I also love hanging out with the women artisans in the village.  Throughout the day they seamlessly move from stoking a wood fire, bring water from the well, cooking manioc bread, rolling chambira palm fibers on their thighs, pounding mishquipanga fruits to make a purple dye, nurse a baby, roast some fish their son has just brought home, weave a bag for an hour, wash some clothes, take a bath in the river, and still have enough energy to share stories with a curious gringo around a kerosene lamp before bed.

Challenges:

Big boats are usually late but they keep you dry.  You can leave when you want to in your friend’s motor canoe (if it’s working), but you often get rained on for hours. Mosquitoes are a nuisance but you just learn to accept them except when malaria’s around. If people show up for a meeting an hour late, you’re doing well. It’s frustrating dealing with jealousy that gets in the way of people doing their best and helping each other.

One of the greatest assets of tropical forests is their diversity – the downside of this diversity is that it’s hard to find a lot of anything valuable, because it’s inherently rare.

I love speaking to people in their own language because it’s the best way to earn their trust and understand how they truly view their relationships with each other and their environment.  I can communicate well enough in Spanish, but I know I don’t have the time or an agile enough tongue to learn the Bora, Huitoto, Ocaina or Yagua native languages.

ABOVE: Photograph of a village on the Ucayali River in 2011, James Borrell.
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Top Tips for research in this environment:

1) Be aware that walking in a tropical forest is very different from walking in a temperate one.  Get in shape before you get there. It can be very tiring walking with knee high boots (to cross streams and protect you from snakes), ducking over and under downed trees, and carefully crossing a stream on a narrow log.

2) Pay attention in the forest.  You may see a cool bird, but don’t step without seeing where your feet are going.  Don’t wrap your hand around a trunk without seeing what’s on the other side.  Natives who have grown up in the forest seem to have 360 degree awareness in motion – you don’t.

3) If you want to visit or work with a community, get an introduction from someone who they know and trust first.  If they take you there, be prepared to explain who you are, why and how long you want to stay, and what benefit the community may gain from your presence.  Be completely honest – don’t make promises you aren’t absolutely able and committed to keep.

4.) You will need all the patience and perseverance you can muster to do this work well.  At some point, you will probably get bitten by very painful insects, get very sunburned, get very cold, get robbed, suffer intestinal distress, skin infections and/or fever, have accidents or close-calls with poisonous snakes, boats or cars, and make countless cultural blunders that will embarrass you and raise doubts about your sanity for being there.  Believe me – the rewards of discovery, adventure, and friendships you could never have anywhere else will make these inconveniences well worth it.

Thanks Campbell!

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