Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon

by Center for Amazon Community Ecology
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Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon
Support native artisans & rainforest in the Amazon

Edson is a 35 year-old father who lives in San Francisco, a campesino community on the banks of the Marañon River. He has been a fisherman most of his life because he enjoys fishing and it helps him provide for his family. Edson is also a very good artisan. We started buying crafts from him three years ago and soon realized he was also quite willing to share his talents with his fellow artisans. He developed new woven bird ornaments with his fellow artisan and friend Pablo and became a lead artisan facilitator in our training workshops because he was patient, charismatic and affirmed the artisans learning these difficult new skills with natural ease.

When COVID hit Peru in the spring of 2020, life for Edson and almost everyone else in the Amazon radically changed. Quarantines and travel restrictions halted all tourism. Virtually overnight, Edson lost his ability to sell any crafts or earn any money teaching others how to make them.

So Edson went back to fishing a lot for many months because it directly produced some food and generated some income selling fish in quick discreet trips to the market in Nauta.

As the severity of the pandemic eased, there was more freedom of movement. Edson could fish more and sell more. There was still no market for selling crafts, however, because there were still no tourists coming to Iquitos from other parts of Peru or anywhere else. Making crafts had become practically irrelevant to his life.

It looked like we could start to resume our work with artisans near the end of 2020, so we reached out to Edson to see if he would work with us again. He appreciated we had given some food and medicines to people in his community during the peak of the pandemic, but he wanted to keep focusing on fishing and explore other work because craft-making seemed too unpredictable. We were very sorry to hear this because we had been counting on him a lot, but we had to respect his decision.   Edson wanted to be a responsible father and husband. We listened, we waited, and we talked from time to time. If he was going to make crafts again on a regular basis, we understood he would need to regain his desire to create them by himself. He kept fishing, and we waited some more.

More time passed, and Edson started to come around. He was still an artisan at heart and wanted a chance to express himself through this médium and encourage other artisans to start making and selling crafts again. We were very happy to hear this and renewed an order for some bird ornaments from his group.

This slow return to craft-making, however, was almost fatally cut short. When we saw the first batch of hummingbirds produced by Edson’s group, we were disappointed because they fell quite short of the high quality they had produced in the past. We understood, though, they were out of practice and suggested some ways to the ornament could better represent the real bird. Edson tried again, but even his efforts still didn’t hit the mark. After we provided a second round of comments, he went radio silent….for several months. His group had lost their enthusiam for craft-making again because they felt it wasn’t worth their time making crafts that would never satisy us.

This situation was very humbling and led us to two important conclusions. Before we ask a group to make multiple copies of a specific ornament, we need to make sure they are working from an actual prototype of the model we have approved – not just photos of the animal. It’s understandably demoralizing to ask a group to make 20 ornaments only to tell them aferwards that we want them to redo them with some minor difference. Our other key realization was that we need to pay artisans like Edson a better price for developing these prototypes if we expect them to make multiple versions of a new model that will eventually become the standard for other artisans.

It was great to be spend time with Edson as a co-facilitator at a recent Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop in Nauta. Once again we were impressed with his diligence, insights, integrity, empathy, and ability to project enthusiasm with a seriousness of purpose. It was not surprising he had become the natural leader of his artisan group.

We had a heart-to-heart talk with Edson during a break in the workshop about his evolving relationship with craft-making in the past year and a half.   He was honest sharing his frustrations with the ways we had recently dealt with him and his group and why these had almost led them to abandon their involvement with this enterprise. He very much appreciated, though, that we had offered to pay him and his compatriot Pablo more for developing new craft models since it acknowledged both their economic need and emotional investment.

Edson and Pablo both came to Iquitos two days later to discuss our plan for moving forward. We started going over the designs for specifc bird ornaments one by one. It was so much nicer and productive discussing the finer points of design and color in person since we had clearly not done a great job of doing this working from one-inch wide photos on cell phones.

It seems like we are back on track with two of our master artisan partners. Edson is an artisan who almost got away. We suspect the fish will be happy that he will dedícate more of his time again to weave bird ornaments instead of throwing out nets to catch them.

Edson and his wife Ketty at artisan workshop
Edson and his wife Ketty at artisan workshop
Edson teaching woman artisan at workshop
Edson teaching woman artisan at workshop
Edson with harpy eagle and kingfisher ornaments
Edson with harpy eagle and kingfisher ornaments
Edson and artisan group members at workshop
Edson and artisan group members at workshop
Edson teaching Franki at Brillo Nuevo workshop
Edson teaching Franki at Brillo Nuevo workshop
Edson giving thumbs up affirmation to new artisan
Edson giving thumbs up affirmation to new artisan
Edson playing guitar during workshop break
Edson playing guitar during workshop break
Edson receiving COVID relief supplies from CACE
Edson receiving COVID relief supplies from CACE
Machiguenga native fishing with net
Machiguenga native fishing with net
Bora man fishing from dugout canoe in Brillo Nuevo
Bora man fishing from dugout canoe in Brillo Nuevo

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We organized two workshops last month with artisans and others from the native village villages of Brillo Nuevo, Puca Urquillo Bora and Puca Urquillo Huitoto in the Ampiyacu River area to use art and respectful communication as ways to address problems and solutions related to their lives in the forest.

“This is a workshop somewhat different from what we are used to doing,” explained my colleague Yully before the 30 attendees of the ART AND CONSERVATION OF THE FOREST WORKSHOP in Brillo Nuevo. Yully continued: "In the next two days we will explore different issues that surround indigenous identity, as well as some problems that may arise in the community, forest and when working with crafts." The attendees listen attentively wondering what will come.

We began the workshop by asking the artisans to mention some problems they had either in the community or working with crafts. Gisela adjusted her mask to speak. She is the president of her artisan group and immediately felt led to share that one big problem she has faced is the theft of chambira by other members of her community. She posed the question out loud why someone might steal chambira from their neighbor’s field. One person called out, "They have no chambira of their own to harvest.” Someone else said, "They don't want to plant new trees in their fields," We wrote down all responses on large pieces of paper taped to the walls without comment. Moises raised another problem related to chambira - the sale of raw fiber by the kilo to occasional buyers or even trading chambira in bulk for used clothes. This issue is new to us. Apparently some outsiders come to the village to sell used clothes or trade them for meat or more recently for chambira. We recorded all comments on the papers without discussing solutions. It was time to create art.

We gave everyone some paper, cardboard, pencils, colors and modeling clay with the open invitation for them to use these materials to portray their ideal forest field. The participants, gathered in small groups, let their imaginations fly and began to draw (and shape) their vision of this idea considering the problems mentioned. Incredible scenes begin to appear with many chambira trees growing around artisans harvesting all kinds of plants in the forest or next to the river. When their creations were done, the participants seem satisfied and were eager to explain what they did.

Before unleashing this sharing, though, we moved on to the next create task.

We invited the artisans to make their own mandalas. "Mandala? What is that?" Some people who attended our Alternatives to Violence Project workshops were familiar with this concept of concentric circles of phrases used to present the core concepts of respect for self and others. We now explained we wished them to create a mandala to display the essence of what their indigenous and communal identity meant to them. They could show a personal conflict if they wished such as a time they had felt like a victim of racism or other form of discrimination. We give them paper and left them to draw or use their chambira to weave anything they wanted. Once again they embraced the chance to apply their imagination and make more art.

When they finished, each participant had a chance to present their initial creations. Each person was greeted with enthusiastic applause. The second round focused on the mandalas. They were incredible in their beauty, diversity and depth of feeling. They included bags, trivets, and dream catchers. Each artisan in turn explained what their indigenous identity meant to them. Rode said, “The forest is extremely important to me as an indigenous woman.” Pointing to her design on the wall, she said, “My Bora identity is important to me. These symbols mean life and forest. Without the forest we could not work, and we could not eat.

Yully and I continued to marvel at each successive presentation.

The final activity of the workshop was the World Café when we returned to the problems identified in the morning. This time, though, we asked people to discuss them again with the goal of generating ideas for how to solve these problems in the community. Participants gathered around an imaginary table (as if they were in a café) to brainstorm practical solutions and write them down on big sheets with paper with colored markers. Yully and I sat down and listened. Dalila who is an artisan and dedicated mother said, "We must identify who is stealing chambira, why they do it and try to help them get their own supply. If they persist in committing this offence, we need to tell the president of the community so they can apply the penalties we have in the community for people who don’t respect our agreements.”

We had been aware of many problems surrounding chambira for some years. It was really good to feel that this workshop finally gave us and our partners the opportunity to discuss these sensitive issues in a way that could bring people together to find solutions instead of just complaining about and fomenting bad feelings. Amazon Ecology is committed to continue supporting our partners to tap their creativity, their culture and their deep connection to the nature around them to create sustainable livelihoods, conserve the forest and build healthy resilient communities.

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Casilda - Bora native artisan with chambira hotpad
Casilda - Bora native artisan with chambira hotpad
Bora artisan drawing native design on mandala
Bora artisan drawing native design on mandala
Chambira mandala with yellow center at Brillo Nuev
Chambira mandala with yellow center at Brillo Nuev
Artisan dad with baby at workshop in Puca Urquillo
Artisan dad with baby at workshop in Puca Urquillo
Huitoto artisan drawing tree with vines
Huitoto artisan drawing tree with vines
Brillo Nuevo artisan with woven bird mandala
Brillo Nuevo artisan with woven bird mandala
Brillo Nuevo artisan weaving chambira hotpad
Brillo Nuevo artisan weaving chambira hotpad
Making clay figure for 3D forest scene mandala
Making clay figure for 3D forest scene mandala
Community reviewing mandalas in Brillo Nuevo
Community reviewing mandalas in Brillo Nuevo
Workshop participants celebrate their sharing
Workshop participants celebrate their sharing
Angelina's chambira mandala
Angelina's chambira mandala
Workshop reflections from head, heart and hand
Workshop reflections from head, heart and hand

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Looking out the window of our house in Brillo Nuevo, I see the rain falling hard on the nearby caimito tree. The fruits seem ready to fall with each drop that hits their surface while the branches dance freely in the wind. "It's a good rain," says my co-worker, Yully, as she peeked out the other window. "Yes," I answer simply. "A good rain," she adds with a slight smile before returning to the table where she is organizing her work for the coming days.

A good rain ...

I think about her words. Somehow rain can be a kind of cleansing. Water can of course wash a Surface. In recent months, though, so many things have happened in the communities and in our lives that is good to have a metaphorical good rain to wash away the heavy loads we have been carrying and give us a chance to continue.

Continue or perhaps its stronger form persevere is the sentiment and action I have witnessed in recent months. I have interviewed many people from Amazon communities in the past few months, and I want to hear stories from more. The rain reminded me of my recent conversation with Franco, a young Bora native entrepreneur from the village of Puca Urquillo.

Franco's voice broke with emotion when he shared his experience getting COVID. "When I got sick, I got very scared. I suffered just trying to breathe. I needed oxygen, but where was I going to get it? There was none in our community and I would get some even if I went to Pebas. It was horrible. The only thing I could do was stay at home and endure. I would need to do my best with the medicinal plants my family got me. I felt that I was going to die at any time. I wasn’t hungry, but I had to eat. I had no energy, but I had to carry on. I wanted to cry all day, but I had to be strong. I did not let my mother get close because I didn’t want her to catch the virus from me. My wife looked after me, but she was afraid she would end up just as bad as me. It was a nightmare. I had always been healthy through my twenties, but now I was fighting a damn illness that could kill me. It was a horrible, horrible nightmare ".

But Franco recovered. He got better and recovered his smile.

Other people told me their personal odysseys as well. When we met with the artisans from Brillo Nuevo, we discussed their craftmaking and workshops we hoped to resume. At the end of that meeting, we shared some thoughts about the recent months, and the women smiled. It amazed me that in spite of everything they had gone through, they seemed able to smile. They smiled and joked with their hope intact. They have adapted to the reality of the pandemic. They have started to make crafts again and continue their routine of life in the forest. They have not, however, forgotten what the past months have meant.

While Malvina sat weaving, she told us her COVID story: "I got sick first, and then so did my husband Javan. He still went to our field to harvest crops to make food for us. Even though he felt very bad, he forced himself to carry on and take care of me because I had to stay in bed. He was very attentive to me and brought me my chambira so I could at least weave a little. When I began to feel better, he let himself fall into bed, and I took care of him. This is how we passed through this illness, one looking after the other, and taking care of each other. "

I heard other stories similar to Malvina’s at the April meeting of FECONA – the federation that represents 14 native communities near the Ampiyacu River. We talked about our activities in the region that included sending medicines and food supplies to people thanks to the generous support from the Sisters of Mercy, other groups and many individual friends. I do not exaggerate when I say that the communities shared their heartfelt appreciation for this support and wanted us to be sure to share their thanks with the people who made this possible. I add my sincere thanks to theirs; you made more of a difference than you can imagine.

Franco - COVID survivor from Puca Urquillo Bora
Franco - COVID survivor from Puca Urquillo Bora
Ania - Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo.
Ania - Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo.
Mother and daughter looking at rain in Nuevo Peru
Mother and daughter looking at rain in Nuevo Peru
Alejandrina - Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo
Alejandrina - Bora artisan from Brillo Nuevo
Casilda - Bora artisan weaving chambira trivet
Casilda - Bora artisan weaving chambira trivet
CACE house in Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo
CACE house in Bora native village of Brillo Nuevo

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In one of the Alternatives to Violence Project workshops that we organized in the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo, we were talking about racism and the discrimination that some people still feel as indigenous people. One woman asked, “What does it mean to be indigenous?”

With her fingers interlaced on her legs, Celia looked intently at the group sitting in the circle and responded, “That is a question I would like to ask people who make fun of us who are indigenous. To me, being indigenous means being strong. My mother hardly speaks Spanish, and my father didn't even go to school, but they are the strongest people I know. They are indigenous and as their daughter I am too”.

"Being indigenous means being from the jungle," said Pedro, a man in his late sixties with a lot of life marked on his face. “I have also met people who have discriminated against me for being indigenous, but I learned not to let it bother me. I am proud of my language, the place where I live and my culture. Long ago, I learned that there are ignorant people with hatred in their hearts. I ignore them. On the contrary, I even view them with pity. They think they are better, but they are not”.

Amanda ran her fingers through her hair while commenting, "That's the problem, they think they are better because they were born in the city or come from another country. I know how to weave beautiful handicrafts, I like to go fishing and collect food from my field, and these are things I like to do. I have a young daughter. I want her to study and pursue a career, but I also want her to feel proud of being indigenous.”

Miguel adjusted the cap covering his hair and said, "These people who are racist and discriminate against us must understand that in the end we are all human beings." The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

Manola raised her hand and asked me, “Tulio, what do you think it means to be indigenous?”

I paused for a few seconds before responding because I didn’t want to give an answer that seemed rehearsed. I first looked down at my hands and then back at her and said, "Well, my father is from one part of Peru and my mother from another. Like many Peruvians I am a mixture of a little bit of everything.” Some people laughed with me before I added, "I suppose that for me to be indigenous is to be a mixture of everything all of you have said."

The participants seemed satisfied, and we moved on to another topic.

But the truth is, I was not satisfied with my answer at the time. I would have liked to have shared a longer and more thoughtful answer based on my observations and experiences with these people in their communities for many years. To me, the sense of being indigenous means resonating with the sun, the rain, and the nights with a star-filled sky. It is soaking in innumerable sights and sounds of village life like: An artisan hanging strands of chambira fiber on a clothes line to dry or just smiling from her window. Children splashing while bathing in the river while men fish serenely from their hand-made canoe. Yells and thumps from hits and kicks from afternoon soccer and volleyball games. Feet pounding to powerful drum beats in a traditional festival in darkened maloca. Swirling machetes cutting manioc stems in a field and listening intently to a curaca share stories about the origin of each clan and legends about strange things in the jungle.

I would have liked to have shared these and many other things, but still I would not have had enough words to explain what I thought it means to be indigenous.

It is a potent question to reflect on, but there is of course no one correct answer because each Bora person and other indigenous people would answer it in their own way – some with words and others better through their actions. What is important for CACE to keep in mind is that our native community partners have a deep evolving connection to the forest and each other and that we need to keep respecting, learning from, and supporting.

Bora artisan Gisela with woven chambira belt
Bora artisan Gisela with woven chambira belt
CACE chambira management workshop at Brillo Nuevo
CACE chambira management workshop at Brillo Nuevo
Bora artisan drying dyed chambira palm fiber
Bora artisan drying dyed chambira palm fiber
Bora people at festival in community maloca
Bora people at festival in community maloca
Volleyball game at Brillo Nuevo
Volleyball game at Brillo Nuevo
Bora woman in her field with basket and machete
Bora woman in her field with basket and machete
Bora fisherman in canoe on Yaguasyacu River
Bora fisherman in canoe on Yaguasyacu River
Bora man with chainsaw and wooden planks
Bora man with chainsaw and wooden planks
Bora artisan in hammock with chambira fiber
Bora artisan in hammock with chambira fiber
Bora man in boat at sunset
Bora man in boat at sunset

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Manuel has been the curaca (traditional leader/healer) of the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo for more than fifty years. In that time he has lived through many experiences, some more spiritual than others.  I will call him Don Manuel in this report because he deserves this term of respect after long service as a teacher and beacon of wisdom in his community.

When the pandemic reached their remote corner of the world, Don Manuel could not help but worry. He worried and he got down to work. He received my colleagues and me in his “maloca” (traditional home for the curaca and special gatherings in Amazon native communities) and agreed to share his experiences with COVID over the past year.

He began by saying: “Early last year we heard about a disease that was killing people in other countries. We were not very concerned at first because we thought it would be very difficult to reach us. When it got to Peru, though, we knew it was only a matter of time before it spread to native communities. I did not want anyone in my village to die.”

“We indigenous people know the value of medicinal plants and we immediately started using them. We drank beverages to improve our breathing and take care of our lungs. We heard that brothers from other communities were dying and felt some helplessness. In addition to medicinal plants, we were helped with medicines from the pharmacy. We also begged "the powerful one" to take care of us.  The elders of the village gathered to sing songs and pray that "the powerful one" would take care of our people. And so my friend, you must understand that physical care must go hand in hand with spiritual care.”

Don Manuel paused and put a spoonful of ground coca leaf into one cheek and followed it with a dab of “ampiri” (liquid artisanal tobacco). His eyes seemed lost for a moment as if he was sorting through some memories. He then continued.

“This disease is still hitting the world, and we are afraid it will take more of our brothers and sisters.  We know, however, that it will pass at some point.  At some point we will return to normal life when we won't hear about wearing masks and people with breathing problems. But we have to learn something. Maybe appreciate life more. Maybe you will appreciate the things you have more, no matter how simple they are. As an old man, this is what I try to teach young people. Appreciate what you have. Cherish each day so you can wake up and say: I am alive, I am still here.”

It was time to leave the maloca so we could continue our other work in the community. We wanted to say goodbye to Don Manuel with a hug, but we could not. He understood and smiled at us.

As we were leaving he said, “Thank you for what you did. Thank you for the medicines and for the supplies you sent us. They served us well. Seriously, your help came when we needed it most. You did not forget the native people, and we will not forget you. We will always remember.”

I told Don Manuel, “Many good-hearted people made donations to provide this support to Brillo Nuevo and other communities.”

He responded, “Well, please send our thanks to all of those people, whoever they are and wherever they are, I can only wish them eternal happiness." 

I said, “I will, I promise you.”

So we share thanks from Don Manuel and from us to you and other generous donors including the Sisters of Mercy who supported our COVID Community Relief Campaign.

The number of COVID cases in Peru steadily declined through the middle of January, but unfortunately a second wave is now infecting many people again in many parts of the country including the north-eastern provinces of Loreto where we work. Strict quarantines and travel restrictions have been imposed again to slow the spread of the virus until enough vaccines can be delivered to truly control the disease. We will resume our regular artisan training program as soon as we can, but for now we again ask for your prayers and continued support for our efforts to support our partner communities in the Amazon.

Don Manuel in Brillo Nuevo maloca
Don Manuel in Brillo Nuevo maloca
Don Manuel toasting coca leaves
Don Manuel toasting coca leaves
Medicines in Brillo Nuevo community pharmacy
Medicines in Brillo Nuevo community pharmacy
Bora woman with donated COVID relief supplies
Bora woman with donated COVID relief supplies
CACE staff person interviewing Don Manuel
CACE staff person interviewing Don Manuel
coca and ampiri preparations
coca and ampiri preparations
Don Manuel in front of Brillo Nuevo maloca
Don Manuel in front of Brillo Nuevo maloca

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Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Location: Lemoyne, Pennsylvania - USA
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Twitter: @Amazon Ecology
Project Leader:
Campbell Plowden
Dr.
Lemoyne, Pennsylvania United States
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