Saturday, September 29, 2012

Finding a Tree

An aging Ashaninka canoe, artfully still on the Pichis River.

Three days east of Lima, across high mountain passes of the Andes, past the ¨Jungle´s Eybrow¨ and far up river on the Rio Pichis from Puerto Bermudez lives small communities of Ashaninka natives. One of the largest and most diverse tribes of the entire Amazon, the Ashaninka communities are a resilient band whose knowledge of the jungle and reliance on it remains alive to this day. This is despite cultural attacks, political marginalizing and even ethnocide in the recent Shining Path terrorists of Peru´s 90s. For the last two weeks, I lived in the village San Pablo and built a traditional dugout canoe with an Ashaninka elder.

A canoe of eight meters supports a family for transportation between villages. A radio resting on the bow shows the intense edge between very old traditions and very new ones.
 A canoe of eight meters supports a family for transportation between villages. A radio resting on the bow shows the intense edge between very old traditions and very new ones.

Medicines, an intricate diet from forest products and fish, beautiful building materials such as bamboo, are all examples of the Ashaninka material culture in which their long knowledge, and balance with, the ecosystem have allowed an ample existence in the rainforest. Yet this is changing. For example, the animals that sustained a supple protein diet, like capybara, are radically more scarce, leading to a near, and recent, extinction of traditional hunting culture with bow and arrow. Deforestation in the region, with the rise of the agricultural frontier and logging has made large trees difficult to find and use sustainably.

Lioncio as we enter a path deeper into the jungle to find our canoe.

I met Lioncio Yossa, an elder in the San Pablo community and master builder of the dugout canoe. The first and crucial step in building the canoe is finding the tree. Not only is deforestation a negative force on the sustainability of the canoe building tradition, finding a tree the right size, the right location (near water for a good exist route) and right type, has become factors more difficult. 
Into the rainforest we hiked, across streams, through beautiful steamy jungle and community cultivation areas until we reached a magnificent Cieba tree at the edge of a small tributary to the Pichis. Felled just six months before by Lioncio´s brother, this was the first of six small canoes to be cut from the incredible trunk. The Cieba (or Kapok) tree is a mother species to many in the rainforest ecosystem. A home, often uniquely, to bats, birds, epiphytic plants, insects, and monkeys, the tree is literally a life sustaining element in the forest. The same applies to human beings. The tribes of the amazon use this tree in the form of the canoe to navigate the jungle waters, find food, and communicate. It is truly important to life and culture to this day.

The Cieba tree to use for our canoe

Standing over the one hundred foot beauty felled for this canoe was a mixed emotional experience. I was excited for the canoe I was to build with a true master, yet felt heavy hearted with the responsibility that comes with taking the life of such a forest being. A culture of wise use, I believe, can exist with a healthy ecosystem, such as the one the Cieba tree exists within. Yet our immense impact cannot be avoided. We found our tree, with great respect, it was time to build the canoe.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Whatever Works: The Many Boats of the Beni River

Rurre´s many boats at the construction beach along the Beni River
 Wildlife conservation, surviving indigenous communities, an adventure hub for global travelers, the quiet Rurrenabaque (¨Rurre¨) has quite its share of social change for a tiny river town at the amazon´s edge. I spent the week building boats - not traditional canoes - on Rurre´s beach, swimming periodically in the Beni River. From barges to inflatable kayaks, the boats I spent time with this week are a far cry from the canoes which first appeared here in Pre-Inca times when natives would carve serpent drawings and maps onto river-side rocks to mark water levels and the like.

Yet the changes in the vessels along the Beni don´t just tell me what boat is popular, or cheap to build, they say what innovations have happened. The changes show a patterns in the societal relationship to material and natural resources, they show a changing pattern of uses and needs. The also show what hasn't changed, such as the need to fish and for transportation. Canoes are a societal indicator species.

Repairing the boat of San Miguel De Bala
My first day of looking for work led me back to the people of San Miguel De Bala, a Tacana community with an eco-tourism operation, whom I wrote about last week. We repaired rot damage after beaching it with the help of a few dozen people. Their boat is of the same design, using the Suliman tree,  as the boat I came down the Beni on. The most common boat on the river now, the advent of tar, good nails, and saws for planking. With a tandem driver system, a look out in front and engine operator in the back, the 15 meter long boat is perfect for navigating the rugged stretches of the Beni with a heavy load.

Stripping a boat down to the base, or dugout hull with Cesar, master boat builder.
Over the next few days I worked with an elderly man named Cesar, just down river. Cesar builds the entire boats in a family operation. One of the most interesting jobs we did was stripping down the plan boat to its dugout base form. The planks and ribbing had rotted, but the base was as good as new. The boat, even with modern extrapolations, must be stripped to its elemental form.

The different bases made from rainforest trees, also in Cesar´s yard.
Then we built a barge. Working with a man named Abel and his son, the massive boat used a giant Suliman tree, split it in half, and put larger wood in the middle. This boat will be used to transport wood up and down the Beni. The dugout structure remains essential, yet with an innovation of wood in the centre versus planking on the outside. The increased load sizes are immense. 

A split hull and ribs, placing the bottom boards with nails and a drill.
Nailing in the ribs
We made a fire on the hot and humid beach using drift wood. A huge chunk of tar was put into a pot on top of the fire, piece by piece which I hacked off with a hammer. Once melted, this is dripped over the boat and replaced every so often..

Putting tar into the holes.
Its good to be on the river. The day before I left Rurre, I went kayaking up the Beni with my friend Pablo. Pablo, a native Bolivian, owns Rurre´s kayak rental shop. If you are ever in Rurre, you gotta go! We paddled up river past ancient sculptures of serpents marking river geography. We came across bat caves and searched for the pantheon of wildlife in the rain forest riverside. We simply enjoyed the river,as has always been done in whatever vessel people could create.

Pablo on the Beni, a hundred or more locals in the background enjoying an afternoon swim. Note: two guys carrying a log to float on - the most elemental of canoes!

Another great friend I made along the river is a man named Ron, a fisherman and assimilated Bolivian, though originally from the United States. Ron, the craftsman of the first catamaran sailboat on the Beni is a designer and inventor of different boat styles. Using materials from dugout hulls and planks to sheet metal he has been building various vessels of his own creation for more than twenty years.

Ron in a canoe he built. The week before he caught a 30 pound dorado in that boat.
 To build a boat is such a simple idea, with so many ways of manifesting. This boat builders this week inspired me for their entreprenuership and their incredible use of resources in the environments and markets around them. Carrying timber, fishing, simple enjoyments - these are the freedoms of floating, the empowerments of the craft. Whatever your vessel, get out and float!

It will be a few weeks until you hear from me next. With more than 60 hours of buses ahead of me, I venture into the Central Peruvian Amazon, from a small town called Puerto Bermudez, to build the traditional canoes of the Ashaninka people.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Last Canoe: Visiting the Tacana Community of San Miguel De Bala

Simon, a local Tacana forest guide, headed up river towards Madidi Park. In the background you can see the Bullet Hills (look for the divit in the mountain) or Bala, which gave the community its modern name.
We´re riding the hybrid canoe-plank boat up the steamy Beni River, away from the tourist sieve of Rurrenabaque. The thousand species of birds, lurking behind the even more numerous species of trees, just hints at its complexity through the one or two king fishers or herons that watch us. Heading towards the Tacana (a numerous pre-Incan indigenous group of the western Amazon basin) community of San Miguel de Bala, I have the lucky opportunity to see successful community-based conservation (CBC) in action. With the collaboration of the 50 or so families who inhabit the edge of what is now Madidi National Park, an eco-lodge has been set up to bring income in community while promote the protection of resources and ecological integrity.

The common area at the lodge where visitors can learn about Tacana history, culture, and local nature or enjoy a nap in a hammock. 

A school and hamlet of houses in the center of San Miguel de Bala
For the Tacana´s a great deal of cultural change over the last few centuries has taken place. With the advent of Christianity in the region, hence the name San Miguel, the community made a major transition to  sedentary, from a previous nomadic hunter and gather life style, as would have existed for a thousand years previously and with trade with the Incas in the 15th Century. The Rio Beni, a oft traveled river due to gold mining, logging, and transportation to other parts of the Amazon made contact between cultures in this region very common, not to mention contact with the various other indigenous groups in the region.

Then in the 90´s, with the rise of extraction of natural resources, activists, government officials, and the various indigenous communities worked together to create the Madidi National Park and a few other preserves in the area in hopes that it would generate income while also protecting the resources so critical to the people of these communities.

Antonia, a Tacana community members weaves an egg collecting basket in  5 minutes. A traditional technique of palm frond weaving.

Loss of traditional lands and the influence of other cultures inevitably creates changes in any culture. The Tacana language is essential moribund, unused within the community. Traditional ways of subsistence have been replaced by agriculture, along with changes in fishing methods and the use of other different building processes. Yet this does not make the Tacana any less Tacana, and a great deal of traditional knowledge on medicine, hunting, fishing, and foresty is still in pragmatic use.

On the beach of the Rio Beni sits one of the last (the only I could find) of the fully dugout canoes from the Suliman tree. Now used as the bottom piece for other styles of boats, the knowledge for tree selection and shaping the hull survives. Style and form have simply changed with time and new processes.

A gorgeous curve on ¨the last canoe¨

Simply being in these forests, spending time next to the constant flow of the powerful Beni, walking through the synphony of the jungle, I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the essential ideas and beautiful of this landscape. I found a Colomerito seed which had the elemental shape of the canoe. It reminded me of the universality of the canoe´s shape, dancing with the same laws of nature in every context of water, in every environment on our beautiful planet. Yet it is made of which ever plant or animal can also flourish in this environment. The indigenous whom create canoes, or created canoes, for their survival in oft hospitable environments turned them Eden-esque, tapping this idea - this form.

A seed in the form of a canoe, the seed of the idea of a canoe

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Andes to the Amazon

Andean Epics truck at 4800 meters in the Cordillera Real, Mount Llampu in the background 
Next stop, the Bolivian Amazon. Madidi National Park in the Western Amazon, just over the Cordillera Real range of the Andes has a rich history of indigenous cultures such as the Tacana, Mosete, Tsimane peoples as well as having one of the most biologically diverse expanses ranging more than two million hectares. Theres peaks inhabited by condors, pampas wetlands with thriving caimans, and deep rainforest with the stalking jaguar.

Over the last week, I and three other travelers from Sweden/Australia, Israel and Ireland ventured from the high Andean peaks which we ascended to by truck from the Altiplano, and then mountain biked down more than 4000 meters into the Yungas. We then, for three days, took a large motorized ¨canoe¨to the town of Rurrenabaque, the most populous town in the vicinity of Madidi National Park.

Getting ready to ride into the valley, more than 100km to go by bike, and only clouds covering the territory ahead.

With the skilled, Mauricio Jordan, the downhill mountain biking champion of Bolivia (who´s first descent of the World Most Dangerous Road by bike was at age 9), the trip was incredibly fun and challenging. We descended from what seemed to be the top of the world, with only clouds covering the vast expanse of territory, and so many changes to the landscape that it seemed as if the only common principle of nature was gravity.

Mauricio doing a wheelie for as long as he wants with more than a 500 meter drop to the left and loose gravel below.
Flat tires  from plant needles as big as fingers and wipeouts onto thick Andean rock made the descent into the Amazon basin the stuff of legend. Into the streamy Yungas forest, the effects of remote gold mining was evident to multiple levels in the community. Approaching the Mipiri River, loads of sediments were simply dumped into the otherwise pristine flow, leaving local communities to deal with the consequences in health and sustenance. Twice we had to build the road before us where mines had simply created landslides and had done nothing about it. 

Argentinian Alejandro Lazzeri and I after shoveling out a path for our bikes and truck accross the landslide.

A massive ¨canoe¨ led us down the Mapiri River and unto the Beni for more than 200km as we passed through the Madidi National Forest and swam in pristine waterfalls inhabited by the more than thousand species of butterlies.

Our canoe along the Mapiri River, just down stream from the town of Guanay.

Peta, our boat driver essentially named turtle in the native language, had an incredibly deep knowledge of the river, its dangers and its life. His quick movements and fast points to wildlife and friends along the river trip made it evident how well someone can know their local water way, the bloodline for the people in this region. Alejandro, an experienced rainforest guide with previous work in the Serere Reserve along the Beni River, had a wide knowledge of native lore as well as traditional uses of plants and wildlife.

Peta relaxing by the riverside.
Modern changes to an ancient style of dugout canoe.
The canoe style itself, which is the major form of boat used now by the communities of the Western Amazon is a modern design and material built literally on top of ancient practices. Something I will delve into more this week, the helmet, or central bottom piece is a solid piece dug from the Siliman tree, a large tree found in the rainforest. Two sets of plants are then added on top using a tar and nailing system which is then given a motor and and a roof.

The Suliman tree, taken in the Madidi National Park.