Indigenous community in the Amazon, buildings on either side of green grass, cloudy sky

We were meeting with the team of the Association for Research and Integral Development (Asociación para la Investigación y el Desarrollo Integral, AIDER), to jointly undertake the long journey to visit the Callería community. We headed to the agreed meeting point, the port of Pucallpa, one of the most important ports in the area. From there, we undertook a three-hour river crossing in a motor boat to our destination.

As we sailed down the rushing Ucayali River, leaving all manmade structures behind, the rainforest thickened on both shores. Pink dolphins raced alongside the boat, dorsal fins glinting in the sun which was already burning hot even though it was not yet noon. A few herons rested on the logs that were floating close to shore, while other bird species had already started their day fishing, flying and preening. They were following their usual routines in their natural habitat, and we were the spectators looking on in wonder.

After almost two hours of travel, we reached the distributary of the much smaller Callería River. At this point, the sounds of the forests increased considerably, as though the whole ecosystem had awoken to welcome us. There were no longer any large boats here and river traffic was quite limited. However, we had to lower our speed to circumvent fishing traps. Shortly before noon, we arrived at the community of the same name, where we were warmly received.

The Callería community is split into an urban expansion area, an agricultural area, a hunting area and a forest area. About 50 families of the Shipibo-Conibo ethnic group live here, and they have their own language, although most of them also speak Spanish. The primary economic activities undertaken here are wood harvesting, fishing and the sale of handicrafts, the latter being almost exclusively the responsibility of women.

The urban area straddles a main street covered with vegetation where chickens flutter freely. On both sides of the street there are houses and the communal premises, all raised about 2 meters above ground level. The reason for this is that between the months of January and April, heavy rainfall frequently leads to flooding. During the rainy season, artisan canoes are the only means of transport and it is not possible to access the forest.

Two brightly dyed, intricately patterned cloth side by side on wooden floor

In previous decades, community forest harvesting was carried out without any management planning. The inhabitants and other people outside the community focused on cutting down whichever tree species were most in demand among the timber traders of Pucallpa without restriction. Nevertheless, as the years went by, they realized that it was increasingly difficult to find these specimens. There was also a shortage of the bark used by women to dye their handmade textiles. It appeared as though the forest was giving them a strong and clear message.

Starting in 2000 with the assistance of AIDER, the community began a process of analysis and developing a new, more sustainable approach to forest management. After five years of hard work and commitment, they became the first community concession to obtain FSC forest management certification. The learning and enhancement of the forest continues, allowing both the community and the forest to reap the benefits.

According to Alba Solis, Director of FSC Peru, this work and the partnership between the Indigenous Shipibo communities with AIDER marked a milestone for FSC in the country: “They were one of the first certified initiatives to see the importance and benefits of certification and have been working tirelessly to conserve their home: the Amazon rainforest.”

A man in forest worker gear stands beside tree trunk in Amazon

Taking care of the Amazon rainforest

After meeting the community members, we travelled 15 minutes by boat from the community's urban development area to the forest production area. Equipped with high rubber boots, reflective vests and protective helmets, we set off into the forest. Singing birds and colourful insects welcomed us.

As per the new forest management approach, the concession is divided into various forest management units, and the community only harvests one unit partially each year. To verify compliance with the standards, they are regularly subject to a mandatory audit conducted by independent entities.

Additionally, there are a number of hectares protected for conservation purposes. Jacobo Rodriguez, a member of the community, said: “Here we are, so that later the community of Callería will still have a forest. So that our children and grandchildren have trees and can continue to work with nature.”

After several minutes of walking among the vegetation and trees, we arrived at a plot that had been recently harvested. There, the community leaders showed us some remaining tree trunks bases standing far apart with several intact trees in the middle. Some had the letter "S" painted on the trunk, indicating that this is a seed tree which will contribute to the regeneration of the forest.

Alfredo Rojas, one of those in charge of forest management, told us that before harvesting, the community first meets to draw up an operational plan. Then, they organize themselves into groups to take a “census” of the forest. Later, they prepare the area so that they can operate according to the established guidelines. "From there, we apply directed logging, respecting the minimum cutting diameters and the minimum impact on the soil and vegetation. Before, we didn't harvest in a planned way. It's been quite a learning process.”

The further we went into the forest to visit other plots where there had been harvesting activity several years ago, the more we marveled at how sustainable management allows these forests to be conserved. The plots were already covered with vegetation and new trees were growing alongside those that remained intact according to the management plan.

“Sustainable forest management brings us many benefits. We have improved our housing infrastructure, we generate jobs, we can be economically self-sufficient and, at the same time, we contribute to the conservation of the forest,” Alfredo told us.

Currently only 4 of the 86 timber species identified in the production area are harvested: Capirona (Calycophyllum spruceanum), Quinilla (Manilkara bidentata), Lagarto (Calophyllum brasiliense) and Utucuru (Septotheca tessmannii). After directed logging, the next step is the primary transformation of the timber, for which they use chainsaws and other equipment they have at their disposal. They gather the material, take it out of the forest and bring it to the port of Pucallpa. One portion of the timber is sold and the other goes to the Indigenous Technological Innovation Center (Centro de Innovación Tecnológica Indígena, CITE) located in the city.

“At the moment, the volume of illegal wood on the market drives down the price. But we are confident that we are not far from achieving the goal. We are also inspired by the fact that we are leaving a legacy for the next generations, ensuring their future and contributing to the world by mitigating climate change,” Alfredo said.

five women sit with their weaving laid out in front of them

Weaving traditions

Back at the community, we joined a group of women in the hut where they gathered to design and embroider the fabrics they use to make various products, from glass holders and table runners to bags, clothing and even huge and beautiful looms to decorate any room in the house. All items are made with great love and care. After all, this is an art form that has been passed on from generation to generation. “In all these years the community of Callería has been reinventing itself and innovating hand in hand with AIDER to generate greater benefits and strengthen the important role that women have in these processes,” explained Alba Solis of FSC Peru.

The first step in creating these works of textile art is to obtain white cotton fabric from the port of Pucallpa. The women then cut it into squares of about 2.5 meters to make it easier to handle. The dyeing is done with tree bark and other plants harvested from the community forest. They use different species depending on the desired colour. For example, the Yacushapana's dye is dark brown, while the Ushinpocote gives an ochre tone. Before implementing the forest management plan, women had to go further and further into the forest to find the trees they needed to make the dyes for the fabrics. Now, they don't need to travel far to find the ideal specimens.

The bark is boiled until it releases its essence and that's when the fabric is dipped. Later, as the wood-fired cooking pot cools, the fabrics are laid out on the floor to dry evenly in the sunlight. Once dry, they are transported to the hut and the women carefully paint ancestral designs onto the fabric, thereby tattooing the cotton with a piece of history.

These designs are delicately painted with river mud, which is very rich in nutrients. The mud penetrates and stains the cotton strands. The next step is to wash it so that only the deepest stains of the mixture remain. Finally, the women embroider the fabric with coloured threads, following the patterns of the embossed design and highlighting the contrast. This whole process takes about 15 days of manual labor.    

Sarela, one of the leaders of the group and Alfredo's wife, tells us: “I like the forest because I can use the bark of the trees for my handicraft work. My mother taught me how to draw and design the ayahuasca flower since I was a child. It gives me a lot of security to know that the inputs come from a forest that is well cared for and will remain there over the years.”

She told us that creating this traditional art makes her feel good because it is deeply rooted in her culture and allows her to contribute economically to her household. The income she receives from the sale of the products, and her husband’s salary has allowed them to send their oldest son to study in the city of Pucallpa. "I'd like people to come and see Callería, our work and nature.”    

After eating "carachama,” a type of river fish accompanied by rice and banana, we prepared to board the boat back to Pucallpa. Before leaving, Alfredo asked us to share a message from him: "Come and meet the community of Callería and the forest, see how we work and our techniques. We are ready to share our experiences to collaborate with the world.”