Better Business, Brighter Future for Peru’s Shipibo-Konibo People

Posted on 04 February 2006
River and forested river bank
Vast panorama of the Ucayali River and surrounding forest.
© WWF / Jeniger Biringer

By Julia Cass

Five years ago, the Shipibo-Konibo living along the Ucayali River in the Peruvian Amazon watershed in the river, grew corn, beans, yucca and plantains near the banks, and hunted in the dense forests.

Their subsistence economy was precarious—a poor year for crops or fishing meant they went hungry—and they were losing young people, who migrated to cities to find work. Sometimes illegal loggers gave them clothing or 20 soles (about U.S. $6) to cut down trees–often mahogany–on their land, contributing to the near-extinction of this species in Peru and endangering wildlife habitat.

Today, through the efforts of WWF and a Peruvian non-govern-mental organization, the Association for Integral Research and Development (Asociación para la Investigación y el Desarrollo Integral-AIDER), five Shipibo-Konibo communities manage their own forests, harvest the trees, and market the lumber following a long-term plan that will sustain the forest and maintain its variety of species.

In a considerable achievement for a people with no previous business or forest management experience, 35,000 hectares of rainforest belonging to these communities are close to obtaining certification to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). It will be the rainforest forest in Peru to achieve the exacting FSC label that certifies the use of strict environmental and social standards.

Now, hardwoods from these indigenous communities are beginning to make their way to international markets with help from WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN), which connects suppliers that are certified or committed to achieving certification with buyers committed to obtaining products from well-managed forests.

“When I was a boy, men came in and cut down so many mahogany trees,” said Juan Chavez, a Shipibo-Konibo involved in the forestry project. Sometimes, he said, they gave community leaders goods or a few soles beforehand; other times, they cut the trees and offered payment afterwards. “We didn’t know, in money, what our forest was worth,” Chavez said.

Nor, he said, did the Shipibo-Konibo know what the forests were worth in non-monetary terms. “We didn’t know we had rights. We didn’t know how to negotiate with outsiders. It’s been a long process, not just technical but social.”

Although forest certification wasn’t initially envisioned by AIDER, “we focused on forest management from the start because we saw that commercializing the forests would be the best means of economic development in these communities,” said Jaime Nalvarte, a forester who is president of AIDER. Fishing and handicrafts were other resources that AIDER intended to help the Shipibo-Konibo develop and market to improve their standard of living.

With these projects in mind, AIDER received funding from the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands in 2000 to work with 16 Shipibo-Konibo communities. The money paid the salaries of foresters, sociologists, economists, and other specialists, as well as expenses such as transportation and equipment.

The Shipibo-Konibo Project
The Ucayali River in eastern Peru is a principal tributary to the Amazon. The region is rich in plant species, especially among palms, and contains a number of valuable tropical hardwoods. More than 600 bird species have been recorded here, as have some 188 mammals including agile titi monkeys and jaguars. Invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles are also abundant and diverse.

While the more remote parts of the Ucayali forests are fairly intact, intensive deforestation has occurred along the roads to the port towns of Pucallpa and Iquitos. Illegal logging near the Shipibo-Konibo villages–located at least three hours by motor boat from a road or a town–is decimating populations of mahogany, tropical cedar, and kapok. An analysis financed by WWF found that big-leafed mahogany in Peru could be commercially unviable in five to ten years.

The Shipibo-Konibo project began in the late 1990s, when representatives from AIDER talked with the national association of indigenous people about an economic development program for the Shipibo-Konibo. The mission of AIDER is to improve the quality of life for marginalized Peruvians through the development of skills.

Building Trust and Skills
At first the Shipibo-Konibo were suspicious of AIDER’s motives. “In one community we visited to explain the proposed project, the leaders said they wouldn’t meet with us unless we paid them,” said Pio Santiago, an AIDER forester who works with the community of Calleria. “Most all their interactions with outsiders had involved either exploitation or paternalism. They had never been equals.”

Traditionally, the Shipibo-Konibo used the forests to obtain fuel, medicines, dyes for their textiles, and lumber for their houses. “We did not even know, at the start, what kinds of trees we had,” said Chavez, the Shipibo-Konibo who was enlisted by AIDER to serve as a liaison with his people. Training in forestry skills began with learning the species and low impact methods of extraction. AIDER bought logging equipment for the communities with the more valuable forests, along with small barges to take the wood to Pucallpa. Individuals showing the most interest received training in the fields of record-keeping, accounting, pricing, marketing, and negotiating.

The breakthrough for the Shipibo-Konibo, the point when people became convinced of the value of community forestry, came three years after the project started when they shipped lumber to Pucallpa and were paid for it, “Many people have to see to believe,” Nalvarte said. “When a tree brought 1,000 soles instead of 20, this wasn’t a discourse or talking pretty or putting up signs. This was business.”

Certification and Market Links
WWF came into the project in 2003. Jessica Moscoso, a WWF forest coordinator, had visited some of the Shipibo-Konibo communities when AIDER began working with them. When she returned three years later she found a “very big change in forest management and the structure of the community. We saw a good opportunity for an indigenous community to become certified.”

Nalvarte saw several benefits of FSC certification: The process provides a good structure for long-range forest management, certification would set these forests apart from others, and the communities would get help from WWF’s GFTN to find new markets for their wood. Following many meetings five communities decided to seek certification with AIDER as the entity being certified on their behalf. WWF-Peru, with financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), provided technical assistance for the certification process.

Lumber from the community forests is now sold primarily to sawmills and wood flooring exporters in Pucallpa, several of which are committed to responsible purchasing or chain of custody certification with WWF-Peru. Six months after completing the certification process the communities have more demand than they can .ll. “This is an advantage of certification,” Nalvarte said. “Before we looked for buyers; now buyers look for us.”

In addition to local marketing contacts, the GFTN has made a promising link between the Shipibo-Konibo forests and South Cone, a California-based wholesaler of fine furniture sold in the U.S. to independent high-end furniture stores and large retailers. Its factory in Lima is Peru’s largest furniture manufacturer, responsible for 75 percent of the country’s total furniture production.

When South Cone stopped buying mahogany in 2000, it used funds from WWF and USAID to test several “lesser known species” of South American hardwoods to determine whether they have the functional and aesthetic qualities needed for fine furniture. South Cone found that Cachimbo rojo has characteristics similar to mahogany and made plans to begin buying this species from the certified forest of the Shipibo-Konibo village of Preferida.

A Visit to Calleria
In October, 2005 a group of WWF foresters and other specialists visited Calleria, the Shipibo-Konibo community closest to Pucallpa, for a first-hand look at the forestry operation and its impact on community life. Getting there involved a three-hour boat ride on the Ucayali, a wide river lined with trees, vines, and occasional settlements, followed by a short trip up a tributary to the village. At the junction of the rivers, pink freshwater dolphins leapt up as if in greeting.

At the top of the muddy bank leading to Calleria, eight young people and an older man, Hernan Mori, danced and sang a traditional greeting song. Mori said that the pride the Shipibo-Konibo have gained from managing their forests and competing in the market has produced new interest in old traditions “Recently, we had our first traditional festival in many years.”

He then got down to business.

The Shipibo-Konibo receive 3,000 soles (about U.S. $880) for a barge load of 3,000 board feet (two to three trees, depending on their size) – substantially more than the 20 soles (about U.S. $6) they used to receive per tree. Most of the wood they now sell is cut into cuartones (squared logs) in the forest and delivered by barge to Pulcallpa. Costs (payroll, supplies, transportation) are about 1,900 soles for the 3,000 board feet, which means a profit of a little more than 1,000 soles (about U.S. $295).

In 2004, he said, the community sold 45,000 board feet of lumber, worth approximately U.S. $13,200. Of each year’s total sales, the net proceeds from 18,000 board feet (U.S. $3,000 a month for the six month logging season) goes to the community. With the remainder, the OEP pays salaries and costs and invests in the business.

Many inhabitants were on hand in the community meeting house for a presentation on the forestry business by Alfredo Rojas, trained by AIDER to run Calleria’s Organization of Economic Production (OEP). This is the business entity that manages the forestry, handicraft, and fish nursery businesses.

Behind him were three flip charts. One showed the community’s forest plan: 20 parcels to be harvested in 20 years. Another titled “before” carried the words “no planning, sales at low prices, cutting destroying natural regeneration, no consideration for minimum diameter to cut.”

Now, Rojas proudly explained, “we protect the new seedlings, we plan for the long term, we have respect for regeneration and we know to use most all the wood.”

“We are still learning and are not yet at our capacity but we are making a profit,” Rojas said. Now that the community knows the value of its forest, he said, it has set up a vigilance committee to keep illegal loggers away.

Into the Forest
Seeing the parcel of forest being logged this year meant another boat ride and a short walk between towering trees. In one clearing, workers wearing safety gear cut the huge trunk of a quinilla tree, a hardwood generally used for flooring, into cuartones with a portable sawmill that can be moved from place to place by several men.

In another clearing, workers cut cuartones into planks on a small mill. Nearby, another machine made precise cuts on the edges of the planks for a buyer who ordered wall paneling. In another Shipibo-Konibo community called Puerto Belen, women participate in the forestry business, measuring the wood. Women in Calleria run the community’s handicraft business.

“I’m impressed,” Steve Gretzinger, GFTN coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, said later. “The machines are appropriate. The production is low pressure on the forest. The volume is low, but they’re making money, not a lot but more than they were before.” Acknowledging the resources expended to bring the Shipibo-Konibo this far, he said, “These kinds of projects are complex but what’s the alternative? Poverty and illegal logging are even more costly.”

Asked how the community had changed, Atilio Maseda, the teacher at Calleria’s government-financed school, said he thought people were happier in their work. “It belongs to them. They feel more protected and are not so worried about the future. They value the work and feel more valued.”

AIDER is scaling back its activities in the community as the first phase of the project comes to a close. Santiago is confident that community people will be able to proceed with less direct involvement from AIDER and is especially encouraged by the interest of young people, who no longer are leaving in such great numbers. In November, AIDER held a series of workshops on the management of communal forests for young people in the five villages with certified forests.

“At the end,” Santiago said, “they created an organization of indigenous young people with a mission of sustaining their forests and their culture.”
River and forested river bank
Vast panorama of the Ucayali River and surrounding forest.
© WWF / Jeniger Biringer Enlarge
Line of people dancing
Welcoming committee form the village of Calleria
© WWF / Jennifer Biringer Enlarge
Thatched houses with forest backdrop
The village of Calleria.
© WWF / Mark Hurley Enlarge
A piece of embroidered cloth
The Shipibo-Konibo are known for handicrafts such as this intricate embroidery.
© WWF / Mark Hurley Enlarge
Girl looking off-picture
A Shipibo-Konibo girl shows interest in a community meeting in Calleria
© WWF / Mark Hurley Enlarge
Workers from Calleria use portable equipment to mill wood in their ancestral forest holding.
© WWF / Mark Hurley Enlarge