From Maple Syrup to Copaibo Oil

Socrates made the observation that we don’t know what we don’t know.I’m paraphrasing. In our western culture, we reward ingenuity and encourage creativity that reaches beyond the arts, to business, by using phrases like “think outside the box”, to help spark the imagination. But, when dealing with traditional cultures where outside influences usually come in the form of undermining long held values and beliefs, and where scepticism follows hollow promises and false starts, the notion of fixing that which isn’t broken, takes a great deal more convincing than the use of a cute phrase. A leap of faith is never easy.

Eighteen years ago, I spent four months working for the Ministry of Natural Resources, along the James and Hudson Bay coastlines. I was stationed in Moosonee and in the middle of the Moose River is Moose Factory, a First Nations Reserve. As you might imagine, life along the Moose River doesn’t change much from year to year, or certainly it didn’t at the time. Access to the outside world, was either by rail to Cochrane or by air, which was very expensive, to Timmins. During the summer months, shipments of large bulky supplies would arrive by boat, otherwise a trip to the grocery store, meant a two day trip on the Polar Bear Express to Cochrane and back.

When I arrived in Moosonee, in early May, the ice was still on the river and I discovered that old habits die hard. It had long been common practice to take refuse on to the ice, in the middle of the river, throughout the winter, and wait for the ice break-up in the spring to carry away the accumulated debris. To my horror, what had once been a practice that would have been reasonable, when all refuse consisted of organic matter, was still being practised with old cars, appliances and other bulky items.

In La Chiquitania, one long held practice was to harvest oil from the Copaibo Tree. However, to do so involved hacking a huge notch in to the side of the tree, which pretty well reached the heart wood. The oil would seep out and the tree would eventually succumb to the injury. For what might seem like obvious reasons to us, the practice of collecting the oil and selling the product at market, was the furthest thing from the minds of the local people.

Then one day, along came an ingenious volunteer from CUSO, who suggested a less invasive method to collect the oil. Drawing on his experience, Ulysse suggested a method by which a small hole could be drilled into the tree, a tube inserted and the sap collected. Sound familiar?

Now, I don’t have to strike my finger with a hammer to know it’ll hurt, but unless someone shows me a better way, I may just abandon the whole notion of using a hammer all together. When first suggested, the local people were sceptical about the practicality and even the motivation for harvesting the Copaibo Oil but after methodically testing various depths of hole, best placement on the tree and diameter of tubing to use, together, they found the optimum technique and they were off to the races.

The next challenge was to identify a sufficiently large concentration of Copaibo trees, to maximize the effort. With the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) as well as ground surveys, Xiomara another CUSO volunteer identified such an area. The regional government was then petitioned to declare a large area, north of San Ignacio de Velasco as a forest reserve, where the formalized Association of Copaibo Oil Producers of the Chiquitania will be guaranteed access to a sustainable supply of Copaibo oil, free from the encroachment of Slash & Burn practices, by squatters, to extend cattle grazing pastures. In June of this year, 330,000 ha. were declared as protected, but what that means in practice, remains to be seen. There is no shortage of well intentioned legislation in Bolivia, but enforcement is non-existent, fines are minimal and a few Bolivianos can eliminate the paper work all together.

During our visit, it was wonderful to witness an excitement amongst the three men with which we spoke, well aware that they were participating in something new and exciting with a great potential to provide an additional source of income. Again they listed as their top priority, using the money to help with their children’s education. The reserve was declared a mere six months ago, and tapping the trees began late in the season. With all the ground work in place, they are well poised to produce a significant volume of oil in their first full year of production.

I can’t help but reflect on the obstacles that Bolivian’s in general have to overcome, some of their own making and others not. The infrastructure short fall is huge, the inexperience in transparent governance at all levels runs deep, and a mind set that recognizes the importance of a civil society is beyond the consciousness of many, if not most, Bolivian’s. On the other side of the ledger is the desire for advanced education and the potential to get it right the first time, by drawing on the lessons learned by their neighbours and the world at large.

After a fascinating day, spent with a group of men optimistic about the future for themselves and their families, we continued along the Jesuit Mission Route to San Ignacio. The contrast is so great, between the small villages and the larger towns, that it challenges me to describe them. One travels along, what we would struggle to call a road, and as if rising from the dust appear towns with a bustling main square, streets lined with shops and motorcycles, heading in every direction. The best I can do is to compare them to a movie set, in the middle of a dessert.

Next stop is Santiago de Chiquitos, where we visit the next chain in the production line.

One last comment before I close up here. November 11th is a significant day for me on two accounts. First, because it is my oldest daughter’s birthday, (imposible to forget) and secondly because it marks Remembrance Day in Canada. I honour the sacrifices that have been made by thousands of young men and woman on our behalf, by exercising my right to vote at every election and shudder with sadness when I dare imagine putting myself in the place of the families that have endured the loss of a loved one in defending our values and principles.

Lest we forget.

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