Tag Archives: Copaibo

Today Santiago, Tomorrow Yorkville

Enthusiasm can be contagious and within minutes of arriving in Santiago de Chiquitos and meeting a small group of woman, members of a cooperative called La Asociacion de Medicina Natural, I was drawn in. Picture a little village, thirteen kilometers up a dirt road from a paved two lane highway. The village consists of the town square with a small church taking up the length of one side, and homes that also serve as business fronts, along the other three. Four or five streets run parallel to each side of the square and because of the heat, we see more dogs lying under the shade of some precious trees or sprawled on the covered sidewalks, than town folk.

It doesn’t take any more than a few minutes to cross the village and as we reach the far end, which leads to a protected conservation area with hiking trails up to El Mirador – La Antesala Del Cielo, a wonderful lookout high above the surrounding forest, we pull over next to a new, well kept, small brick building. We step out of our van to be greeted by half a dozen, friendly woman ranging in age from the mid twenties to late sixties. Emphasis on the latter years.

We’ve arrived at a small cooperative where both the Cusi and Copaibo Oil, which we saw harvested earlier in our trip, arrives to be processed, packaged and shipped out. It is really wonderful to witness how a simple chain of products and a group of people, who don’t even know each other, can coordinate their efforts to produce something of value, with minimal means yet with a wide vision.

Until recently, these women were producing a line of products ranging from medicinal remedies to personal care products, which were not all together unique. However, what is unique is that they were willing to consider that there is a better way to do it. That their traditional remedies and ways could benefit from a new approach.Another of CUSOs initiatives was to provide small groups of people, such as these woman, with training to improve the quality of their products, to develop long term planning and administrative skills, and to consider expanding their markets to reach beyond the communities in their local traveling circles.

Even for us, it is at times difficult to consider that how we’ve always done things, is not necessarily the best way. Times change, technologies change and as Einstein once said ,Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. These women had been gathering in each others homes to process the raw materials and to prepare the final products, but that wasn’t going to cut it if they were to improve their production methods and increase the income they could generate. To reach new markets they would have to change, almost everything.

CUSO supplied experts on the ground who provided the practical training, while other NGOs provided some of the funding that was necessary for equipment (basic as it was), and with these two assets in hand, the woman were able to approach the municipal government for support. First on the list, to secure a new facility where they could set themselves up to produce a consistently high quality product using modern techniques for hygiene and where the quantities of raw material going into the process could be measured to more accurately, forecast their profits.

Not to in anyway minimize the facilities, but it was truly endearing the way they led us through the door to their LAB, and dawned their white lab coats, hair nets and masks. I should back up and say that their municipal representative negotiated on their behalf, with their small hospital, to obtain a two year, free of charge lease, on a small but new building that was not being used, in which they could establish their growing enterprise.

What they’ve accomplished in the few months since they moved into their new facilities, was quite impressive. Most of all their attitudes were in tune with the challenges they have ahead of them. Keenly aware of the importance that the distant ends of the production chain become acquainted with each other, CUSO is attempting to make arrangements for some of these women, pressing the Cusi Oil, and the men harvesting the Copaibo oil. While listening to the conversation regarding the costs involved in getting everyone together, the temptation to reach into my own pocket was incredibly strong. The cost for a two way bus ride, lodging for one night and meals would amount to roughly 120 Bolivianos each, which translates into approximately CDN $18.00. None-the-less, they would have to choose how many and who could attend, this significant meeting since the expenses would have to be drawn on the profits from everyone’s efforts.

I have described CUSOs philosophy as one of sending people not money, however, there is some funding provided, all be it minimal, for project support, and an effort is being made to find the financial assistance to send a few of these woman on the day-long bus ride to San Ignacio. If as you read this, you too find yourself wanting to reach for a $20.00 bill, remember that for every dollar donated to CUSO, CIDA kicks in another nine. That $20.00 instantly becomes $200.00. Go ahead, give in to the temptation.

Before saying goodbye to Las Santiague’as, the name brand, we accompanied Sofia Frias to Puerto Suarez, a community next to the Bolivian Marshes. A large navigable expansive wetland on the border with Brazil. In addition to filling orders from retailers in Santa Cruz and nearby communities, Sofia will periodically travel, sometimes accompanied, to Puerto Suarez, to set up a display on a sidewalk in the market area, to sell her wares. Her enthusiasm for the products their cooperative produces, came through naturally in her ability to applaud the medicinal qualities and convince others of their benefits.

After spending the better part of the morning in the market, it was time to find something cold to drink and answer our hunger pains. Alberto, our driver, had been to Puerto Suarez often, and suggested a restaurant next to the water. After almost a week of rice, fried potatoes and tough beef, we were all looking forward to an alternative. The fish on the menu was from the waters of the marshlands and so was the alligator. In my quest to try something different it was a toss up between two fish I’d never heard of and a third, Piranha. However, I opted for the alligator. Let me just say, I had no idea what to expect, and I would gladly have it again. The meat was white and tender and had no distinctly strong taste, rather taking on what ever it was prepared with.

Unas ultimas palabras. Desde que llevo en Bolivia, se me ha preguntado varias veces, siempre por otros voluntarios, si me choque la pobreza, como si deberia de sentir remordimiento o estar avergonzado por tener tanto mas que otros. Ahora, no pretendo que en muchos aspectos, y no solo en los pueblecitos, no hay escasez de algunas cosas basicas, como agua potable, pero debo ver la pobreza de otra manera. No mido la pobreza por lo que uno tiene o deja de tener, y menos por comparacion a lo que tengo yo, que ya me parece bien poco. Tiendo a mirar mas a las necesidades y menos a los deseos, mas a la alegria en las vidas cotidianas y menos al aislamiento fisico, mas a las formas de poder ayudar, que en los obstaculos.

Si es verdad que en Canada tengo electricidad y acceso al Internet en cualquier lugar, y tambien tengo acceso a servicios medicos y agua potable, pero esta gente tiene sus familias y amigos cerca. Tambien tienen muchas menos preocupaciones economicas. Sus necesidades basicas las cubren sin dinero y no faltan por comida. Hay mucho que pudieran cambiar si quisiesen, pero o no le dan la importancia que le damos nosotros, ni se molestan en hacer nada de ello. A lo que voy es que a veces lo que nosotros vemos como pobreza es muy relativo.

Seguro que seguire dando le vueltas a este tema por mucho tiempo, tanto durante lo que queda de mi estancia en Bolivia como en los meses y anos que vienen.

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.