The most sought after of the chambira fronds are the cogollos, the new tender shoots. The best known of the chambira crafts made from the cogollos are shigra bags, used to carry everything from farm produce to lipstick and wallets. Among the other decorative crafts made from cogollos are baskets, belts, macramé and necklaces, offering a strong fiber on which to string beads.
At maturity, the chambira tree reaches a height of about eighty feet. It is one of two plant species from which fibers are derived to make the popular shigra bags. The growing conditions of the Amazon’s chambira palm are very different from those that produce the other major source of shigra fiber, a succulent agave species that grows in the Andes.
In the Loreto region, Peru’s most northerly area of its rainforest territory, visitors will find chambira crafts, among them the shigra bags popular with women travelers. One area where the chambira palms are found in abundance and protected is the million-acre Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Communal Reserve that lies thirty-seven miles south of Iquitos. Passengers who take our four to eight-day M/V Aqua - Amazon River Expedition Cruise will be passing by the reserve on their way to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. During their time in Iquitos before and after the riverboat trip, these passengers will also find the finished chambira fiber products sold in the craft shops of Iquitos. While shigra bags may be purchased elsewhere on Peru tours, the best prices and the most profit for the craftswomen will be obtained by buying during one’s travel to Peru Amazon region.
Five of the six Ecuador Amazon tours we offer pass through the gateway town of Coca on the Napo River in Orellana Province. These trips travel in the environs of Ecuador’s largest national park, Yasuni, where the palms grow in some areas. Chambira handicrafts are often sold in the shops of Amazon eco-lodges. The Huorani people of the Ecuador Amazon are known for their chambira textiles. Southern Explorations’ eight-day Amazon Kayaking Adventure stays in a Huaorani village at a lodge along the Shiripuno River where guests will learn about the tribe’s chambira craft-making.
The town of Puyo in the more southerly Pastaza Province is also well known for its chambira crafts. Two of Southern Explorations’ tours visit Puyo, the nine-day Explore Ecuador trip and the twelve-day Andes, Amazon, Galapagos Multisport trip. Southern Explorations’ nine-day Ecuador Highlights trip visits the town of Riobamba where the Saturday market in the Parque de la Conception is filled with crafts of all kinds, including shigras and other plant-fiber items.
It is usually men who extract the chambira leaves from the Amazon Rainforest and women who process the fibers and weave them into end products. Growing at the top of the tree, the leaves are cut using a long blade to distance the extractor from the chambira’s spiny trunk. Back in the village, the cogollos are divided into narrow strips and may be placed in a kettle of water over an open fire to soften and lighten their color before being hung to dry in the sun. The fibers are dyed or may be left in the natural hue. In earlier times, only natural dyes were used, but today the dye may be natural or synthetic.
The end product and use of the chambira item determines what looping technique will be used. Strands are tied at one end and rolled together into twine. As visitors to the Ecuador Amazon or rainforest lodges of the Peru Amazon will see, chambira is woven loosely and knotted when making a fishing net or hammock, and tighter if a shigra is being crafted.
Chambira handicrafts make a popular souvenir from Peru Amazon tours in the environs of Iquitos or travel to Ecuador Amazon regions such as Yusuni National Park. To learn all about chambira palms from forest to market, read “Making and Marketing Chambira Hammocks and Bags in the Village of Brillo Nuevo, Northeastern Peru by Jaana Vormisto of the University of Turku, Finland, published in the journal of Economic Botany, 2002, one of the sources for this article.
Though the chambira palm is plentiful in the rainforest, the weavers must compete with other industries that make use of the trees. Though not as popular as the fruit derived from other palm species, the green hard-shelled chambira nut is edible and its liquid endosperm popular as a colonic. Chambira fronds are also used in making thatched roofs. For these alternative purposes, it is necessary or at least more economical to cut down the tree rather than preserve it.
If you are going to harvest the fruits or fronds of tall chambira palms, you have two choices. You can climb the tree to reach the fruit or fronds you are after, or you can cut down the whole tree. It doesn’t help that the trunk of the chambira is covered with sharp two to eight-inch long thorns. Whether harvested for fruit or fiber, the chambira, like the rose, it is not an easy plant to cultivate without getting injured. For the health of the tree, it is better to allow some of the new shoots to continue growing, but it is tempting to take them all while you are up there. Since new leaves sprout throughout the year, fronds may be harvested three or four times a year. The argument for sustainability is nowhere more counter-intuitive than here in the rainforest where the chambira cutters work with the prickly plant, far from the headquarters of the environmental organizations that promote these rainforest-saving strategies.
With the help of charitable foundations, the regional government of Loreto in the Peru Amazon has organized groups of weavers to enable them to produce a sufficient volume of goods for export. They have also helped to develop a market for the chambira baskets produced here, popular among the craft stores of museums and where other arty patrons shop.
While more lucrative, weaving for export under such programs at much higher volumes does not necessarily increase the enthusiasm among craftswomen for this tedious work which in some locales would otherwise be undertaken as a leisure pastime scheduled around other work. Greater demand for the products leads to more palm leaves being extracted. Forsaking other work to focus on chambira crafts, especially shigras, is not without risk since it relies on unpredictable demand that may change with the whim of international fashion and design.
Various organizations, including the Chicago-based Rainforest Conservation Fund, have sponsored tree-planting initiatives and education programs about sustainable growing practices. They urge villagers to refrain from cutting all the new shoots and encourage them to plant the species in their own private gardens to reduce the pressure on the chambiras growing in the wild.
To learn more about the challenges of making the harvesting of chambira palms sustainable before you travel to Peru or visit the Ecuador Amazon Rainforest, read “Use of the chambira palm (Astrocaryum chambira) in rainforest communities of the Peruvian Amazon,” by the Student Summer Scholars Program of Grand Valley State University, one of the sources for this article.