The Chambira Palm: An Essential Fiber For Peruvian Handcrafting

Picture by Minga Peru

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All tropical countries have one natural element in common: Palms. Their long and dark green leaves always remind us of rainforests and pretty beaches. But for many people, they mean more than that.

All palms belong to the Arecaceae family, a plant group with more than 2.200 species. In South America, these plants are essential to rural inhabitants for their many uses. Palms are great for making food and medicines, though you can also get oil, waxes, fuel, and fibers from their parts.

But benefitting from what palms provide has a more significant value to the entire planet. Using them could be a solution to stop tree harvesting in many tropical regions of the continent. Research has found this to be favorable not only for the environment but also for palm farmers. It opens a path for many rural households to market their products and create their source of income.

This new way of sustainability has made palm handcrafting a commercial activity, and additionally, palm crafts have gained international popularity for their unique and singular looks.

Palm Threads for Intricate Handcrafting

These products are made out of palm fiber, a thread that comes out of palms’ leaves. These strands can work as a delicate fabric to weave beautiful and striking goods, like bags and baskets. There are several methods to make each handcraft, but it mainly depends on the type of palm chosen.

Out of all the 457 palm species found in South America, 24% have useful fibers, and pretty much all these species are in the Amazonian region of the sub-continent. For a country like Peru, braiding with palm fiber is expected due to its weaving talents. Most creations are from the depths of the Peruvian Amazon. In there, small communities have large quantities of palm forests within close reach.

The Chambira Palm fiber: A Sustainable Harvest Approach

Iquitos, a Peruvian city near the northern Amazon, is a place where you can find many palm crafts. Most products are what they call “Chambira Handicrafts” because they use the Chambira palm fiber. The Astrocaryum Chambira is a native plant from the Amazons, and it is the most common plant used as a fiber crop. It can reach a height of up to 25 meters and is recognized for its spiny trunk. Its commercial success is due to its compatibility with Agroforestry. It is a form of farming where crops grow alongside other trees to enhance cultivation. As a result, there’s been a drop in palm exploitation without affecting the palm market.

Chambira handicrafts range from wearable pieces like bags to practical ones like hammocks. Yet, all hold an ornamental value for the unique forms of weaving employed to create them. Each product requires lots of work and time, so most Peruvian artisans form Mingas to share the labor. Minga is an indigenous word which means working to build something together for the wellbeing of all. 

Inside these mingas, the  hours and days of work are amicable and not at all lonely or quiet. A strong bond builds around everyone who participates in any step of the process of creation.

How to produce Chambira Crafts: A Step by Step

Usually, the work begins by collecting small Chambira leaves from nearby forest lands. After that, farmers take out the leaves’ fibers to wash and heat them in water to bleach their color. They are then dried in the sun for two days until the strands are entirely white and soft enough to get dyed and twisted. Once dry, the artisans coil the fibers until they form strings, but their thickness will be subject to its purpose. For instance, a hammock will need thicker strings than bags or baskets.

To create motifs and give color to the products, artisans dye some fiber strings. They use plant dyes like the Achiote or Cúrcuma because they produce beautiful red and orange tones.

Once the strings are ready, the weaving starts. For carrying bags (or Shigras, as they’re called in Peru), the sewing begins at the base: A series of coils are sewn to create the bottom of the bag, and the weaving continues up until the slit of the sack.

It is straightforward and much less intricate than the methods used to produce a hammock. For this product, you’ll need two poles two meters apart from each other to attach the ends of the strings and create enough tension to give it the right form. In this case, there’s a slight variation to the weaving depending on the size of the net desired for the hammock. The weaving also changes when a particular pattern is wanted within the sewn fabric. It could take up to eight days to produce a single hammock on account of its production complexity.

Peruvian People United to Learn and Thrive

To all Peruvians producing Chambira crafts, these activities are expressions of their identity. What’s beautiful about its creative process is the sense of unity that’s formed around the people working, as every member of these families is free to learn and take part in the production. For this reason, handcrafting bags or hammocks is also a way to enjoy good company in the idle hours of the day.

Marketing these crafts has also created awareness for both farmers and artisans. Producers need to avoid overharvesting and depletion of the species. For this reason, several non-profit organizations now exist to shed light on the mindful use of natural resources. One of these organizations is called Minga Peru.

This institution aims to educate on environmental preservation while keeping cultural identity alive. For them, it is essential to learn organically than completing specific projects. They view their goals not as steps to escalate but rather as plants that need space and time to grow and expand.

For more than 22 years, Minga Peru has worked alongside Peruvian Amazon communities to produce educational radio programs, leadership workshops for women, and eco-friendly initiatives to increase income. With their schemes, they have empowered more than 1200 women from over 50 different communities. Furthermore, around 250 families have started earning incomes on account of their eco-projects.

One of these strategic plans involves imparting training to women artisans on producing and marketing Chambira handcrafts in a sustainable way. Artisans also learn how to reinforce the value of their identity by creating crafts that evoke native iconography. Their efforts and endeavors result in more Peruvian families becoming economically stable by giving women equity through job opportunities.

A different but still significant organization is the Center for Amazon Community Ecology. Their projects are built on three strategies: research, community support, and education. One of their goals is to encourage sustainable harvesting and marketing of non-timber forest products, such as the beloved Chambira Palm.

This institute helps Peruvian artisans sell their handicrafts through fair trade through the promotion and development of native communities. Their purpose is to give space to handcrafters in their virtual catalog of products, making them available to many more buyers. They also promote the ways of native Peruvian living and their traditions to increase tourism.

The country of Peru is full of natural and human treasures hidden in remote areas. It’s admiring how its people keep traditions alive while learning about their surroundings. The Chambira palm is only one of many palms used to create handicrafts, but it is vital for many artisans for being very abundant. For this reason, every Chambira product is crafted with awareness, respect, and thankfulness to the nature that provides this marvelous fiber.

By Amalia

By Amalia

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