Copal Resin Ecology Project

COPAL PROJECT RESEARCH UPDATE: SUMMER 2008

Copal manual harvest
Manual harvest of copal resin at Jenaro Herrera
Round copal resin lumps
Round copal resin lumps at Jenaro Herrera
Small copal resin weevil
Small adult copal resin weevil at Jenaro Herrera
Large copal resin weevil
Large adult copal resin weevil at Jenaro Herrera

The copal project is continuing its work at Jenaro Herrera on the Ucayali River with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP) and is expanding in new directions.  We have begun our third year studying the relationship between copal trees and the special weevils that stimulate the formation of resin lumps.  Our three-person team regularly visits copal trees in two plantation sites, an arboretum and large section of natural forest in the IIAP preserve.

Regular observations of our study trees and monitoring wire mesh traps have confirmed our suspicion that several species of weevils form resin lumps on the copal trees.  We have brought adult resin weevil specimens to the U.S. for identification by weevil specialist Dr. Charles O’Brien who thinks we have probably found one or more new species.   Dr. Paul Fine from the Univ. of California at Berkeley will help us analyze the DNA of the weevils to investigate their evolutionary relationships with other weevils and their host trees.  Our field work has also shown us that the weevil development time may take several years.  We improved our trap this summer so we can learn more about the natural history of these weevils. 

Since we are now getting good results about copal production in the forest preserve at Jenaro Herrera, we decided to visit new potential study sites this summer to develop sustainable copal harvesting techniques in typical small river communities. This will be a new challenge since residents also use their nearby forests as places to hunt, cut trees and grow crops. This summer Center President Campbell Plowden, Angel Raygada and Amazon Field Volunteer Greg Harriott (see Greg’s essay I need this shot) visited four indigenous communities in the Ampiyacu-Algodón Regional Conservation Area and three campesino communities on the Tahuayo River. We first went down the Amazon from Iquitos to the Ampiyacu River with staff of the Peruvian non-governmental group Instituto del Bien Comun (IBC). IBC works closely with the indigenous federation FECONA that represents 14 communities in this new regional area to promote forest conservation and community development. We visited Bora, Huitoto, and Ocaina villages to explore their copal resources with them and discuss ways to help them sell more plant-based handicrafts.

Long-horned resin beetle
Long-horned beetle in Symphonia resin lump at Brillo Nuevo village
Examining copal resin at Bora Indian village
Campbell Plowden and Bora Indian examining copal at Ancon Colonia village
mustached tamarin
Mustached tamarin at San Pedro village
Rick Schuhmann smelling copal
Rick Schuhmann smelling copal resin at Jenaro Herrera

One trip highlight was finding that Indians in this area collect two different types of copal.  One was the familiar fragrant resin made by weevils on the trunks of Burseraceae trees in upland forest. The other type was found on the upper branches of trees in seasonally flooded forests. Our Bora guides scaled one tree and tossed down resin lumps that were reddish-yellow on the inside. One lump contained a larva that was definitely not a weevil.  Digital photos of the leaves and larva sent to experts revealed that the tree was Symphonia globilifera – a member of the plant family Clusiaceae found throughout tropical Latin America.  The larva was a long-horned beetle yet to be identified. It was exciting to find that a new insect-plant pair has produced resin lumps the Indians actually prefer to the more common variety.

We next went to the Tahuayo River with Jim Penn from the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF) and five of his students from Grand Valley University in Michigan. We first took a fast public launch and then boarded a large motorboat run by the Tahuayo community. After spending a few days at the gateway village of Chino, we hired a local guide and boat to visit the two smaller communities of San Pedro and Diamante on the Rio Blanco.  While Chino did a fair amount of handicrafts to ecotourists, these upriver villages had fewer visitors. Walking through the forest near them, we found that the usual type of copal was fairly common.  Their members seemed open and interested in any project that could generate some benefits for their communities on the front line of protecting an adjacent forest preserve from illegal logging. 

When we returned to Jenaro Herrera for the last leg of our trip, we were joined by new CACE board member Rick Schuhmann and his graduate student Dave Vargas.  As director of the Engineering Leadership Development Minor (ELDM) at Penn State University, Rick was interested in learning about our copal research first-hand as a potential project for some of his undergraduate students.  His visit was fruitful, so the Center is now launching a joint project with his students to analyze the chemical composition of copal resin samples.  It's now looking promising that we will bring five advanced students to Peru in March 2009 to work with several Ampiyacu indigenous communities to sustainably harvest copal and develop value-added products from this aromatic material that local communities can sell.

See Copal Project Research Update: Summer 2007

See Copal Project Research Update: Spring 2009

© Photos by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology