Anthropologists and ethnobotanists have documented many ingenious ways that forest peoples use local resources. There have been relatively few in-depth studies, however, of the ecology of important Amazon non-timber forest products. Center research projects will investigate the life history, abundance, habitat preferences and highlight the relationships of these resources with other plants and animals. Researching key aspects of the ecology of an NTFP can show when and where it could or shouldn't be harvested and how its abundance might be enhanced.
Sustainable Harvest
Many plants and animals harvested by forest dwellers are rarely stressed when harvested by relatively few people for subsistence purposes. A resource can become seriously depleted, however, when its harvest intensity increases due to collection by more people or harvest for commercial purposes. Center research projects will assess the impact of current harvesting practices and conduct experimental harvests of key NTFP resources to determine how much of a resource could be sustainably harvested (how much of a product can be renewably harvested in a given period of time) with the least disruptive harvest methods. For plants, determining the sustainable harvest may focus on finding a harvest method that minimizes the impact on individual long-lived plants. Sometimes the goal is to estimate how many plants (usually of a shorter-lived species) can be taken without harming the overall population. In some cases (like the copal resin study now underway), the challenge of achieving the sustainable harvest of a plant is to avoid negative impacts on animals that rely on that plant for food or other vital purposes.
Many forest-based communities sell non-timber forest products, but they often make very little money for their efforts because they sell them to middle-men or other sellers in a raw or slightly processed form. Even in cases where community members make value-added products like handicrafts, their potential income is still relatively low if they can only sell their goods to occasional groups of tourists. Center research projects will aim to develop more value-added products from various NTFPs and explore ways communities can more profitably market these.


Research Overview

The main goal of the Center’s research program is to study the ecology, sustainable harvest, and marketing of select non-timber forest products that are culturally or commercially important to traditional communities in a broad range of the Amazon region.  We wish to help forest communities, resource managers, scientists and the general public better understand and use these resources.  Investigations may explore the basic ecology of an NTFP, estimate the limits of sustainable harvest in different situations, develop methods for enhancing the population of a key plant or animal population, or identify a substitute product for a vulnerable resource.  Studies will be designed to combine traditional knowledge with scientifically-based methodologies.  The Center will join with other research institutions and community organizations to conduct field investigations, test and adapt the findings with communities (Community Support), and publicize the results in appropriate formats for forest communities, the scientific community and professional resource managers and the general public (Education and Outreach).  Our first project is focusing on the ecology, sustainable harvest, and marketing of copal resin in Peru.

Current Projects

Ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin in Peru

The Mayans and indigenous people throughout the Amazon have used the resin known as “breu” in Brazil and “copal” in other parts of Latin America for thousands of years.  They harvested the aromatic and sticky resin from trees in the Burseraceae family to caulk wooden boats and to make incense, medicine, jungle lanterns, and ceramic glaze.  While collectors in Mexico and Central America usually wound trees to stimulate resin flow, Amazon harvesters collect resin lumps formed on trees by attacks from a specialized group of bark-boring weevils (Curculionidae - the largest family of beetles).  Center founder Campbell Plowden first documented this relationship with Tembé Indian collectors in the eastern Brazilian Amazon.  He has since found that other insects including flies, ants, bees, and assassin bugs all use this resin in unique ways to feed, make their nests, or catch their prey.  It’s a fascinating example of ecological complexity where the pollinators of some plants depend on a material generated by the attack of a pest on other plants.

In July 2006, the Center launched its first research project to study the ecology and sustainable harvest of copal resin.  The first phase of this project is being done at the Jenaro Herrera research station on the Ucayali River in cooperation with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), a Peruvian government agency dedicated to research on the ecology and sustainable use of forest resources in the Peruvian Amazon. The study is now expanding to field test early results with indigenous and other traditional forest communities in the Ampiyacu and Tahuayo River areas of norther Peru. The study is exploring the following questions:

The project began in July 2006 and field work is being continued on a monthly basis.  See Copal Resin Ecology Project Description for details about the project's background, goals, and methods. Principal project associates are project leader Dr. Campbell Plowden, project manager Angel Raygada and IIAP project liason Euridice Honorio.  Other scientific collaborators include a variety of expert ecologists and entomologists with decades of experience working in the Amazon.  See Copal Project Updates: Summer 2007,Summer 2008, Spring 2009 and Summer 2009 for progress reports about the project. See our Reports from the Field to read personal accounts from people involved in the project.

You can support this project with donations of financial support or equipment described in our Equipment Wish List.  Qualified supporters may join us in Peru as an Amazon Field Volunteer.  Click HERE for a brief description of potential volunteer tasks with this project.