Weaving a Future in the Amazon

Field Notes From the Amazon

by Supporting Traditional Indigenous Craftsmanship by Dr. Nancy Trautmann

Imagine lying in a hammock in an open-air shelter in the Amazon rainforest. Hearing torrential rainfall and watching sheets of water cascading off the roof, you wonder why you’re not getting wet. You notice that the roofing seems to be made solely of overlapping leaves tied to long poles. With your curiosity peaked, you ask around and learn that this type of roofing has been created for hundreds of years by people in the Amazon. Living in harmony with the land, rainforest residents to this day continue to harvest fronds of Irapay palm (Lepidocaryum tenue), which they weave and overlap to create beautiful and weather-resistant roofing that can withstand even the most torrential rains.

Irapay Thatch Roof. Photo: Phil Kahler

What is Irapay?

Irapay is a relatively small understory tree and the most common plant used to create thatched roofing in the Peruvian Amazon. It grows in terra firme forests, set back from the riverbanks and not subject to seasonal flooding.

An Irapay roof typically lasts at least four years before needing extensive repairs or replacement. Panels with higher leaf count and denser overlap can last longer, although strong winds can damage even the best-constructed thatch roofs.

Harvesting Irapay Palm in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo: OnePlanet/Brian Griffiths

Why not replace Irapay with durable metal roofing?

Irapay thatch roofs not only are beautiful, they also are highly effective at repelling water, reflecting sunlight, and insulating buildings from excessive heat. The fronds are readily available and inexpensive, and weaving them into thatch is a traditional craft that generates income for people whose livelihoods depend on the rainforest.

The Morpho Institute collaborates with one such group, the Maijuna. One of the smallest and most vulnerable indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon, the Maijuna have been fighting for survival in the midst of sweeping transformations brought on by today’s world. With an average family income of less than $2 per day, they are searching for environmentally and socially responsible ways to earn a living in their remote rainforest communities. As guardians of nearly a million acres of rainforest, the Maijuna hold the key to a sustainable future for this critically important piece of the Amazon.

Weaving Irapay Thatch. Photo: OnePlanet/Brian Griffiths

In 2015, the Morpho Institute began collaborating with the Maijuna and the OnePlanet NGO to hold workshops in which Maijuna community members have invited participants of our field courses into their homes, fields, rivers, and forests to learn about ways in which they are working to protect and conserve the rainforest while relying on its resources for food, shelter, and income.

How can we promote conservation while supporting traditional ways of life in the rainforest?

When COVID shut down travel, it meant that revenue generated by our field programs disappeared overnight. The Maijuna lost a major source of income – income badly needed for day-to-day survival as well as to continue their fight to protect their ancestral lands.

The pandemic also forced our Peruvian travel partners, Explorama Lodges, to defer ever-present needs for maintenance. Founded on the principle of protecting the rainforest, Explorama runs our primary study site, the ACTS Field Station. Here, researchers and educators congregate to learn about the rainforest and enjoy incomparable experiences on the nearby Canopy Walkway. This vital research station will decay unless it gets a new roof.

Assembling a new Irapay roof. Photo OnePlanet/Brian Griffiths

How do these needs overlap?  Irapay! 

We are pleased to announce our new initiative – the Maijuna Irapay Thatch Project. With your support and a matching gift from our travel partner, EcoTeach, we will support the sustainable cultivation of Irapay by the Maijuna AND put a new “green” roof on ACTS, our beloved study site in the heart of the Amazon!

Using sustainable methods to harvest Irapay palm will provide much-needed income for the Maijuna while supporting a traditional craft passed along from generation to generation in their remote rainforest communities. The thatch they create will support green infrastructure to protect this vital research station.

The Maijuna and Explorama deserve our support as they continue with remarkable persistence and resilience striving for rainforest conservation and economic sustainability in this key region of the Peruvian Amazon.

Please join us – donate today!

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