Chonta: Indigenous wisdom to exclusive design

Text: Carolina Matheus

It’s hard to believe that a scrawny palm with long aggressive thorns covering its entire trunk could have such a wide variety of uses for man. In fact, since ancient times, the chonta palm has been important to the livelihood of indigenous peoples in the Amazon region. Also, today, artisans are taking this precolombian knowledge a step further to develop exclusive pieces of art and design with chonta.

The two most important chonta palms in Ecuador are the chontaduro (Bactris gasipaes) and the chonta pambil (Iriartea deltoidea). The chontaduro is originally from Central America and it is found throughout the tropical regions of Latin America. In Ecuador, the chontaduro thrives in the Amazon region as well as in the province of Esmeraldas. The chonta pambil is also found all over Latin America in a variety of habitats: from forests on the steep Andean slopes, to lowland rainforests along stream margins. In Ecuador, it grows in the northwestern regions.

Curses and Blessings from the Chonta God

Chontaduro is so central to Shuar culture that every year there is an important ceremony, that takes place in March and April, in which the chonta is harvested. In the Shuar language, uwi is the name for chonta. A Shuar deity that carries the same name is in charge of bringing abundance to the Shuar people. When Uwi visits in March and April, he comes with heavy winds, which shake the rainforest. One must perform the Chonta Festivities during this season in honor of Uwi if prosperity is desired. If the ceremony isn’t performed, ancient tradition says that Uwi will take your soul. It’s not enough to perform the ceremony; it must be conducted with great care, preparation and sobriety or else Uwi will curse the people with famine. There are special ways in which the chontamust be harvested and particular songs that must be danced to, exactly as the shamans dictate. For example, if the circle of people holding hands during the ceremony is broken too early, premature death will come to that person. Similar ceremonies are performed in March and April throughout the Amazon provinces of Ecuador, however because of the tremendous religious significance, it is not considered a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, due to contact with the Western world, the Uwi Celebration is now in decline.

Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been using practically every part of the chontaduro for centuries. The delicious fruit resembles the taste of chestnuts and its nutritional value is equivalent to that of an egg! Locals make cooking oil and flour. The wood is used to make arrows, lances, (cerbatanas) and for building the walls and floors of their houses. The young palms are sometimes used for making roofs but, most importantly, the palm leaves produce the delicious palmtito or ‘palm hearts’, which are now found in gourmet cuisine around the world. The shaman uses the sharp long spikes found in the chonta tree trunks as ‘darts’ to take out the evil spirits that cause illnesses. Yet the all-time favorite for the Pastaza natives is chicha made from chonta, a fermented beverage that is made in the Uwi Ceremony.

Chonta isn’t just important to the Amazon peoples; it’s also used by African-Ecuadorian cultures to make themarimba, a musical instrument that resonates with rhythmic sounds in the beaches of Atacames and Súa. The Colorado Indians of Pichincha also make marimbas from chonta wood for their traditional music.

The chonta pambil is less important to native cultures, yet its fruit is still eaten, and its wood is used to build traditional homes in Pastaza because it is durable, beautiful, and resistant. Artisans in Puyo (province of Pastaza) make little wine barrels and vases which take advantage the chonta’s curved shape.

Exclusive Objects

Today, these traditional uses have inspired artisans to craft objects of exclusive design. Just as indigenous peoples, one furniture designer explains that he was drawn to chonta’s resistance and durability. “It doesn’t need any kind of chemical treatment because it’s naturally resistant to parasites!” he explains. Also, its beauty impressed him: “Its dark brown color, which contrasts with its beige streaks, gives it an unmistakable and striking appearance. It’s very authentic because it isn’t like other types of wood which need to be dyed to obtain a similar hue.” Also, dark brown wood is currently in style amongst famous interior designers in Europe and the USA so this is good for Chonta furniture sales.  Chonta is fashionable not only for its attractiveness and contemporary design, but also because of the level of skill that is required to carve the chonta. Because it is very dense, full of fibers and has sharp splinters, it’s very hard to handle.  Evidence of this is the deep scars carried in the hands of these craftsmen.

Another craftsman who has been working chonta pambil for fifteen years has a similar opinion. The level of expertise in carving chonta is compensated by the striking results obtained. His creations consist of backgammon games, pencil holders and walking sticks. Sometimes he combines the opaque chonta wood with the white tagua‘vegetable ivory’ to obtain a stylish ‘ebony/ivory’ contrast. Due to the fact that chonta articles are so labor intensive, and only a few people actually know how to work with it, the finished products become very exclusive. In fact, Bill Clinton bought a chontatagua walking stick on a visit to Ecuador!

Just like the majority of rainforest plants, chonta is also an endangered species. Unfortunately for the chontapalms, rose plantations buy large quantities of this strong wood at low prices for the sole purpose of support poles for the roses. In the eyes of artisans, by making chonta woodcrafts at a small scale, they are actually helping to preserve this palm. This is because a subsistence farmer could make more for his money if he sold one chontapalm to an artisan at a higher price, instead of cutting down several trees at a low price to sell them to a rose plantation.

Applying Traditional Knowledge

According to Dr. Jaime Jaramillo, a botanist at the Universidad Católica de Quito, it would not be difficult to help preserve the chonta. A traditional technique used by the Pastaza indigenous peoples would need to be applied at a larger scale: seeds could be planted in seedbeds in rustic green houses. Then, once the plantlings (baby plants) have grown a bit, botanists could randomly disperse the plantings into the rainforest and the palms would grow. Currently, this practice is successful in the Ethno-Botanic OMAERE Park in Pastaza.

Whether it be for eating its nutritious fruits, building a Shuar house, or making sophisticated designer furniture, the proper management of chonta is important for future generations because of its nutritional, cultural, and economic value.

Acosta Solís, M. (1991) Palmas Económicas del Noroccidente Ecuatoriano. Guayaquil:Universidad de Guayaquil.

Borgtoft, H.P. y Balsev (1992) Palmas Útiles: Especies Ecuatorianas para Agroforestría y Extractivismo. Quito: Abya Yala.

Gómez et al. (1996) Palmas Útiles: En la provincia de Pastaza, Amazonía Ecuatoriana. Manual Práctico. No 1.Quito: Omaere- Abya- Yala.

Henderson and Galeano. (1995) Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Ríos y Borgtoft, H. P. (1991) Las Plantas y El Hombre Quito: Abya Yala y Depto. Ciencias Biológicas PUCE. (April 8, 2007). (April 12, 2007).

Personal Interviews, April 2007:

  • Peter Egli
  • Claude Belanger
  • Dr. Jaime Jaramillo