Creating an alternative to the Indigenous macaw feather Machetero headdress
A web page appeared around 2002 by a macaw lover who had recently visited the Beni savannah area of Bolivia. In this she described the large parades of indigenous people, dressed in traditional robe each carrying a massive sphere headdress created with up to twenty central macaw feathers. She was aghast at the number of dead macaws this represented, and her attempt to solve the problem was to create a negative web page that would show the world these horrible people and the disgusting custom they upheld. The page went so far as name calling- a clear negative campaign to make a change. And no change occurred.
Mauricio Herrera, then the Armonia/ Loro Parque Fundacion Blue-throated Macaw conservation coordinator had been aware of this third level threat to the Blue-throated Macaw for years (the first has always been illegal trade, and the second habitat destruction- especially removing large trees that offer the best nesting cavities for the macaws)- but he was also aware of the cultural importance of this traditional custom. The Savannas of Beni had one of the most sophisticated indigenous cultures in the new world before the arrival of Europeans. They practised complex fish management, burn managed agriculture, including fertilizers and raised mound farming in a tropical area that is flooded for months of each year. A cultural group of over four million people were destroyed by European diseases in the late 16th century, leaving a group of holocaust survivors searching for a way to survive. The Spanish arrived to this empty savannah claiming large portions of land as cattle ranches, whereby the indigenous people who still remained on land became their “peones”, poorly paid cowboys. And this situation has pretty much remained until this day.
The Moxeños, like many indigenous people in the new world, have an ancient cultural tradition of celebration with the Machetero dance custom- the focal point of which is a massive spherical headdress. These headdresses are truly works of art, with regional variation and individual creativeness. One Beni Moxeño headdress sits in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Each headdress represents the death of at least ten adult macaws, mostly Blue-and-yellow, Severe’s, and Red-and-green, but also the Critically Endangered Blue-throated Macaw. The Machetero costume is a proud element of Moxeño culture that is clearly distinctive. The spherical headdress is often used symbolically to represent the Beni people.
In the beginning, the Blue-throated Macaw conservation program avoided the Machetero headdress impact because of its cultural sensitivity. We knew the answer was not to damn the people for their action- but there was no other tangible solution. The number of headdresses used by cultural groups, clubs and schools was far too high to be supplied by zoo and pet keeper feather donations. In 2007, with the support of Parrots International, Mauricio created a contest with a cash prize for the person who created the best Machetero headdress without using macaw feathers. The first year showed some fantastically creative results, but in 2008, the winning headdress was the answer. A simple solution really; a young man created artificial feathers using a flexible palm spine placed over spray painted thin cloth in the form of a feather. The result was light, flexible and beautiful.
In 2010, Conservation des Espèces et des Population Animales and Parrots International supported the Blue-throated Macaw program to train indigenous groups in the methods to create these artificial feathers to be used in new sustainable Machetero headdresses. We conducted three training workshops in focal areas of San Ignacio de Moxos, Trinidad and Villa Alba. The training workshops were conducted by Jesús Chávez, member of the indigenous city council of the city of Trinidad. One thousand and two hundred indigenous artisans were trained in the creation of the macaw artificial feather. In May the Machetero Kit was released, a portable box with a Blue-throated Macaw conservation message that contains everything to construct a Machetero headdress using 30 artificial feathers. Twenty presentations of the Machetero headdress kit have been received with interest throughout the 4 central cities of Bolivia.
The indigenous peoples of Beni have received this initiative with great enthusiasm. More indigenous groups have asked to receive the artificial feather training, and have also requested that the training could be coupled with an in-depth presentation on Beni’s Bird, the conservation project with the Blue-throated Macaw. A new form of guilt-free pride has emerged with the alternative macaw feathers, including a local interest in utilizing the feathers within the Beni beauty pageant outfits. The substitution real macaw feather with alternative macaw feathers has just begun, but has been readily accepted.
National Geographic has taken interest in the project, supporting some of our actions for 2011, including filming and photographing the events. We also plan to quantify the number of certified real macaw feather headdresses used in only traditional ceremonies to research the possibilities of supplying those limited headdresses with imported macaw feathers from zoos and pet keepers.
These actions have seriously reduced the killing of macaws, including the needless deaths of the remaining four hundred only wild Blue-throated Macaws in the Beni.
Local support for the alternative macaw feather program is clearly apparent, and now the Blue-throated Macaw program needs to only assist in more training events, packaging, and marketing of this sustainable, locally proud indigenous product that can transmit the Blue-throated Macaw conservation message along with offering an economic addition for Beni Indigenous groups.