Film to chronicle Ecuadorian indigenous practice of making clothing from tree bark

Mar 6, 2019

Sápara people in the Ecuadorian Amazon prepare the llanchama tree to be made into fabric for clothing. (Photo by Yanda Montahuano)

By Taran Volckhausen

Before clothes from the outside world arrived, the Sápara people of the Ecuadoran Amazon made their own clothes from tree bark harvested in the rainforest. Today, the Sápara are in danger of losing this millenary cultural knowledge as commercial clothing and extractive oil projects threaten their traditional way of life.

Enter filmmaker Lenin “Yanda” Montahuano, 28, who produced a short documentary, Sápara Clothing: A Tradition in Danger, in an attempt to restore Sápara cultural knowledge for younger generations and show the world that the Sápara indigenous people’s culture remains alive in the Amazon rainforest.

“We wanted to produce this because very few people know about this,” Montahuano said. “As a young Sápara, I wanted to nourish myself from the knowledge of my elders, my grandparents. We don’t want these traditions to be lost.”

A Sápara man in the Ecuadorian Amazon pounds the fibers of the llanchama into a textile. (Photo by Yanda Montahuano)

The film was produced with fellow filmmaker Samantha Castro, who lives in Quito, Ecuador, and was commissioned by If Not Us Then Who?, a U.S.-based nonprofit that aims to highlight the roles that indigenous and local peoples play as stewards of the environment.*

In the film, Montahuano’s uncle Arturo Santi shares the story of how the Sápara people learned to produce clothing from the bark of the llanchama tree that “grows in the heart of the forest.”

“There used to be no clothing, so long ago our grandparents taught this to us,” Santo says in the film. “During this time thousands of years ago, [the ancestors] learned how to make dresses, bedding, shirts, and chalinas used to carry the babies from the bark of the llanchama.”

Stripped and beaten to soften the fibers, the llanchama bark can be transformed into a resistant textile fabric. The process can take up to a week for a person working alone, but with seven people collaborating, as shown in the film, it lasts three to four days. The first day consists of traveling into the forest to find the tree, cut it down and strip off a sheet of bark, Montahuano said. The sheet is then steeped in a stream overnight, and the next day it’s beaten with wooden mallets while it soaks until it softens into a wearable fabric. Finally, the newly created fabric is left in the sun to dry. Once dry, the fabric can be cut as needed for clothing or other needs.

Montahuano said there were two kinds of trees used for producing textiles: one red and one white. The red llanchama is the more commonly used tree that is shown in the film because it can be cut at any time. The white llanchama is used for more special occasions because it can only be cut during the full moon cycle.

“Most of the time, the white llanchama is too hard to cut and produces a sap that irritates the skin,” Montahuano said. “But in connection with the cycles of the moon, the tree becomes softer and easier to cut.”

On these occasions, the white llanchama tree is cut on the day of the full moon. Montahuano described the fabric produced from the white tree as “thinner, softer [with] a desirable color.”

As part of their fight for cultural survival, the Sápara people are struggling to keep government-backed oil drilling out of their territory. In 2017, Montahuano participated in a march to the country’s capital, Quito, to demand government respect for indigenous autonomy and to protest the expansion of oil drilling in their territory.

“We are under constant threat from the oil companies. They have divided us, even caused us death,” he said. “It has broken our intimate connection with nature, generating a great deal [of] sadness.”

Montahuano showed the film at a Sápara assembly, and said he would like to produce a film that tells the entire history of the Sápara, filmed in each of the 25 communities that comprise the indigenous nation, and that protects its threatened language.

“Next, we would like to produce a film from the perspective of the territory that tells the struggle, the dream and the existence of the Sápara people,” Montahuano said.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the oral and cultural traditions of the Sápara people as “Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” It noted that the Sápara had developed in what is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world and had cultivated a culture rich in its understanding of the natural environment.

“The autonomous Sápara, by actively preserving their culture, as a way of life, are a glimmer of hope, not only for their continuation as a people, but also that they will continue protecting their part of the rainforest,” UNESCO said in a report.

Credit: Mongabay,

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