Presenting and Interpreting Culture / Spotlights


Art and Community Sustainability

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The Plant

The tagua palm belongs to the phyltelephas acquatorialis (equatorial elephant plant) species and grows abundantly along the banks of tropical rivers in Colombia. Large globular clusters of seed-bearing fruits, the size of a melon, grow at the base of the female plant. Each fruit is studded with pointed horns and contains four or more large seeds. A single palm can produce fifty pounds of nuts a year.

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The tagua palm is native to the rainforest, but its seeds found their way to the highlands, where artists in Boyacá developed a tradition of carving them over a hundred years ago. In the 19th century, tagua seeds were probably shipped abroad from the Magdalena River in the Momposino Depression. Known for its hardness and texture as vegetable ivory, it became a valuable export commodity in the nineteenth century, used for making buttons. At this time, tagua seeds were also used as ballast for ships traveling to Europe and the United States. In the 1950s, newly developed synthetic materials replaced the large-scale use of the tagua seed.

Today, artisans still work with tagua—carving it with, gouges, electrical lathes, and scrimshaw tools to fashion useful and decorative objects of great beauty.

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Coffee Production

Juan César Bonilla is a master tagua carver, an art form and business that were passed down to him from his father. He also understands the value of tagua carving as a sustainable occupation and takes every opportunity to share his craft with the world. He is equal parts artist and educator as he demonstrates his carving skill while explaining the importance of protecting Colombian rainforest sustainable resources, which also create work opportunities. Photo by Michelle Arbeit, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution