From The Panama Canal Review, February, 1971

Turning waste materials into something attractive and saleable is the dream of every potential entrepreneur. That dream coupled with imagination has turned the hobby of making reedlike birdcages into a profitable home industry in Panama.

A small group of Panamanian farmers near the highlands of El Valle de Anton spend much of their spare time collecting the raw materials and forming them into intricate birdcages of various sizes and designs - miniature houses, churches, fire stations, airplanes, helicopters, pagados, and recently, one 7-foot model of the Thatcher Ferry Bridge was made.

The cages are not made of reed, but the stem of the sugarcane and from the hard center strip of coconut palm leaves.

The farmers most active in this small industry are from El Copecito and El Espino, communities approximately 60 miles west of Panama City near the entrance of El Valle - the home of the rare golden colored frog and the strange tree with a square trunk.


Growing sugarcane is perhaps the oldest and most widespread industry in the Republic of Panama and in the last 20 years it has grown into a major export industry.

The farmers use every part of the cane. From it they make a sweet refreshing juice called guarapo. In the old days it was sometimes left to ferment and the result was a fairly strong drink the natives called cimarron. Guarapo also is boiled until it has the consistency of molasses or until it sugars. This brown sugar is molded into blocks and used to make sweets and candies. Until recently, families in the Interior sweetened their coffee with sugarcane molasses or the brown sugar. As the industry grew additional refining was necessary to sell the sugar on the world market.

Another industry which uses the sugarcane as raw material is the important rum industry of Panama. Although the rums are not widely exported, they are considered by many rum drinkers as among the best in the region.

After the juice is extracted from the cane, the fibrous residue, or bagasse, is used for fuel. In some areas bagasse is made into wallboard. The leaves also are used, for cattle fodder. What is left is the slender stem, or viruli, of the sugarcane blossom which for many years has been used all over Panama for making kites and more recently the birdcages of El Valle.


Viruli is easy to handle and is fairly strong. The pieces may be cut or broken at any desired length. Strips of coconut leaf fiber are used to join the pieces of stem to reinforce the bird cage construction. Though fragile looking, the cages are durable and withstand the weather even if hung outside for years.

One of the manufacturers of the birdcages is Heriberto Sanchez. He is an expert and some of his creations are true works of art. His tools include a machete for cutting the coconut palm leaves, a well sharpened penknife for extracting the fibers from the leaves, and an awl for making holes in the stems to place the fibers.

Most of the cages Sanchez makes are in the form of a house or a church. But his pride and joy is a model of the Thatcher Ferry Bridge. For the base he used two 7-foot lengths of white cane (of the same family as sugarcane) often used for building the rustic native huts of the Interior. He sold the bridge cage to Miss Marsha Collins of the Canal Zone. It was so big it had to be divided into three sections so it would fit in the car.

According to Sanchez, the best time to cut viruli is in November when the sugar cane is in bloom. A 13-year old nephew, Enrique Quintero, helps him to cut the cane and to make the birdcages. The boy's real ambition, however, is to go to school in Panama City and learn to be an airplane mechanic. The money he earns goes toward his education.


Another artist at making birdcages is Julio Torres, an 18-year-old youth from El Espino. His father has a grocery stand on the side of the road. Torres has a bohio in front of his father's place and it is practically filled with cages of all kinds. His creations average about 2 feet in length and 1 foot in width. In the cages are little bars for the birds to perch on. He sells the simple cages for $1.50 to $2.00 and the more complicated ones for $3.00. Others, depending on the work involved, cost a little more. It takes from 1 to 2 days to make a cage, depending on the size.

A cage in the form of a house, pagoda, tower, or airplane takes about a day to make. A helicopter takes a little longer. A fishing boat with cranes and net throwers takes much longer to make and sells for $3.50. Torres, who has a grade school education, makes his living on the birdcages. Since business is not very good during the rainy season, he makes most of them in November and has a large supply ready when the dry season sets in and visitors go to the area. On some Sundays he earns as much as $35.00 selling birdcages.

An effort is being made by the National Artesan and Small Industries Service (SENAPI), sponsored by the United Nations and the Panama Government, to find other markets for the cages.

Presented by CZBrats
December 19, 1998
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