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Saving Forests and Jobs. Brazil's rubber tappers have organized to keep Amazonia intact for future generations

By Kristin HelmoreStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1989


DELICATE green tendrils snake across the red clay earth by the side of the road, as if straining to escape the flames behind them. Overhead, tongues of fire have caught a towering Brazil nut tree. Its leaves and branches explode in an orange blaze, high above the billows of smoke rising from the ground. A tall palm sways in the surging heat. Its fronds, dry and limp, await the flames. Here in Acre, the remotest state in the Amazon, another section of the Brazilian rain forest is being destroyed. So far, 12 percent of all Amazonia has been cleared: almost 600,000 square kilometers (234,000 square miles) - an area larger than France. The rate of destruction has been accelerating. Nearly 85 percent has taken place in this decade.

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Deep in the vibrant green universe of the forest a two-hour walk from this roadside fire, Joao Batista da Silva and Francisco Chaga da Costa are helping to build a schoolhouse. They are rubber tappers whose families have lived in the jungle for 100 years by collecting rubber and Brazil nuts. For them, preserving the forest is inextricably linked to their own survival.

``What's good about living in the forest is the tranquillity,'' Mr. da Silva says. ``Our work is assured here. It's hard work, but we have everything we need right here in the forest.''

His companion, Mr. Chaga, points with a grin to the shoes he is wearing. They are of supple, strong rubber, molded to his feet. He made them himself out of the latex he extracts from trees.

``I sell 50 kilos of rubber every week, for 15,000 cruzados [about $45],'' says Chaga. ``That's what I would earn in a month in the city. Our future is right here, and the future of our children.''

There are 150,000 rubber tappers in Acre - 500,000 in all of Amazonia. Studies show that they earn over 50 percent more than the small-scale farmers who clear forest land.

Moreover, research by FUNTAC, the Brazilian government's environmental agency, indicates that extraction of rubber, nuts, and other products from the intact forest is more lucrative in the long run than cattle ranching on cleared forest land, the most serious current threat to the forest.

Environmentalists say the whole world will be affected if Brazil's rain forests disappear. Locally, it is the rubber tappers who stand to lose the most if their forest home is destroyed. To combat the destruction, they formed a union in 1985, the National Council of Rubber Tappers, and are fighting to save the forest from destruction, sometimes by sitting, with women and children, in the paths of bulldozers mowing down trees.

Most rubber tappers are illiterate, with little experience of the modern world. Yet the proposal for forest preservation they have presented to the Brazilian government is already being implemented, at least in part.

HERE in Acre, almost 10 percent of the forest has been burned off in this decade alone. Most of the land is being cleared for cattle ranching, often by speculators who bought it from rubber barons. A lawyer working with rubber tappers says that many new ``owners'' do not have clear title to the land.

In the battle for development in the Amazon, rubber tappers and cattle ranchers are as much at odds as David and Goliath - and, to all appearances, as unequally matched. The Brazilian government began promoting migration to the region in the 1960s, offering financial incentives to ranchers, even though the returns have continued to fall far short of the profits expected.

The practice of converting forests into ranches has been widely criticized as ecologically and economically unsound. But these objections don't seem to worry ranchers. One young man, whose father owns 1,500 head of cattle, says firmly that ranching is where Acre's future lies.

``The best thing for Acre is cattle ranching,'' says Carlos Sergio Medeiros Hibeiro, emerging from his father's roadside slaughterhouse in blood-spattered jeans and T-shirt. ``All you need is two head of cattle to start with. This land is very good for cattle ranching.''

Mr. Hibeiro says his father has owned his ranch for 17 years. Gesturing on either side of the road, he explains, ``We cleared this area four years ago, that over there two years ago.'' Hibeiro doesn't know how much land his father has, but he says it supports 9 or 10 head of cattle per acre.