Securing a future for Amazonian rubber-tappers

Extracting latex from a rubber tree
A pioneering initiative is helping to rebuild the traditional local economy and livelihoods of the Amazonian rubber-tappers

Amazonian indigenous peoples have transformed the white sap of the rubber tree into utensils since primeval times. But with the arrival of European colonisers, the natives gradually started to lose their land, cultural identity and the ancient knowledge of using the latex.

Since 2002, however, an initiative in Brazil has aimed to reintroduce this traditional indigenous technique. 'Encauchados de Vegetais da Amazônia' is a project developed by the local NGO Poloprobio that has already involved more than 600 indians and rubber-tappers in Amazonian communities. The initiative, given a prize in 2008 by the Development Programme of the United Nations, is generating better income and quality of life for the forest people, while preventing deforestation by the expansion of cattle and crop farming.

Francisco Samonek is the man behind the idea. A researcher at the University of Acre and the founder of Poloprobio, he explains how the project began:

'I started to research a new method of processing the rubber latex without the use of electricity and machinery, back in the 1980s. In those days, rubber-tappers and indigenous people were suffering with the lack of government subsidies, many abandoning the forest and increasing poverty numbers in nearby cities. Rubberised textiles were already being produced there, but through a process that involved the smoke-curing of the rubber. Apart from being dangerous to the health, this method was not economically viable.'

After joining scientific research with the rubber-tappers' empirical knowledge, Samonek was able to develop a rubberised textile that avoids smoke-curing. The latex was simply applied to industrialised fabric and left to dry naturally in the sun. Later, in 2002, vegetal fibres collected locally were added to the latex, and this made it possible to eliminate the use of the industrialised fabric.

The new technique enabled the creation of artefacts of all shapes and sizes. By then, Samonek knew that he had the key to a better life for many people. But only in 2004 did he find written evidence of a similar technique once used by the natives to create utensils. At the time, he realised that the artisanal use of the latex could not only promote social inclusion through a sustainable activity, but also recover the indigenous technique of encauchados, which had been completely lost. It was then that the project started to take shape.

Francisco Samonek receiving the FINEP (Brazilian Innovation Agency) prize in Brazil

Rubber rules

Making an encauchado is not difficult. The latex of the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis, native of the Amazon) is extracted by making shallow diagonal cuts in the bark. Then a collecting can is attached to the trunk. Once collected, the latex is sieved, mixed with ash and heated for an hour, in a process that will prevent coagulation and bacterial contamination.

Later, natural fibres and pigments found in the forest are added. This paste, applied in several coats to moulds of various shapes and sizes, is left to dry in the sun, being transformed into more than 20 different items, such as bags, pots, rugs, tablecloths, boxes and even tiles. The objects are later decorated with indigenous motifs using pigmented latex, which can also be applied to T-shirts, caps, towels and other textiles.

By producing their own goods instead of simply selling the rubber to a middle-man, indigenous peoples and rubber-tappers are preserving the local culture in a sustainable way, but also avoiding exploitation. According to Samonek, the differences in income are astonishing: 'To have an idea, the rubber processed by conventional methods is commercialised at the equivalent of £0.65 per kilo. When processed as an encauchado, one kilo of rubber is worth as much as £18. This makes a huge difference in the lives of these people, who now can afford a more comfortable life without changing their own lifestyle. They still hunt, fish and collect fruit as they have always done, but now they feel socially included, they have better self-esteem. And the forest stays standing up.'

The products are directly sold in the community centres of nearby villages and towns. In Rio Branco, capital city of Acre state, there is a co-operative that also takes the products to local fairs and events. 'The gains are managed by the communities, as they wish,' explains Samonek. 'Soon we will also be placing the products for sale to distributors on our website,, which is under construction.'

Maintaining tradition

In the beginning, Samonek says, the biggest challenge was to develop the project without any government support: 'The scepticism was huge among the governmental institutions that should be supporting us. Today, thanks to the results achieved and the high quality of products, our work is widely recognised.'

The project is now financed by the CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development), FINEP (Brazilian Innovation Agency) and Sebrae (an agency supporting small businesses). In 2006, a grant from Banco da Amazônia helped to finance a demonstrative unit at the University of Acre. In 2007, Petrobrás (Brazilian Oil) joined in to finance the extension of the project to other states of the Amazon: Pará, Rondônia and Amazonas itself.

Money is not the only problem, explains Samonek: 'We still have challenges to overcome, like controlling and organising the production in an effective way, and this is even more difficult because of the whole manufacturing process. The geographic distance is also a challenge, as we are covering a very disperse area.' Today, Samonek counts on the help of five volunteers and 15 students and researchers, sponsored by the CNPq. Also, each indigenous or rubber-tapping community has local monitors, who are responsible for assisting every member.

'In the next two years, our plan is to extend the project across the four states, to 10 indigenous groups. This will bring to a thousand the total of indigenous people involved. We also want to take the project to other rubber-tapping communities and to increase the range of products manufactured,' says Samonek. 'I can see our project expanding more and more, because there are many rubber trees in the Amazon, just as there are many impoverished and socially excluded people. And as long as there are people in the world interested in buying ethically sourced and biodegradable products, our project can survive.'

A video (in Portuguese) showing the manufacturing process and interviews with people involved can be viewed here

Giovana Zilli is a freelance journalist


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