Deep in the Amazon rainforest, in Brazil’s far western region, tappers walk the forest trails, harvesting liquid latex from the trunks of the bountiful native rubber trees.
But while their grandparents collected rubber for military use in World War Two, today it is used for lovemaking, not war – transformed into condoms at a factory in the town of Xapuri in Acre state.
The industry provides a sustainable way to profit from the forest, the state government says, and condoms are distributed free of charge throughout Brazil to help keep HIV/Aids in check.
The fact that the trees remain, and the rubber industry prevails is partly the result of the efforts of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper and union leader, who lost his life fighting to protect both rainforest and rural livelihoods. Mendes was killed 25 years ago in Xapuri by a ranch-owner who planned to deforest an area Mendes was fighting to protect.
Marcos Afonso, a friend of Mendes and director of Acre’s Library of the Forest, says the murder was a catalyst for change – the results of which are visible today.
“We were saddened by his murder and wept a lot – but the fight grew,” he said. “Chico’s legacy was his courage, his determination, and his belief in a different future for the Amazon.”
Innovation in Acre
In Acre, that different future seems a little closer than it did 25 years ago.
In the late 1990s, the Workers’ Party (PT) founded by Mendes and his colleagues in Acre, was elected on a platform aimed at improving infrastructure and services by adding value to sustainable forest products.
Reforms since then have opened a path to faster economic growth, without sacrificing forests. Acre had an average GDP growth rate of 6% a year from 2001 until 2010 while Brazil as a whole grew at 4.9% on average, according to the World Bank. At the same time, deforestation declined by about 70%.
Lifting the region out of poverty remains a challenge. In 2010, Acre’s GDP per capita was $6,528, less than 60% of Brazil’s national average. But the government believes protecting the forest doesn’t have to come at the cost of development, according to Monica de los Rios from Acre’s Institute for Climate Change and Regulation of Environmental Services.
“As a poor state, we need to be more creative,” she said.
In 2010, Acre introduced the state system of incentives for environmental services, which will reward small farmers, indigenous communities or even cattle ranchers and loggers for protecting services like forest carbon stocks, water, soil, biodiversity and traditional knowledge. They will receive cash payments, equipment, and training to help them implement sustainable land use practices.
“The sustainable development strategy is enshrined in a legal framework that reaches across the government,” says Acre’s attorney general, Rodrigo Neves. He says the state now hopes to attract investment from emerging national and international markets for those environmental services.
“Acre’s history of social organisation has created a political context suitable for the adoption of sustainability policies,” Neves said. “Of course, it’s had to overcome a number of difficulties, particularly associated with the creation of new markets, a process that takes years to mature, but if there’s a place where this can be done, it’s in Acre.”
Amy Duchelle, a Brazil-based scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), says Acre’s state-wide commitment to tackling deforestation through development is unique in Brazil.
“It’s kind of a laboratory for innovative policy,” Duchelle said.
“The essence of Acre’s forest-based development model is turning the ‘business-as-usual’ model of development on its head. Here, production is at the heart of conservation and these policies have created opportunities for people to engage in more sustainable practices.”
Mendes’ legacy is felt well beyond Acre. While he lived, he urged the Brazilian government to designate Amazon areas as ‘extractive reserves,’ which non-indigenous forest residents would manage and be legally entitled to sustainably extract resources.