Fashion sneakers drive sustainable rubber in the Brazilian Amazon

XAPURI, Brazil (AP) — Rubber tire maker Raimundo Mendes de Barros is preparing to leave his home, surrounded by rainforest, for work in the Brazilian Amazon city of Xapuri. She puts her long, 77-year-old feet full of scars in sneakers from the French brand Veja.

At first glance, the expensive urban sneakers with white details seem at odds with the muddy tropical forest. But distant worlds have come together to produce soles from indigenous Amazonian rubber.

Veja works with a local cooperative called Cooperacre, which has reinvigorated the production of a sustainable forest product and improved the lives of hundreds of rubber tapping families. It is a project that, although modest in scale, provides a real-life example of sustainable living from the forest.

“Veja and Cooperacre do essential work for us who live in the forest. They make young people come back. They have rekindled hope in working with rubber,” Rogério Barros, Raimundo’s 24-year-old son, told The Associated Press as he demonstrated how to tap a rubber tree in the family’s grove in the Chico Mendes Reserve. Extractive reserves in Brazil are state-owned lands that have been set aside for people to make a living while maintaining the forest.

Rubber was once a central part of the Amazon economy. The first boom occurred at the turn of the 20th century. Thousands of people migrated inland from Brazil’s impoverished northeast to work in the forest, often in slave-like conditions.

This boom came to an abrupt end in the 1910s when rubber plantations began to produce on a large scale in Asia. But during World War II, Japan cut off supplies, prompting the United States to finance the restart of rubber production in the Amazon.

After the war, Amazon’s latex trade went into decline again, although thousands of families continued to work in poor conditions for the rubber bosses. In the 1970s, these relatively wealthy individuals began selling land to ranchers from the south, although in most cases they did not actually own it, but only had concessions because they were well connected to government officials.

These land sales caused mass expulsion of rubber farmers from the forest. The loss of livelihoods and the clearing of forests to make way for cattle ranching is what prompted renowned environmentalist Chico Mendes — along with Barroso’s cousin — to found and lead the rubber movement. Mendes would be murdered for his work in 1988.

After Mendes’ murder, the federal government began creating reserves of extractive resources so that the forest could not be sold for cattle. The Chico Mendes Reserve is one of them. However, the story did not end with the creation of the reserve. Government attempts to promote latex, including a state-run condom factory in Xapuri, have failed to generate reliable revenue.

What sets the Veja operation apart is that tire makers are now being paid far more than the commodity price for their tire. In 2022, the Barros family received US$4.20 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rubber obtained from their grove. They used to earn a tenth of that amount.

This price paid by shoe company Veja to retailers includes bonuses for sustainable harvests plus recognition of the value of forest conservation, explains Sebastião Pereira, in charge of Veja’s Amazon rubber supply chain. ​Rubbers also receive federal and state benefits per kilogram.

Veja also pays bonuses to bartenders who use best practices and to local cooperatives who buy directly from them. The criteria range from zero deforestation to proper management of rubber trees. Top producers also get a pair of shoes as a reward.

Veja gum is produced by about 1,200 families from 22 local cooperatives spread over five Amazonian states: Acre, where the Chico Mendes extract reserve is located, Amazonas, Rondonia, Mato Grosso and Pará.

All the rubber goes to the Cooperacre factory in Sena Madureira, Acre state, where the raw product is cut, washed, shredded, heated, weighed, packaged and finally sent to Veja’s contracted factories in the industrialized state of Rio Grande Sul. thousands of miles to the south, as well as to the state of Ceara, in northeastern Brazil.

From there, the sneakers are distributed to many parts of the world. In the last 20 years, Veja has sold more than 8 million pairs in several countries and maintains stores in Paris, New York and Berlin. The amount of Amazon rubber it buys has jumped: from 5,000 kilograms (11,023 pounds) in 2005 to 709,500 kilograms (1.56 million pounds) in 2021, according to the company.

However, that hasn’t changed the game for the forest in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, home to nearly 3,000 families. Illegal cattle breeding, an old problem, took off. Deforestation there has tripled in the past four years, amid the policies of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who was defeated in a re-election bid and left office late last year.

Cattle long ago replaced rubber as Acre’s main economic activity. Almost half of the country’s rural workforce is employed in livestock farming, with only 4% living off forest products, mainly Brazil nuts.

According to an economic study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais, 57% of Acre’s economic production comes from livestock. Rubber makes up less than 1%.

Surrounded by cattle pastures and a paved highway—the entry point for deforestation—Chico Mendes has the third highest rate of deforestation among all protected reserves in Brazil.

Increasing livestock pressure on the reserve, which has already lost 9% of its original forest cover, even led Veja to set up its own satellite monitoring system.

“Our platform shows a specific region where deforestation is rampant. So we can go there and talk. But we are aware that our role is to offer an alternative and raise awareness,” Pereira told AP in a telephone interview. “We are careful not to cross the line because the public authority should be the one to enforce the law.”

According to Roberta Graf, who heads the Acre chapter of the Association of Federal Environmental Protection Officials, Veja’s experience is crucial because it shows the path to sustainable living within extractive reserves. But to achieve this, she argues, requires a joint effort involving government at different levels, non-profit organizations and grassroots organizations.

“Forest communities still value gumming. They enjoy making a living from latex,” she told the AP in an interview at her home in Rio Branco, Acre’s capital. “There are many forest products: copaiba, andiroba (vegetable oils), Brazil nuts, wild cacao and seeds. The ideal should be to work with all of them according to what each reserve has to offer.”


Associated Press climate and environmental reporting is supported by several private foundations. Read more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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