“Welcome to the only factory in the world that makes condoms using natural latex,” proudly states the hair-netted young woman as she begins our tour. “We currently make 100 million condoms a year, but we plan to double that beginning next year.” Clearly, business is booming for Natex, a condom factory in the small town of Xapuri (sha-pu-ree) in the state of Acre, Brazil.
This being my first trip to a condom factory, I was eager to learn more. So I flipped through the factory’s brochure as we made our way to the latex centrifuges. I was immediately struck by the long list of objectives boldly printed at the top. Natex aims to do no less than: develop technologies to increase the competiveness of forest products, make extractive activities economically viable, improve the quality of life for rubber tappers, contribute to the economic development of Xapuri, reduce the need to import condoms, and contribute to the campaign against HIV/AIDS. At Natex, apparently, they’re not just churning out “rubbers” and providing decent livings for local people, they’re helping to save the forests too.
The underlying key to the formula seems to lie in creating a value (like rubber extraction) for standing forests that competes well with other economic opportunities that would cause forest destruction, and in finding a mix of activities that provide a living wage.
But, Natex’s success in the town of Xapuri did not happen over night. There is a powerful history here, where strong ideals and a strong conservation ethic paved the way for opportunities like Natex’s. Xapuri is, after all, the hometown of legendary rubber tapper and social organizer Chico Mendes.
Before arriving at the condom factory, I had spent the morning with Mr. Antonio Texeira Mendes, (Chico’s nephew), who proudly showed me around his farm. Duda, as Mr. Texeira Mendes is known, is one of the 700 family farmers that supply rubber to Natex. With Natex’s planned expansion, that number will balloon to 1400.
Antonio Texeira Mendes (“Duda” as he is known), nephew of legendary rubber tapper and social organizer Chico Mendes, shows us how to tap rubber trees. Photo by: Rane Cortez
During my visit of Duda’s farm, we talked about Chico’s story. The land that Duda and his neighbors farm once belonged to a “patron,” a single large landowner that allowed families to farm small parcels in exchange for paltry wages. Chico Mendes changed that. He organized the rubber tappers and won their right to the land. Now each family has their own piece of land and the community works together to see that everyone does well.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Chico Mendes did not just take on one patron, he took on the entire model of economic development at the time.
Starting in the 1970s, Brazil had a land policy for the Amazon known as “integrar para não entregar,” meaning “occupy it in order not to hand it over.” This policy was based on the fear that, if Brazil did not develop the Amazon, someone else would move in and do it for them. The result was large subsidies for well-connected ranchers and loggers to move north and raze the forest. There was little that stood in their way, and what barriers did arise were usually dealt with violently.
In this Wild West, Chico Mendes organized his community of rubber tappers to form human barriers, known as “empates,” against the advance of forest destruction. He also came up with the idea for “extractive reserves,” a new type of protected area that allowed the sustainable extraction of forest products. They may seem like small things, a human wall and an idea, but Chico Mendes managed to fend off the invaders. Until one night, just before dinner, Chico Mendes was shot and killed at his home.
Thankfully, Chico Mendes’ ideals did not die with him.
Today, extractive reserves are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list of protected areas categories, and the forests of Xapuri remain standing thanks to the rubber tappers that have legal rights to manage them.
With the weight of history behind him, Duda began to walk us through his property. He showed us his rubber trees and told us that they would produce for his entire lifetime and beyond, if well managed. Good management means tapping each tree only every three days and never cutting in the same direction as old cuts. He could get a lot more rubber out of each tree if he cut more often, but that is short-term thinking, he says.
Duda earns approximately $300 per month during the six months that he can tap the trees. At those wages, you would think that the temptation to produce more would be powerful. But Duda does not even consider it. These trees are not just for him, they are for his children and his children’s children.
In addition to rubber, Duda’s farm also produces Brazil nuts and sustainably-harvested timber, as well as fruits and vegetables from the garden. The combination of crops provides Duda and his family with a decent living.
(Left): Duda has planted new rubber trees, intermixed with other crops such as corn, watermelon and beans. Photo by: Rane Cortez.
(Right): Visiting the house of environmental legend Chico Mendes was an inspirational experience for me. Photo by: Phil Franks/CARE
Some see Natex as carriers of the Chico Mendes torch, or as one tapper calls them, promoters of the “empate moderno” (the modern wall against forest destruction). Not long ago, the price of natural rubber was too low to make it an economically viable livelihood and rubber tappers moved into the cities to seek other opportunities. With the drop in rubber prices, the value of standing forests also declined, and the economy began to give way to the more profitable, and much more destructive, raising of biofuels and cattle.
But when Natex opened, the tappers had a guaranteed buyer and prices rose. Families moved back to the forest and began tapping the trees again. Families remark that they are proud of the factory and the way of life that it provides their communities. You can tell that they truly embrace the objectives listed in Natex’s brochure: they know they are not just producing condoms, they are working toward something bigger.
As we leave Duda’s farm, I thank him on behalf of the visitors from eight different countries. His closing words for us are: “Please work toward conserving the forests in your countries. I am doing my part here.”
On the bus ride back to the city, I think about those words. Perhaps the model in Xapuri is unique, a small utopia built on the back of a martyr. I certainly haven’t seen a place quite like it before. A place where economics, social development, and environmental conservation tangibly converge. But there must be others.
Most importantly, we must work, as Duda says, to ensure that the model spreads.
Rane Cortez is a forest carbon development advisor at The Nature Conservancy.
Top Photo by: Rane Cortez/The Nature Conservancy (the centrifuges at Natex)
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