Skip to main content
Contraception goes organic

By Roger Hamilton

ACRE, BRAZIL — People from around the world travel to the western Amazonian town of Xapuri to visit the house of Chico Mendes, fallen defender of the forest and its people. On the way, they pass a much larger structure, a newly constructed factory.

Image removed.Rubber tappers pour liquid latex into molds to produce sheets that can be stored or easily transported. The condom factory must use liquid latex.

The proximity of these two structures is not coincidental. Chico Mendes fought to protect the rights of people who harvest the natural products of the forest, including latex. His dream lives on in the nearly one-million-hectare Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, which was created as part of a project financed by the Inter-American Development Bank in the 1980s. The new building is a factory that  will use the latex gathered by 350 rubber tappers in the reserve to make condoms. It will start production later this year with a target of 100 million condoms annually.

The US$10.6 million Xapuri factory is notable for two reasons. First, it will be Brazil’s first national condom producer. The others are international companies. 

But more than that, the Xapuri facility will produce the world’s first all-organic condoms, because they are made from latex collected in the natural forest. At present, condoms are made from latex produced by Southeast Asian rubber tree plantations that use chemical pesticides, herbicides and other agrochemicals.

Among the challenges in using latex from the natural forest is that the raw material must arrive at the plant in a liquid state. For this reason, only families within a relatively short distance from the plant can participate. Normally, rubber tappers pour the liquid latex into a mold and let it congeal to a solid state, which enables them to transport it at any time and over any distance.

More value for natural forest. After the turn of the last century, Brazil was the world’s top producer of latex, which is used to make many critical transportation and military products, as well as toy balloons. But the country’s near monopoly on natural latex was broken after industrial plantations on the other side of the globe proved far more economical producers than the widely spaced trees in the natural forest. Latex still produced in the Amazon is heavily subsidized.

Image removed.Drop by drop, latex fills the rubber tapper’s tin cup.

Acre’s state government spearheaded construction of the factory, which will be operated by a private company. State officials are hopeful that a commercial product such as condoms—sold with their all-natural cachet—will give the standing forest additional value and boost incomes for the families that make their living from it. In recent years, forest people are abandoning the “rubber trails” that had formerly sustained them, according to João César Dotto, who directs the quasi-state technology foundation that helped develop the factory’s production process. He wants people to continue to earn their living in the forest to strengthen the economic argument for protecting them.

Although the condoms are not yet on sale, promotional literature and samples in green packets are ubiquitous in state government offices.

Jump back to top