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Rain forest protagonist


By Roger Hamilton
Genaro Santos da Cruz’s legs can no longer carry him along his rubber trails in the rain forest in Brazil’s western Amazonian state of Acre. But his eyes sparkle with youthful energy as he tells about his part in a grand experiment for saving the place he calls home.


Cruz began to walk the rubber trails when he was eight years old. His first job was to follow his father, carrying the bucket filled with the milky sap that oozed from the herringbone cuts in the trees’ sides and collected in the little tin pots. Three years later he began walking the trails himself.

This was many years before there was any talk of turning this forest into a reserve. It was also long before Chico Mendes, before even the military dictatorship. But it still was a time of change, when the question of who controlled the land was often settled by threats and violence. Cruz kept this in the back of his mind as he raised a family, walked his rubber trails, grew crops and raised a few cattle.

Then word reached him that the government was going to turn “his” forest into part of a forest reserve. “I had no idea what they were talking about,” he recalled. “The idea of a reserve made no sense to us.”

Rumors began circulating. “The people were saying, ‘The government wants us to get out and leave the land just to the animals and the trees’,” Cruz recalled. “They were afraid. They said, ‘We have lived here for so many years. We were born here, our children were raised here, and now this’.”

But the fears proved unfounded. The people living in the forest were allowed to remain, and they received official confirmation of their rights to continue to use their land, although not property titles. The reserve even built them sturdy new houses.

“Our great-grandchildren will still be able to live here,” said Cruz. “We don’t have to be afraid. This is a place where we can live peacefully, hunting a little, collecting Brazil nuts. For me it is good.”

The reserve is just one change that has come to this forest area. Another is on its way. In just a couple of years, the dirt road to the state capital of Rio Branco will be paved. Cruz is optimistic. Since his land is located within the reserve, the settlers and speculators that new roads often attract cannot threaten his traditional rights nor those of his neighbors. Also, he says that the road will lower the cost of trucking his products to market and make it easier for him to visit his four children, who moved to the city to attend college.

For his part, Cruz intends to continue living in the forest, along with a son who now also walks his family’s rubber trails.

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