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Rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon discover the value of sustainable management

Communities diversify income through increased access to new techniques that promote better use of natural resources and less deforestation

Brazil’s western Amazonian state of Acre has some of the world’s richest biodiversity. The state’s economy is based on forest products―mainly rubber, Brazil nuts, and timber―that are harvested by rubber tapper communities. Until recently, rubber tappers extracted latex from rubber trees by applying smoke to the tree’s trunk so that the milky sap that flowed from the incisions in the bark would solidify with the heat.

“Today we no longer make deep cuts in the tree. This weakens the rubber until it got sick and stops producing. We’ve learned that clear and fewer cuts can provide a better quality of latex and preserve the rubbers and its production,” says Antônio Teixeira, a rubber tapper in the municipality of Xapurí, 170 kilometers from the state capital of Rio Branco. He is one of the nearly 25,000 rubber tappers who have received training through the IDB-financed Acre Sustainable Development Program.

The program builds on Acre’s historic vocation of forest exploitation by implementing a development model for managing and conserving natural resources by promoting the productive sector and improving infrastructure. The state’s historic trend of deforestation was reversed when forest management was initiated in 2002.

The area of forest and agricultural plots worked by a rubber tapper family―called a colocação―is the program’s basic forest management unit. The Cachoeira do Teixeira colocação was the first to adopt the new management practices. Each property owner can carry out forestry operations on 10 hectares of land per year. After demarcating the area to be cut, all trees with diameters greater than 60 centimeters are identified, and only one out of every four trees can be cut to preserve the forest’s species diversity. A new forest inventory is carried out every ten years.

Through this management system, Texeira does not destroy the forest’s smaller trees when he fells a large tree, or when he drags trunks out of the forest. Since 2011, timber from Cachoeira has been certified by the Brazilian Council for Forest Management (FSC Brasil) as having been sustainably harvested. Teixeira is proud of this accomplishment: “If the consumer understood that it is important to buy furniture made from certified wood, it wouldn’t be necessary to punish those who cut trees without a management system. They would simply find they had no buyers.”

Implementation of the management system has included strengthening the productive sector through training and technical assistance. These new skills have helped local communities diversify their income and increase their harvest of the region’s major forest products on a sustainable basis.

The program began in 2002 after decades of economic decline resulting from drops in the price of latex and conflicts over land tenure. The program was carried out through a dialogue with civil society that was based on the concept of “florestania”, in which the communities act as agents in forest protection.

The program’s investments of $108 million, which include $64.8 million in IDB financing, have also supported the state’s environmental system. In this system, information is processed automatically for monitoring and control, enabling the Environmental Institute of Acre to cut in half the number of days it took to process an environmental license, to less than one month.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure was also a key element in the program to link communities to markets and improve the quality of life of families. More than 300 electric generators were installed, improvements were made in river transport, and the remaining 70.1 kilometers of highway BR-364, between Rio Liberdade and Igarapé Santa Fé, were paved. 

These improved roads benefit rubber tappers, such as Vital Barros. Formerly, Barros had to spend a day on foot to travel from his house in the Chico Mendes Agro-Extractive Settlement Project to the municipality of Xapurí to buy food that he didn’t produce on his colocação and to sell Brazil nuts and rubber. “Today I can get to Xapurí by motorcycle in 30 minutes,” he said.

The program also included measures to ensure that improved transport would not encourage deforestation, illegal occupation of land, and conflicts over land ownership. These measures include the establishment of protected areas, regularization of land ownership, and the monitoring of regulations by communities and state agencies.

“Here, with the help of the IDB and of the state, we are prepared to ensure that the new infrastructure will be used for transport and commerce, and not to encourage deforestation,” says rubber tapper Nilson Mendes.

Improved transport spurs greater investments by local industry, which benefits rubber tappers such as Barros. “Today a producer earns as much as $35 a day. Up until the 1990s, people were earning only $38 a month.”

Impact on deforestation

The development model supported by the program has helped to reduce deforestation in the state from a rate of .54 percent in 2002 to .14 percent in 2008. Nearly 10,000 families received property titles and another 3,124 families began to extract forest products on a legal basis in areas where a concession is required to do so. An area of nearly 700,000 hectares was placed under protection and cannot be exploited with the creation of the Chandles State Park.

But the main impact of the project was the change in mentality of the rubber tappers. “Today we not only know how to exploit our resources on a sustainable basis, but we also show other communities the advantages of florestania and the correct way to use our biodiversity,” said Mendes.