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Sustainable Extraction of Natural Goods

''Green'' Products Flourish in Brazil

By Mario Osava*

Textile dyes, soft drinks, shoes and even condoms are some of the products that are made from the Amazon forest's natural wealth

RIO DE JANEIRO - A range of natural goods from the Amazon forest, among them fruits, rubber derivatives and cosmetic and medicinal oils, are the raw material for products of mass consumption that are providing the basis for a robust ''green'' industry in Brazil.

Natural latex is used to manufacture condoms and sophisticated handbags and sandals, while the fruit of the 'azaí' palm serves to dye jeans made by the transnational Levi's, and 'guaraná,' an energy food, is the basic ingredient of a soft drink that, according to its producers, will soon be competing with Coca-cola.

Like the 'azaí,' many colorants and natural fixatives, like 'urucum' and 'jenipapo,' used by the Amazonian indigenous peoples in creating crafts and artwork, have awakened market interest.

The Kaxinawás, for example, paint their cloth black with a local mud and fix the color with mahogany bark and banana tree sap, said Joao Augusto Fortes, owner of Amazon Life, a Rio de Janeiro-based firm specializing in ecological products.

It involves products of ''sustainable extraction,'' a process that has the backing of a program financed by the Brazilian government, the Group of Seven (G-7, the wealthiest of the industrialized nations), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), he told Tierramérica.

Extractive Reserves, the brainchild of Chico Mendes, the social and environmental leader who was assassinated in 1988, have multiplied in recent years. So far, there are 17 areas, with the participation of 30,000 people, and another 14 are in the planning stages, according to the government's Coordination Secretariat for the Amazon.

''We know the potential for sales of some products and what must be done, but we lack investment,'' pointed out Juárez Leitao dos Santos, president of the National Council of 'Seringueiros' (rubber tappers).

The pulp of the 'azaí' has ''a fantastic market,'' also as a beverage or as a food for athletes, because it boosts muscular elasticity, indicated Dos Santos.

A chain of athletic clubs is interested in purchasing it, but investment is needed to develop a distribution system, he said.

Nevertheless, beginning this year there will be regular source of income, with greater official contributions and financing from the Amazon Development Bank, Mary Alegretti, head of the environment ministry's Coordination Secretariat for the Amazon, told Tierramérica.

The major challenges in extractive production now are to achieve high technological qualifications and a stable supply.

''The model for developing the activity,'' said Alegretti, was adopted for wood on the Xapurí Reserve in Acre state. The project involves forest management, small industry with environmental certification, an education center and training in design in Italy. In other words, it covers the entire process for selling furniture and other value-added final products, she pointed out.

Beautiful and Resilient

The so-called "Sandalia d'Arvore" is a product created for the sophisticated fashion market and contributes to the preservation of Amazon forests.

The sandal made its debut at the ''Rock in Rio'' music festival, which brought 1.2 million people to the concert grounds from Jan 12 to 21 with the slogan ''for a better world.''

''Bold design, comfortable, resilient and beautiful'' describe the shoe developed by the Eco-Business Institute of Amazonia, with financing from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said Moacyr Bittencourt, coordinator of natural product marketing for WWF/Brazil.

The sandal's relatively high price, 96 'reais' (49 dollars), is justified because its quality meets European standards and because it reimburses the people who are protecting the forests by living in a sustainable way, Bittencourt explained.

The materials - natural latex and plant-based leather - come from associations of rubber tappers and Kaxinawás Indians in Acre. The sandals are made in a factory in southern Brazil. Production can reach 4,000 pairs a month, limited only by the supply of raw materials. Buyers from Switzerland, the Netherlands and Great Britain have already expressed interest in the footwear.

Also taking part in the sales, in addition to the WWF international network, is Amazon Life, founded 10 years ago to develop and market the plant-based leather, a rubberized textile that replaces the animal-based product.

Annual invoicing is nearly 1.5 million dollars, two-thirds from exports. In addition, diversification to other products - handbags, backpacks, clothing and shoes - has already begun, as evidenced by the Amazon Life website:

Natural latex will also be processed within the Amazon region for condom manufacturing through a project combining the efforts of the Acre state government, the Coordination Secretariat for the Amazon, and the Ministry of Health, the latter affirming that it plans to buy the entire stock.

But all of these products, like plant-based leather, condoms and latex gloves, represent a limited demand for rubber, the major market of which is the tire industry, pointed out Atanagildo de Deus Matos, the new head of the government's Development Center for Traditional Peoples.

As a result, he places greater hope on a project of the Pirelli company to make the ''Xapuri'' tire, made entirely of natural rubber and due out on the market by mid-year.

''That, of course, will absorb the Amazon's rubber production,'' affirmed Matos. The tires will cost more than those made from petroleum-based rubber, but one can think of it as an ''environmental tax that society should pay for the preservation of the Amazon forests,'' he said.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent


Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados



External Links

About Sustainable Extraction

WWF in Brazil

Amazon Life

Trade and the Environment at the WTO

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