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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Liquid Path

Air Date: Week of

Stafford Sanders of Australian Public Radio chronicles the history of Brazil's rubber tappers, four years after the murder of leader Chico Mendez.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Nature can strike a powerful and responsive chord deep within humans. And perhaps there's no better case in point than the development of Brazil's rubber tappers. Sent into the rainforest more than a hundred years ago as mercenaries and laborers, to reduce the Indian population and extract latex from wild rubber trees, these settlers from Brazil's cities essentially "went native" to survive. Abandoned by their international sponsors, the tappers made their peace with the Indians and adopted much of the Indian lifestyle. Today, they still gather latex and other forest products, and they've also joined forces with the Indians to try to save the tropical rainforests that have become their homes and source of their livelihoods. Stafford Sanders of Australia's Public Radio Network recently traveled through the Brazilian Amazon, along what the tappers call "the Liquid Path."

(Sound of footsteps, rainforest birds)

SANDERS: Walking, always walking. Along the hot trails, and in under the canopy of the great dark Amazon rainforest. Follow the Liquid Path, through a hundred and fifty years of history and struggle. The path of the great river, of blood, sweat and tears, and the white liquid which flows from the heart of the forest. Our guide on this journey is no stranger to walking. He is a seringueiro -- a rubber tapper.

(Conversation in Portuguese; fade under narration)

SANDERS: His name is Dionisio Barbosa. He's led us for two hours, from the small town of Xapuri in the state of Acre, in the western Brazilian Amazon, across the river, and out along the hot, dusty trail -- walking, always walking -- into the forest, to a seringal , a place where rubber is tapped. Seringal is named after seringa , the rubber tree.

(Sound of cutting)

DUARCHE: He is cutting seringa.
SANDERS: Dionisio, the rubber tapper, is making a series of parallel cuts in the tree, they're sort of angled around the side of the rubber tree, just about head height, and they connect with a vertical cut which runs down to a notch in the timber, and in this notch is inserted a little tin can which collects the rubber. You can see the rubber dripping down the cut very slowly into the can.

SANDERS: But the Liquid Path doesn't start in the forest with Dionisio. It begins back in the late 19th century, when the tappers first arrived in the Amazon, at the height of the boom in rubber. They came mostly from the Northeast of Brazil, poor and landless peasants, lured by promises of new fortunes in the allegedly limitless Amazon. Promises from governments and greedy landowners, determined to colonize the riches of the region, whatever the obstacles. Leading us back along that path, rubber tapper Osmarino Amancio, born and raised on a seringal, and now President of the Union of Rural Workers in the Acrean town of Brazileia.

AMANCIO (translated): In the beginning, the rubber tappers were used by the bosses to kill the Indians. Government offices used to say that the Amazon region was a demographic void which needed to be filled by cattle ranches for the progress and development of Brazil. The land had to be cleared. Feeling threatened, the Indians declared war against the whites in order to protect their lands. The whites didn't know the forest, so they needed people like the tappers, who knew the forest well and could approach the Indians and then get rid of them. The rubber tappers were like slaves. They could only extract latex, nothing else. They had to sell the rubber to the owner of the seringal , who used to come to this region with government money to get the rubber.

SANDERS: When the British smuggled Brazilian rubber trees to Malaysia and set up plantations there, the bottom fell out of Amazon rubber, and the promises evaporated. The tappers were left stranded, virtual slaves to the landowners, who sold them basic necessities at extortionate prices. There was a second minor boom during World War II: with the Asian plantations out of action, the Allies turned again to Brazil for their airplane tires. The tappers were lionized as "soldiers of rubber," again promised the earth -- and again abandoned in poverty once the war was over.

(Sound of footsteps in forest)

SANDERS: The key to survival in the Amazon was adaptation, and the tappers soon realized they needed the knowledge and friendship of the indigenous peoples of the region, the people they'd once killed.

AMANCIO (translated) : We've learned a lot from the Indians. They've taught us how to fish, how to hunt. There aren't many differences between the lifestyle of the Indians and that of the rubber tappers. Both groups do similar things in the forest.

(Sound of walking)

SANDERS: Dionisio takes us to the seringal of another tapper, Joao Batista. He leads us along the path to his rubber trees -- found not in a plantation but interspersed naturally through the forest.

(Sound of cutting, scraping)

SANDERS: This rubber tapper, Joao Batista, has just made a whole series of parallel cuts about head high in the rubber tree, and immediately he's made the cut the white liquid has started to flow out of the tree down the diagonal cut and it's making about one drip per second into this tin.

(Sound of birds)

SANDERS: In the 1960's, the tappers again found themselves threatened by a new wave of government-sponsored migration into the Amazon. The seringueiros began to realize the need to organize to protect their livelihood. In the seventies, they formed the Union of Rural Workers, now headed by Osmarino, and led by the charismatic Chico Mendes, they held their first "empate" -- a non-violent direct protest action against the clearing of forest. In the mid-80's, Chico also led tappers to the federal capital, Brasilia, where they formed a National Council of Rubber Tappers, and an Alliance of Forest Peoples with the Indians and other groups. For Osmarino, it was a turning point in connecting the tappers with the worldwide environmental movement.

AMANCIO (translated) : In the beginning of the decade of the 80's, some people arrived here talking about the environment, about ecology. So I asked Chico Mendes, what's this ecology business? I didn't know what it meant. Chico didn't know either. I used to think ecology was some kind of dessert.

SANDERS: In the late 80's, Chico and Osmarino and others traveled to the US, Europe and Japan, invited by environmental agencies and groups, to talk of the tappers and their fight for the forest. They built enough international pressure to force the newly-hatched civilian government in Brazil to declare in 1987 the first "extractive reserves," owned by the government and licensed out to tappers and others living sustainably from the rainforests. But these first political successes came at a terrible cost, as ranchers, timber merchants and others with a state in burning and clearing the forest, frustrated by the tappers' resistance, resorted more and more to violence. The most infamous killing, Chico Mendes himself -- blasted with a shotgun as he came out the back door of his cottage at Xapuri, a few days before Christmas 1988.

ROLDAN: The violence here in this region, not only in Acre but all over the Amazon region, is very, very terrible. (fade under)

SANDERS: Rosa Roldan sits in her office in the state capital of Acre, Rio Branco, where she works as a publicity officer for the National Council of Rubber Tappers. She shuttles between here and Rio de Janeiro, lobbying and campaigning. And she fears for Osmarino, and many others who've already faced attempts on their lives. Rosa is critical of the authorities for nearly always failing to act against the violence, though the problem is to a large extent officially created.

ROLDAN: Government is responsible, not only the local government but the Federal government. And this same government sent a lot of people here to the Amazon, telling these people in the south that here was a place, a forest, without people inside it, and that they could buy lands very, very cheap. And these people came, but they bought these lands with people inside it. And there the conflicts came in this area.

SANDERS: Few of the attackers are ever prosecuted, almost none convicted. Local police are too often influenced by close relationships with influential landowners; governments, local and federal, unwilling to act against these vested interests, or unable to act quickly enough to enforce any kind of justice over the huge areas involved.

ROLDAN: We call IBAMA, that is the agency responsible for the environment, and sometimes IBAMA is not very in a hurry to go to the areas. In Chaporril we have an example now. I went to Chaporril last week; the union laborers there, they were waiting for IBAMA for five days to arrive there to go to an area that they had to go by the river two days more, because people there were cutting the hardwood. So when they arrive everything has been cut.

SANDERS: But even with little support from the authorities, the tappers have come a long way in improving their life in the forest . . . growing their own food, diversifying. Maria Jose is the wife of seringueiro Joao Batista. She lives on their seringal near Xapuri, with her husband and their five children. (Woman's voice, fade under) Maria Jose tells us their life on the seringal is good. They live off rubber and grow their own fruit and vegetables. Says Maria, there's no way she'd leave the forest and go to the city.

(MAN'S VOICE in Portuguese, fade under)
DUARCHE: They would never be able to live off rubber tapping only. The only way to survive is to diversify and do other things.

SANDERS: So the tappers have had to diversify, not just to feed their own families, but to establish new markets for their forest products. One of the most important of these products is being processed here, in a small factory under the sign "Agro-Extractivist Cooperative of Xapuri Limited." It's the castanha -- the Brazil nut.

(Sound of factory)

SANDERS: In front of us, women crack the fired nuts in hand presses on a table, and they're stacked in boxes, ready for distribution. But distribution is painfully slow. Manager of the tappers' cooperative, narrow survivor of an assassination attempt, agronomist and part-time poet, Gomercindo Rodrigues.

RODRIGUES (translated) : The rubber tappers of Xapuri find themselves in an extremely serious situation. But they still have a better situation than that of companeiros from other places. At least we've got a cooperative. We've been trying to diversify our production. We'd like to see the rubber tappers continue to exist, but this has been very hard. We thought that our project to grow and treat Brazil nuts would find a market, but it didn't happen. We've been unable to sell Brazil nuts because it is considered a luxury good. Because of the economic recession, nobody's willing to buy them. The situation of the rubber tappers of the Amazon is a very difficult one. It is more than dramatic. It's desperate.

SANDERS: In mid-1992, the search for new markets took Gomercindo and other tapper leaders from the Amazon to the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. They sought to bring world pressure to bear on the Brazilian government, to enforce more strictly laws protecting Amazon rubber against unfair competition from the big multinational plantations. Because the seringueiros work with natural, biodiverse forest rather than with plantations, they're often at a disadvantage in volume of output -- the cultural and environmental value of their work not taken into account.

RODRIGUES (translated): We need to create and maintain alternatives for the rubber tappers. The seringueiros do not need charity. They need real market support for their products and a guarantee that their living conditions are going to improve. The rubber tappers want to continue to live in the forest, or the forest will cease to exist if its communities -- the seringueiros, the river dwellers, and the extractivists -- leave the forest. The moment they leave the forest, the farmers, the timber merchants and big companies, will move in, take wood and destroy the forest.

SANDERS: The tappers' trip to Rio was not an outstanding success. World leaders at the Earth Summit failed comprehensively to agree on any substantial new measures for the protection of rainforests -- the emperors content to fiddle with fine print while the forest burned. The seringueiros returned to the Amazon, to another queimada , the "burning season," when the devastating fires of the ranchers roar through the rainforest. Now, with the Brazilian government in tatters and real protection even further away, that process is likely to accelerate. Rosa Roldan has little cause to be optimistic.

ROLDAN: Unfortunately, I'm not very positive about his future. I think if government don't change their position about rubber politics and about researching in this Amazon area, about investing here seriously, I would say that we will have no rubber tappers anymore in the future. I'm quite sure about this.

(Sound of birds in rainforest)

SANDERS: The path for Gomercindo Rodrigues also leads steeply uphill. He returns to the battling cooperative in Xapuri, the trip to Rio yielding no definite new markets for the tappers' products. And facing violent death at any moment, all Gomercindo takes back to the Amazon is his poet's optimism.

RODRIGUES (translated): I believe in the future, despite everything. The horizon looks beautiful to me. That's why we continue to struggle. As Chico used to say, one day we'll have the pleasure of having dreamed.

SANDERS: The Liquid Path weaves its way, as difficult and dangerous as ever, on into an uncertain future. But the Rubber Tappers will keep walking, driven from one step to the next, by their dream of an Amazon rainforest peaceful and permanent.

(Slashing of rubber trees)

SANDERS: How many cuts can you make in the tree? It looks as if it's been pretty heavily cut over the years, I can see the scratches going quite a long way up there, how much tapping can the tree take?
DUARCHE (translating) : It depends on the way you cut it. If you don't do the grooves too deeply, it will go forever.

(Sound of rainforest ambience)

CURWOOD: "The Liquid Path" was produced and reported for Living on Earth by Stafford Sanders of radio 2SER - FM in Sydney, Australia. Translator and researcher was Fernanda Duarche.



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