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Defiance In The Forest

new internationalist
issue 219 - May 1991

Defiance in the forest
The journey continues to the Upper Juruá Valley, where the
tappers are at last escaping the grip of the rubber barons.

Chico Jinú walked through the forest for four days to meet Macedo for the first time. A small moon-faced rubber tapper who sometimes wears a beret like Ché Guevara, he is a determined man. He came to the Tejo River (a tributary of the Juruá) with his parents and has lived here ever since. He began rubber tapping when he was nine years old.

‘Even as a child I knew that the bosses treated us like slaves’, he says. ‘When I reached the age of understanding I could see things more clearly. Many of us worked along the Tejo River, but one man sat here and controlled us all. If, say, you used 10 kilos of rubber to pay for medicines instead of giving it to the boss you’d be thrown out and left with nothing.’

From the early 1980s he became involved with the Union of Rural Workers and then the National Council of Rubber Tappers, of which he is now a vice-president. Chico was instrumental in organizing a renda strike – the hated ‘tithe’ the rubber tappers had to pay to the rubber barons. Their dilapidated warehouses still line up beside the smarter sheds of the Co-operative Association where we are sitting. To my complete astonishment and their eternal credit the British Government donated the sheds where banners with radical slogans are now pinned. A source of some satisfaction to Chico, this.

‘We saw fair trading through a co-op as a way forward, though it’s not easy to compete with the big merchants of Cruzeiro. They too feel threatened by us – there have been death threats and sabotage from them as well.’

Steering a course between the death threats and the blandishments of bribery that surround every community leader here is no easy task. Chico admits that some of his comrades have succumbed.

The rubber tappers are stranded without the cultural inheritance of the Indians. Given the chance, won’t they sell out to the ‘narcotraficantes’ (the drug dealers) and the loggers? Wouldn’t you? If the fate of the forest rests with them, what chance has it got?

But finding out how the people of the forest really feel about the choices – or lack of choices – open to them is not always easy. The men may talk but the women are reluctant to express their views. They shy away from all direct approaches. A young woman called Cris has come with us on this trip and she helps me out. She is a bright paulista (from São Paulo) of Japanese descent who, like most Brazilians, has never been to the Amazon before. But she knows a thing or two. She used to teach in a ‘home’ for street kids in São Paulo. One was a diminutive 13-year-old who had shot dead at least eight people who ignored him when he demanded money from them in the street.

But even she has often been met with silence here in the Amazon. Then she finds Arlete Rodrigues Pinheiro, who like Cris is a teacher – something of a rarity in this part of the world. Her face is thin and drawn, she talks softly but firmly, a smile lurking on her lips. She says she would leave if she could, because she’s in bad health. But her husband is popular and she will stay with him. She has six children of her own and another she’s bringing up for someone else. She joined her sister in the forest when she was in her early teens and has stayed ever since, despite the opposition of her parents. She lives in Restoração, deep in the Reserve along the Tejo River.

‘In the old days, with the patrão (‘baron’) we were in debt until the day we died. Now we’re not only able to pay off our debts but have a little extra too. Macedo has begun to stop the destruction of the forest. I think he’s right. It’s good for humanity. You can’t take from nature what you don’t put back.’

Outside, Macedo and Chico are orchestrating the sale of a batch of rubber. Great balls of latex are brought out from the warehouse and weighed. The community gather round to watch. Macedo makes a record of the transaction, sitting beneath a banner saying: ‘The strength of the forest people’s labour renews itself day by day’. He wears a camouflaged baseball cap with a British royal badge on it and it’s not hard to imagine him as a rubber baron.

I’ve asked if I can follow a rubber tapper through the forest. We go up the Tejo with Jorge, who lives near its mouth. Dressed up in his working clothes, a bag of tools slung across his shoulders and a beret pulled down over his head, his sharp nose and large eyes somehow make him resemble my image of a forest person.

Antonio de Paula, the accountant of the Association, comes too. He is very small, also wears a baseball cap and is always talking in a high, staccato voice. He is, he says, ‘so old as to be almost immortal, in this place anyway’. He’s lived in the forest for 40 years.

We meet Jorge’s family in their half-finished house in a clearing overlooking a stretch of this breathtaking river – smaller and narrower than the Juruá, the great forest arching over it. For once the sun shines upon it from a clear sky.

Jorge’s family look hungry too, and it’s not hard to see why. He works a colocação of about five square kilometres containing three separate trails of about 180 trees each, which he taps in rotation. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous work; the trees are old and he must climb five or more metres up a notched pole to reach productive bark.

‘Before it used to cost us one kilo of rubber to buy a kilo of dried milk’, says Jorge. ‘Now it costs us three kilos of rubber. Many of us have to go out to work on an empty stomach. The trees are old and we can’t afford to let them rest as we used to. They are dying.’ He hasn’t joined the Association yet, but he’s thinking about it.

The forest floor is like a carpet – almost entirely free of leaves or mud – and wonderful to walk on. But the forest plants themselves are unexpectedly hard. Imagining a soft, festering swamp, I am startled by the sharp knock of my pipe against what looks like a gentle fern. The stem is like iron.

You come upon things suddenly through the dense undergrowth; a brilliant red pendant flower, a marching column of army ants or, like the base of a sheer rock face sculpted into fine ribs, the trunk of a giant cedar. It is dark but somehow not sinister – I don’t expect to find the snakes and jaguars I know still live here. Tracks in the path turn out to be those of a domestic pig.

All the while old Antonio keeps up his commentary. Within 10 minutes we have passed innumerable species of palm, coconut, açai (which bears a delicious fruit), uricuri and jaci (both used for roofing), and paxiuba and paxiubão (whose cork-like bark is used as flooring in rubber-tapper houses). Here is the original cacão palm which, like rubber, originated in the Amazon; there a native papaya; here a tree that produces an antidote for snake bites; there one that helps with stomach complaints. All this knowledge came from the Indians, but, says Antonio, he had to work hard to win it.

Pausing in a clearing, he tells us that like most of the Tejo rubber tappers he came from Ceará, a state in the North East of Brazil. ‘Relatives told me there was a good life to be had here. People from the North East are always adventurous, always on the look-out for a decent break. I thought I’d be better off here, but I’d probably have been better off if I’d stayed put. I had none of the skills you need to survive here.’

Within two months he’d contracted malaria and was sick for the next two years. It would be another 15 years before he’d leave the forest again, by now married and with a family of 11 children. He had one inestimable advantage: he’d learned to read and write. ‘Well, as they say, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king’, he says.

He managed to make a good living by working as a storekeeper. But then as old age approached he felt the urge to return to his roots on the Tejo. He took a course in health care.

‘I have no words to express the gratitude I feel towards these people for the welcome they’ve given me. But I can’t help but feel sad, seeing the terrible state into which they have fallen. That’s why we’ve got to battle on to make the alternatives work. While there’s a chance I’m not going to give up.’

That night we sling our hammocks in the open-sided shed that is used for meetings. Candles are placed around it and beyond them the forest shines bright with fireflies beneath a brilliant star-lit sky. Swinging gently in my hammock, gazing out through the dappled veil of my mosquito net, I watch a magical scene.

The rubber tappers gather around the last remaining candle, the sharp contours of their faces drawn by hardship and determination, sculpted from the darkness by the candlelight. They embrace and encourage each other in their struggle to defend the forest and for their own survival. They sing songs to each other.

I think: what courageous people these are; how terrible the odds they face; how pitiful their resources; how meagre their demands. I know with absolute certainty that their fate and that of the forest they inhabit are bound inextricably together. My doubts about their motives seem mean, small-minded. Of course they care about the forest. They live with it and from it. It is their blood that has been shed as the forest falls.


Tapping into conservation

Illustration: CLIVE OFFLEY A few years ago rubber tappers in the Juruá Valley decided to resist paying the traditional tithe to the rubber estate owners. But they did not leave their protest there. In 1988 they began to campaign for an ‘Extractive Reserve’ in the Upper Juruá Valley. The first of its kind in the world it was recognized by President José Sarney just before he left office in March 1990.

The idea of an ‘Extractive Reserve’ was first conceived by members of the National Council of Rubber Tappers. The plan was to set aside a large area of the Upper Juruá Valley where the 6,000 or so rubber tappers of the region could work unhindered by estate owners or other people who are destroying the rainforest. Rubber-tapping is one of the most environment-friendly of forest activities and it is in the interest of rubber-tappers that the forest be preserved.

The land within the 5,000-square-kilometre Extractive Reserve remains the property of the State. But the right to use it is ceded to people and activities that will cause the least environmental damage. There are now plans for 20 such reserves covering a total area of about 25,000 square kilometres, mostly in the states of Acre, Rondônia and Amapá.

The Upper Juruá Valley is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas of rainforest and this has prompted plans to develop new forest products, such as forest fruits and fish bred in lakes. The National Council of Rubber Tappers has set up a Co-operative Association to market the Reserve’s products and supply essential goods to its 500 or so members at a fair price.

The rubber from the Reserve is sold to processing factories in Cruzeiro do Sul, and from there it goes to tyre manufacturers in São Paulo. However, there are serious problems facing the rubber-tappers’ project. With world prices falling high dependence on rubber is not advisable. Unfortunately, the region lacks Brazil nuts which elsewhere provide the most profitable additional source of ‘sustainable’ income for rubber tappers. Furthermore, rubber plantations have been developed in southern Brazil and this may destroy the market for forest rubber within the next five years.

The estate owners who have remained in the reserve are another potential source of trouble. Many are involved in destructive activities such as logging and drug-trafficking.

Meanwhile the extreme remoteness of the area means that transport costs are high and education, health care and the affairs of the Co-operative Association are difficult and costly to organize.

But it does not seem to stop them doing so – or dampen the tappers’ commitment to their project.

Source: National Council of Rubber Tappers, Cruzeiro do Sul, and Alex Shankland; Mary Helena Allegretti, ‘Extractive Reserves’ in Anthony B Anderson, Alternatives to Deforestation, Colombia University Press 1990

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