Rainforest Rubbers Save Lives

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Two development goals are being achieved with one innovative business in Brazil. By using natural rubber tapped from trees in the Amazon rainforest to make condoms, Brazil is able to afford the cost of distributing condoms to tackle its HIV/AIDS crisis. Brazil currently imports more than 120 million condoms every year from China, Republic of Korea and Thailand, making it the world’s biggest single buyer of condoms. The government gives them away for free as part of a national campaign to combat HIV. More than 620,000 people in Brazil are living with HIV out of a population of more than 186 million (UNAIDS, 2005).

The Natex company, co-owned by the public health ministry and the north-western state government of Acre, has established a factory to turn rubber from the world’s biggest rainforest into condoms. The business has created 500 jobs at the factory and 150 jobs for the local indigenous population – the Xapuri – who are traditional rubber tappers.

The factory hopes to produce 100 million condoms a year from local rubber – just 20 million shy of all the condoms the country currently has to import – and could even reach 270 million at full capacity.

“This product will allow people to make love with security and to better plan their futures,” said Raimundo Barros, vice president of the local agricultural association.

The 15,000 Xapuri people who live on the Chico Mendes reserve – named after a conservationist and rubber tapper murdered by ranchers in 1988 – tap seringai trees, which produce rubber that is said to be a more effective barrier to the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), than synthetic rubber condoms.

The factory’s 500 employees will earn a total of Reais $2.2 million (US $1.3 million) while the tappers will see their income increase by 250 per cent as demand goes up for the rubber, according to Natex.

“Because of this I’ve managed to buy a few cows and give my family a better life,” rubber tapper Hugo Paz de Souza, 43, told local newspaper Pagina 20. Paz de Souza said the factory will double his income to US $394 a month.

The fact the trees will be saved because of their value as sources of rubber is a great boon to the world’s environment. The trees in the Amazon rainforest – the “world’s lungs” as some call it – face the threat of being chopped down to make way for Brazil’s booming agricultural economy. Official figures released in January 2008 showed that between August and December 2007, about 2,700 square miles were chopped down illegally in the Amazon rainforest. It was the first increase in deforestation after three years of declines and coincided with a rise in global food prices.

Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister, told the Guardian newspaper the Natex condom would help create “a new pattern of production and a new process of inclusion that would value the forest being left standing”.

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