Saving the Amazon Forest While Making a Living

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The vast Amazon rainforest straddles Brazil (over half is there), and stretches over many countries, including Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. It holds more than 2,500 tree species and 30 per cent of all known plant species – 30,000 in all. It contains the world’s largest tropical forest national park, Brazil’s Tumucumaque Mountains National Park(http://www.amazon-rainforest.org/places-of-interest.html). Over 25 per cent of drugs sold in pharmacies contain rainforest ingredients, and the rainforest acts as the Earth’s lungs, absorbing carbon dioxide, and emitting oxygen.

Logging in the forest is widespread and highly wasteful – 356,000 square kilometres of rainforest have been deforested (WWF). In the past 50 years, Ecuadorhas lost over 50 per cent of its tropical rainforest.

More than 26 million people live in the forest, with 11 million on the Brazilian side. While the Amazon’s indigenous people have little ecological impact, it is people drawn in to logging and farming who do most of the damage. Slash and burn techniques are common.

Preserving this critical natural environment while providing jobs for the local inhabitants is a challenge being taken up by a clutch of entrepreneurs. This new wave of entrepreneurs seeks to run businesses that respect the environment and provide a good living to those they employ.

The global garment industry is one of the most lucrative in the world (in 2000 consumers spent over US $1 trillion on buying clothes). Most of the manufacturing takes place in the poorest places on earth, and the garment and fashion industries contribute to vast quantities of pollution in these countries, either by using toxic chemicals and pesticides, by polluting and depleting water supplies, or through inefficient processes, transport and waste.

Brazilian enterprise Treetap (http://www.treetap.com.br/) (formally AmazonLife) is seeking to change the fashion industry by selling sustainable materials to top designers. Their patented rubberized natural latex is sold under the brand name Treetap. It is made from natural rubber native to the region, and it uses a fair trade system to ensure its suppliers receive a living wage. The company itself uses the substance to produce its own handbags and purses.

By promoting the sustainable use of a rainforest resource and focusing on social as well as financial returns, the company is proving the value of a “triple-bottom line” approach to business – where social and environmental concern is just as important as profit.

The company has placed the preservation of the Amazon rainforest at the centre of its business plan. Tribal communities in the Amazon depend on rubber tree tapping for their livelihoods, and Treetap works with the Rubber Tappers Association (http://www.brazilmax.com/news2.cfm/tborigem/pl_amazon/id/10) to save 900,000 hectares of forest from exploitation.

Over 45 families are supported, and they are paid eight times the market rate for their rubber. Its Rio de Janeiro factory supplies several European fashion designers with their faux-leather fabric to make clothes, backpacks, upscale furniture and handbags.

“Europe is our main market,” said Treetap Project Coordinator and designer Maria Beatriz Saldanha, “We are developing relationships in France, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands.”

High profile French fashion house Hermes Sellier has been using this rubber since 1998 for handbags. Italian furniture company Moroso uses it to upholster chairs. “They (fashion designers) love it. The material is shiny and supple and has the fair fashion appeal.”

Treetap has now moved into making bike courier bags for the world’s largest bicycle company, Giant, selling over 10,000 bags.

Saldanha’s partner, Joao Augusto Fortes, first came upon the idea of using natural rubber when the pair opened a store in Rio in the 1990s.

Wild rubber is favoured because it does not kill the trees and provides jobs for the tappers. The increase in synthetic rubber made from oil-based products has driven down the price for natural rubber, and led to people clearing forests to make way for more profitable products like timber and cattle.

After nasty battles in the 1980s to protect the rubber tappers’ way of life, the Brazilian government began to take action. It has now set aside protected forests for the tappers so they can still make a living.

Saldanha hunted around for products for her EcoMercado store. She came across the rubber tappers of the state of Amazonas, who were using the natural rubber to make their traditional rubber sacks.

“We had the idea, so we met with rubber tappers and ordered laminates from them,” said Saldanha. “We then used the rubber to make a small quantity of bags, briefcases and other products.”

Things did not go swimmingly at the beginning. The first run of 500 bags sold out quickly, but “Two months later all of the bags we had just sold melted,” said Saldanha. “We hadn’t figured out that the rubber needed to be vulcanized.”

Back at the drawing board, they adapted the vulcanizing process used by big factories to a small-scale process that the rubber tappers could do. And then they patented it. The company now sells 30,000 sheets of wild rubber a year.

Another Brazilian company, Hering Instruments, is using sustainability as a marketing boost for its musical instruments. When legendary musician and current Brazilian minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilberto_Gil) played a guitar made from Hering Instruments’ parts, there was pride: “Yes, that was a good moment for us,” said Alberto Bertolazzi, CEO of Hering Instruments. Gil’s guitar was one of the first to be made of Hering crafted parts, all sourced from high-quality woods from the Amazon forests.

They are now being sold by the world’s largest guitar and bass companies. Certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the wood is harvested from 1.8 million hectares of managed forest in the state of Acre.

Trees are chosen for harvesting based on their age, location and how many have been cut down.

It is targeting the US $30 billion/year global market for musical instruments. The clever marketing has used celebrity musicians and a series of “Amazonas” guitars decorated by well-known painters like Gustavo Rosa and Antonio Peticov.

At Florestas (www.ikove.com) (www.florestas.com), owner Fernando Lima is producing all-natural Amazonian personal care products sourced from across the Amazon. Florestas has successfully partnered with Brazilian university labs to study indigenous Amazonian therapeutics, like Babacu oil, Acerola fruit, and Acai berries. Rain forest plants are rich in nutrients, vitamins and anti-oxidants – all highly coveted by health consumers around the world.

Certified as organic and ecologically sustainable by the French Ecocert group, all goods are purchased from Amazon cooperatives, thus enabling indigenous people to avoid cutting down forests to make a living. Brazilian nuts are purchased directly from the harvesters, avoiding middlemen and increasing the amount Florestas pays local families.

The company uses a range of methods to sell its products: e-commerce, catalogues, stores, including in Japan, France and the US.

An innovative enterprise with another university connection is Ouro Verde Amazonia. Founded in 2002 by University of Sao Paulo Professor Luiz Fernando Laranja da Fonseca, and his wife, Ana Luisa, when they moved to the southern rural region of the Amazon.

The couple has single handily revitalised the declining Brazil nut industry in Mato Grosso, while protecting the ecosystem and generating income for farmers. Ouro Verde, or green gold, enables farmers to avoid having to work in the logging industry. They make nut-based cooking oils, butters and granulated powders. Rich in omega-3, it is marketed as a healthy alternative to conventional cooking oils for the health conscious consumer. At present it is sold in 100 stores in Brazil, but wants to go global.

Resources

  • Amazon Watch is a non-profit organization that works with indigenous and environmental organizations in the Amazon Basin to defend the environment and advance indigenous peoples’ rights in the face of large-scale industrial development.”
  • Design that Matters: Timothy Prestero, CEO (Cambridge, MA): Design that Matters (DtM) was founded to help social enterprises in developing countries scale up enterprises more quickly by providing them access to better products designed specifically for their business needs.
  • World of Good: Priya Haji, Co-founder and CEO (Emeryville, CA): World of Good seeks to lift thousands of women in the developing world out of poverty. It creates opportunities for hundreds of artisan cooperatives around the world by serving as a bridge to the U.S. retail market and providing access to fair wages, safe working conditions and long-term economic sustainability.

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