A new program from the world's largest single buyer of condoms could boost rubber tapping and reduce deforestation.
by Conor Foley
Brazil’s reputation as a ‘sexy country’ dates back to the seminal work of Gilberto Freyre, who wrote a rather idealized account of how its sensuous and promiscuous past had produced a beautiful inter-racial population. Although the country’s shocking levels of contemporary inequality and violence cruelly mock his central thesis of a ‘racial democracy’, the ‘sexy Brazil’ image lives on. It’s there in Rio’s famous carnival, in the beautiful bodies in bikini-floss that adorn its beaches and, more darkly, as home to one of the world’s largest prostitution and sex trafficking industries.
But Brazil has also developed a highly effective anti-HIV/AIDS campaign, which is widely credited with having prevented the type of epidemic that has devastated other developing countries. It’s succeeded despite the wrath of the Catholic Church, of the previous US Administration – which made health funding conditional on countries signing ‘morality pledges’ – and of the big drug companies, whose patents Brazil has flouted to bring down the cost of antiretroviral drugs. In the face of such criticism, Brazilian officials refused to change their approach, arguing that a key part of their success has been because they deal in an accepting, open way with high-risk groups. The Director of its national AIDS program famously rejected the US Government’s restrictions as “theological, fundamentalist and Shiite”.
The Brazilian Government is the largest single buyer of condoms in the world, importing around a billion of them every year. These are promoted using high profile advertisements and a variety of outlets targeted to reach at-risk groups. Most recently, the Government has started to include condoms in the basic basket of goods that it distributes for free to low income families as part of its strategy to combat hunger. This serves a double purpose, since there is a clear link between family planning and poverty reduction. When the Pope visited Brazil two years ago, President Lula took the opportunity to speak out strongly in favor of sex education and proper provision of contraception for teenagers.
In 2008, the Government announced the start of a new program to produce condoms using environmentally sustainable rubber, which will curb its dependence on imported contraceptives, provide jobs for local people and help preserve the world’s largest rainforest. It opened a new factory, located in the northwestern Acre state, which will produce 100 million condoms a year. The latex comes from the Chico Mendes Reserve, named after the celebrated conservationist and rubber tapper who was killed by ranchers in 1988.
Tapping rubber has long been a traditional way of life for many in the Amazon. It is sustainable because it does not kill the trees, but the rubber is more expensive than oil-based synthetic products, which have driven down prices and put rubber-tappers out of business. By contrast, the condom project is both environmentally and economically sustainable. It will provide an income to around 550 families and reduce the incentives for deforestation. The Government says the condoms are the only ones in the world made of latex harvested from a tropical forest.
Similar schemes are also being developed to produce and market handbags and purses from sustainable rubber. Treetap, for example, has patented a latex, which it sells under its own brand name, certifying that its goods are produced from natural rubber on a fair trade basis. The company has placed rainforest preservation at the center of its business plan, and works closely with the Rubber Tappers Association which Mendes founded.
‘Sexy Brazil’ is an already established brand, and if the Government’s sustainable condoms project proves successful domestically, then they could become a product for export.
After all, who could refuse a longer-lasting Brazilian orgasm?
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in green futures.