The Amazon is not just under threat from soy cultivation and cattle ranching, it's the only place on earth where rubber trees grow in a wild state. Bia Saldanha wants to share this amazing fact with the world: "It is a totally different situation from the rubber extracted from huge monoculture plantations, where people often work in really bad conditions and the forests are cleared just to grow rubber trees. Native rubber from the Amazon grows among all sorts of other trees. It's a biodiverse, natural habitat. Tapping these trees requires skill, local knowledge and patience."
Saldanha has dedicated her professional life to exploiting and finding a market for this resource harvested by the local community. She has even moved her family to the Chico Mendes reserve, named after the hero of the rubber tappers, an ecologist who was gunned down in 1998 (this is dangerous work). She is constantly on the lookout for prospective markets. Previously Saldanha supplied Treetap – a material that looks like leather – to Hermès, and together they sold thousands of bags. "The trouble was," Saldanha says, "people thought they were buying leather."
Her new venture involves working with a Brazilian materials professor to process rubber in the forest [link in Portuguese]. More profit kept in the forest means that the trees and community have better prospects. Both are less likely to be uprooted in favor of soy or cattle. At the moment 20 families are sustained through rubber tapping in her local area, which keeps 300 hectares of rainforest safe. "I dream of everybody using this product every day," she says. Her dream is now a step closer, as Amazonian rubber is now in the soles of every pair of Veja trainers (veja.fr).
This post originally appeared on The Guardian. | If you have any ethical questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Image of Bia Saldanha innovator of rubber soles for veja via The Guardian, Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer.
Image of rubber sap collection via tecbor.
On this subject I would recommend a most interesting book I recently read. "One River" by Wade Davis goes into Harvard professor, ethnobotanist and plant explorer Charles Schultes's work on the WW2 and post-war rubber program in the Amazon basin. It's a fascinating story. The program was set to create a genetically disease resistant rubber source in the Americas to avoid the potential collapse of SE Asian rubber. According to the author the world uses more natural rubber than ever and is still susceptible to blight-prone genetics in the Asian plantations. A sustainable wild source in the Amazon looks like a good idea.