Brazil’s Rubber Tappers Fight AIDS
Deep in the Amazon region, starting at dawn, Raimundo Pereira expertly cuts a gash in a rubber tree to collect the white sap destined for the nearby factory at Xapuri, the world’s only producer of contraceptives made from tropical forest latex.
Raimundo’s precise, speedy technique proves that he started working as a rubber tapper at age nine, accompanying his father, who was himself the son of a rubber tapper. “I started as a boy, and I’m still doing it at 51. I like this work as the air is pure here. I shall carry on as long as my body holds up,” he told AFP, the news agency.
Raimundo works for the Natex condom factory—affectionately nicknamed “the love factory” — an innovative non-profit venture that is playing a key role in Brazil’s fight against AIDS and also providing good jobs for local rubber tappers, paying above-market prices for their labor. Raimundo can neither read nor write but calls himself “a connoisseur of products from the forest and medicinal plants.” He is the father of three children, who are receiving the schooling he didn’t get. “Today, I no longer think about learning to read. I am proud, as the factory has given me social visibility and a better wage.”
The Natex factory was founded in 2008 at Xapuri in the northern state of Acre, a place known for the struggles of famous conservationist Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper who was murdered in 1988 by local ranchers when Mendes tried to stop their illegal deforestation. Xapuri is called “the city of Chico Mendes.”
The factory was created during the Lula presidency, says factory director Dirlei Bersh. It was the government which put up the 30 million reais (U$14 million) needed to fund the not-for-profit enterprise. “In part it was designed to relaunch a dormant economy at a time when the price of rubber had slumped, but also to support the fight against AIDS through the government’s free distribution of condoms,” Bersh said.
So it was that the company earned its “love factory” nickname at its inauguration at a time when contraception in Brazil was something of a taboo subject. “To begin with, people mocked. But today the 170 employees of Natex are proud of the [AIDS] prevention role of the factory,” Bersh said.
Natex today produces around 100 million contraceptives a year — all of them destined for the Brazilian health ministry for distribution to the population. In time, the firm wants to double capacity.
The factory is keeping alive a long history of rubber tapping in the Amazon, where rubber was first discovered in the 1700s. During the 1800s, Brazil was the only location of rubber trees, and the rubber industry boomed, bringing the first white inhabitants to the Amazon region. The center for the rubber trade was Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonia. The city of Manaus, with its magnificent opera house in the heart of the jungle, symbolizes the prosperity of that era.
But Manaus lost the monopoly on production in the early 20th century after rubber trees in Malaysia and Sri Lanka — planted by the British with seeds they smuggled out of Brazil — ended up producing latex more efficiently and in greater quantity.
Natex’s current production provides 20 percent of the 500 million condoms that the Brazilian government distributes annually free of charge. Brazil is a pioneer in the anti-AIDS fight because it provides free treatment. “Natex takes its name from being the only condom factory in the world to use ‘native’ latex. Its elasticity and resistance are far superior to that of cultivated latex, mainly imported from Malaysia,” said Bersh.
In all, 700 rubber-tapper families have been recruited across the Amazon region and 489 are working this year to provide the factory with 250 tons of natural rubber. “Rubber-tappers receive eight reais (U$3.50) per kilo of rubber, which is 270 percent above the market price,” said Bersh. “That includes the value of the product and the environmental services for the tapper’s role as a guardian of the forest,” a symbol of sustainable development for the entire Amazon region.
Raimundo Pereira knew Chico Mendes. Raimundo’s proud opinion of his occupation: “If Chico Mendes were still alive he would be happy to see that the struggle which he started is still bearing fruit. His dream was to see the forest living.”
[This article was written by Madeleine Pradel for the Medical Press website and was edited by CIE.]