How tapping wild rubber can help protect the forests of the western Amazon

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Pastora Bismark de Gónzalez, spent much of her working life as a rubber tapper in Porbenir. Her parents came to Porbenir from Peru to tap rubber for the infanous Suárez rubber company in 1899

One of the most effective ways to conserve natural forest is to maximize the income local communities get from it in a sustainable manner. Even if they are not the official owners of the land they will likely resist any deforestation if it impacts on their income.  The forests of the Pando are fortunate in having two important non-timber forest products: brazil nuts and wild rubber. Both of which have wrought the history of this part of the Amazon.  In recent years, with the drop in the price of wild rubber associated with the rise of plantation rubber in Asia, there has been a decline in the tapping of wild rubber. If done correctly the tapping of wild rubber does little lasting damage to the trees and produces a high quality rubber that is currently sold for 14 BOB a kilo, about £1.40 / $2 / €1.60. If that price could be increased then rural communities would be much keener to tap the wild rubber trees in their forests. By how much could be the focus of a fascinating research project.

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Mural in the centre of Cobija depicting the role of rubber in the Pando’s history. Image Alex Monro

There have been a number of initiatives to help improve the market for rubber tappers, starting with Floriano Pastore’s (University of Brasilia) development of a technique that enables rural communities to produce their own higher-value latex. Once connected to designers such as Flavia Amadeu, Yair Neuman and Lily Cole who work to produce new products using wild-rubber through their own enterprise or with existing companies then demand for wild rubber as a commodity in its own right can be leveraged from markets overseas. A good example is Lily Cole working with the luxury shoe producer, Veja to make shoes from wild-sourced rubber. Veja pay producers in Brazil well over the market rate for the rubber used in the soles of their shoes. Initiatives such as these, which connect rural communities to designers and companies abroad through local NGOs represent an alternative future for the western Amazon which currently suffers from uncontrolled migration, gold-mining and cattle and soya farming. From my perspective they also build on the cultural and historical links which existed between the UK and Bolivia. And where they need some scientific input from people like myself then even better!

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Shoes with wild rubber soles designed for Veja by Lily Cole

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