- The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve was named in honor of the rubber tapper who was assassinated for pushing back against the deforestation of this part of Brazil’s Acre state for cattle pastures.
- Today, the reserve’s inhabitants continue the long tradition of sustainable forest use, albeit harvesting Brazil nuts rather than tapping rubber, in keeping up with changing market demands.
- However, the Brazil nut industry remains largely informal and unregulated, and is seasonal, which forces many extractivists to turn to cattle ranching during the rest of the year to supplement their income.
- Clearing forest for livestock pasture is the main driver of deforestation in the reserve, which so far this year has recorded the highest rate of forest loss of any protected area in Brazil.
Sitting on the porch of his house in the community of Porvir, inside the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in the Brazilian state of Acre, Severino da Silva Brito looks out at the heavy Amazon rain with dismay. “I’m planning on leaving,” says Brito, better known as Seu Silva.
A longtime leader respected in the reserve and a resident of the region since before it was demarcated, Brito says he cannot abide by the current state of things. In January and February this year, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve was the protected area with the highest rate of deforestation in the country, following the trend of previous months. March 12 marked the 30th anniversary of the reserve’s creation.
Forest workers have for generations had made a living tapping latex from rubber trees in this part of the Upper Acre region. In the 1970s and ’80s, they united to resist attempts to expel them from areas acquired by farmers seeking to establish a livestock industry here.
“At that time, the main concern was for our survival, for our way of life. But, over time, we started to realize that it was also a struggle for the conservation of the forest,” says Valderi Martins da Silva, an extractivist who participated in the process of establishing the reserve.
It was a bloody struggle. In 1980, one of the movement’s leaders, extractivist and union organizer Wilson Pinheiro, was killed in the city of Brasiléia, at the headquarters of the Rural Workers Union. From that point on, the movement was led by Chico Mendes, who also faced death threats and was ultimately murdered at his home in the city of Xapuri in 1988.
News of the crime was reported all the world. The remote region of Acre became known as a land of resistance in defense of the forest and the rights of its people. Chico Mendes remains one of the main icons of environmental causes in Brazil. “But when you tell this story to young people today, they react as if you’re talking about a legend,” says Valderi da Silva.
Lúcia Wadt, a forestry engineer and specialist in Brazil nuts, who has been working in the region for approximately 20 years, agrees. “Even with all this history, I can see that, in other extractivist reserves where I work, people are taking better care of the forest than they are here,” says Wadt, who is also a researcher with Embrapa, the federal institute for agricultural research. “I feel that older residents do have this concern with conservation, but it isn’t as strong among younger people.”
This weakening of environmental awareness isn’t the only change taking place here. The way of life is also changing. The generation that came after Seu Silva and Valderi saw the expansion of the so-called branches, dirt roads that allow vehicles to access various areas within the reserve, deemed a sign of progress. Most of the houses are now connected to the electricity grid, and some have landline telephones, crucial in emergency situations, though there is still no cellphone or internet reception.
New protagonists: Nut harvesters
Though still labeled as rubber plantations, the 48 designated areas in the Chico Mendes reserve are no longer focused on extracting latex from rubber trees. Malaysia’s dominance in rubber production and an industry shift away from natural latex and toward synthetic rubber has imposed a new economic horizon inside the reserve. Now the commercial focus is on the Brazil nut.
Every year, thousands of extractivists venture into the reserve’s forest between the months of December and April, during the Amazonian “winter,” to collect the burrs in which the nuts are held.
They respect the natural process, allowing the burrs to fall from the trees before picking them up from the ground using cambitos, a type of wooden-handled scoop, and throwing them into paneiros, woven baskets that the nut harvesters strap to their backs.
After gathering the burrs, the harvesters set them out on specially built wooden supports and break them open using specially adapted sickles. The nuts are then selected — those with fungi are discarded — and later bagged to be transported by car across the “branches.”
This practice has been passed down from generation to generation among the harvesters, with children accompanying their parents during the harvest months. The nuts are sold by volume, not weight, in cans that typically hold 18 liters (4.8 gallons), following the harvesting culture established by workers who learned to earn their livelihood from the forest at the turn of the 20th century.
The Rubber Boom of the early 1900s was a period in which the local population grew sharply. Thousands of migrants from northeast Brazil came to the forest, living in precarious conditions, occupying the area and supplying the rubber that would become one of Brazil’s main commodities.
The relationship between the rubber tappers and their bosses was based on the exchange of smoked latex for food and other products for personal consumption. Rarely were they paid in money. A new boom began when the demand for rubber for the arms industry skyrocketed during World War II, with numerous waves of migrants flocking to Acre. They were known as the Rubber Soldiers.
Much like what happened with latex, the Brazil nut trade was driven by the demands of the market, including from new consumers in other parts of the country and abroad. Today, extractivists sell the nuts that they collect to intermediaries — resellers who operate in the cities around the Chico Mendes reserve: Brasiléia, Epitaciolândia, Assis Brasil, Sena Madureira, Xapuri, and even the Acre state capital, Rio Branco, a two-hour drive away.
Another buyer is Cooperacre, the Acre Central Cooperative for Extractive Commerce, which pays a bit more than the average offered by its associates and takes care of the processing and packaging for sale. Today, there are no projects for processing or functioning cooperatives inside the Chico Mendes reserve.
Researchers help search for solutions
Efforts to improve production conditions and income alternatives for extractivists in the reserve stem from the work of scientists in projects financed by research centers and agencies from Brazil and abroad.
Since 2016, Lúcia Wadt has operated with subsidies through the project Bem Diverso, the result of a partnership between Embrapa and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with resources from the Global Environment Facility. She heads a team of researchers who monitor Brazil nut trees in specific regions of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve and work on initiatives to add value to the nut production there.
Bem Diverso also supports development initiatives under the public tender Ecoforte Extrativismo, which provides for the construction of 41 warehouses with resources from the Amazon Fund and Banco do Brasil Foundation. With these warehouse spaces, the participating forest workers now have a way to adequately store Brazil nuts, guaranteeing higher quality and the possibility of negotiating sales at different times during the harvest.
Another production model is represented by agroforestry systems (SAFs), which combine the cultivation of various fruits and other food items with the objective of diversifying income.
The main SAF in the reserve is in the allotment of João Evangelista da Silva, also known as Seu João. This allotment, one of several designated to each extractivist family, was structured with the aid of Tadário Kamel de Oliveira, a researcher from Embrapa. The system has allowed for an increase in Seu João’s earnings, thanks to the diversification of products, with an emphasis on fruits such as limes and bananas.
All of these efforts, though celebrated by extractivists, are not enough to strengthen the economy of the Chico Mendes reserve sufficiently to offset the attraction of cattle ranching as the main alternative for complementing their income.
An underestimated product
Farming Brazil nuts is an ancestral activity in the forest. There are archaeological traces of the consumption and dispersal of seeds by the Amazonian peoples dating back at least 5,000 years. And though the Brazil nut remains one of the best-known local products, the problem is that its production chain is fundamentally characterized by informality and a lack of regulation.
“We can say that conditions have improved in the sense that the price of a can has risen in recent decades. But adequate attention still has not been paid in proportion to this product’s importance in maintaining the extractivist way of life and conserving the Amazon,” Lúcia Wadt says.
And despite the name, Brazil is the number two producer of Brazil nuts in the world, losing top spot to Bolivia since 2004. Bolivia, which borders Acre, has invested in upgrading processing practices — storage and packaging, for instance — thus making its product more reliable in the eyes of the international market. Many residents of the Chico Mendes reserve have spent time working in Bolivia to acquire new knowledge and skills.
In 2017, a major crop failure caused by the cyclical El Niño weather pattern resulted in a decline in burrs in the entire Amazon region by as much as 70%. This scarcity led to a rise in prices by almost 100%, and demand for Brazil nuts fell. But even with the production returning to regular levels, buyers have not come back.
“In 2020, the difficulty is because of the coronavirus,” says Aline Nobre do Nascimento, a Brazil nut retailer in Brasiléia. Since regulation and investment are scarce, the fluctuations of the market and the value of the product directly impact the income of extractivists.
Market variations aside, the nature of the extractive activity itself does not favor exclusive dedication to the Brazil nut. Once the harvest months have passed, many workers are left virtually idle; during this period, it becomes tempting for many to turn to cattle ranching as an alternative.
Another issue is the fact that Brazil nut trees are much rarer in certain parts of the reserve, which spans nearly a million hectares (2.5 million acres) in size.
“Protecting this area is a complex task that includes not just oversight, but, overall, the social and economic development of the communities, so that they have alternatives to the Brazil nut and do not resort to deforesting,” says Wilker Nazareno da Silva e Silva, who is in charge of the reserve at the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), an agency affiliated with the Ministry of the Environment.
“I often say that I feel almost like a mayor, having the responsibility of looking after the conservation of an area inhabited by thousands of people,” he adds. There were 2,000 families and approximately 10,000 people in the reserve in 2009, according to the census that year. Today, only five ICMBio agents operate in the area.
Pentecostal and Neo-charismatic churches have become the inevitable focal points for community organization, drawing extractivists to their services and gaining popularity among young people, children and women. There are is no official data regarding the number of churches in and around the reserve; according to locals, there are approximately a hundred.
Though residents must obtain authorization from the ICMBio to use the land and an ordinance from the communities stating whether or not they accept new inhabitants, there are cases of allotments being sublet and irregularly sold, as well as the construction of houses for new members as families expand. According to the ICMBio, the latest data on the area’s demographics will be released in July this year.
What’s certain is that deforestation is continuing at an accelerated pace. And the main driver behind it is also widely known: trees are cut down to clear pastures inside the reserve and surrounding areas. The activity is permitted at a limit of up to 10% of the total area of each allotment, a maximum of 30 hectares (74 acres), according to the land use plan.
Hostile political climate
In the center of Xapuri, street signs point the way to the home of Chico Mendes, the city’s main tourist attraction. But since the end of 2018, it has not possible to enter the house where the leader of the rubber tappers lived with his family and where he was shot dead. A lack of support from the state secretary of culture has led to the house’s closure.
The state government of Acre is allied with President Jair Bolsonaro, who won 77% of the votes here in the 2018 election — the highest percentage in the country. During the campaign, Bolsonaro traveled to Rio Branco where he declared that he would have his political rivals shot and expelled from Acre.
The state government has followed up its symbolic “erasure” of Chico Mendes’s legacy by allocating its resources to weaken environmental, social and labor union movements. This is further impairing a structured resistance on the part of forest workers in defense of the Chico Mendes reserve.
“We’re weaker than we once were, but the spirit of the struggle is still with us,” says Antônio Mendes, a cousin of the slain icon and a fellow extractivist. “You can kill one but there will still be many others. We aren’t giving up because this reserve didn’t come for free.”
Antonio says he also sees the fragility of the Brazil nut market as a factor that favors deforestation. “What extractivists know how to do is to live off of the forest. If no one wants to buy their products, what alternative do they have?” he says.
In November last year, Congresswoman Mara Rocha, from Bolsonaro’s ruling coalition, introduced a bill aimed at reducing the borders of the Chico Mendes reserve. It would remove sections that, she said, have always been used for cattle ranching and which today are not recognizable as conservation areas.
Rocha based the bill on the argument that it’s necessary to allow the extractivists who are unable to make a living “to continue the activities in which they always labored, namely: cattle raising and agriculture.” The bill has been criticized by extractivists, researchers and environmental agencies.
One of the best conserved areas in the state of Acre, along with the indigenous reservations and the Serra do Divisor National Park, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve remains the site of ongoing illegal logging activities. Even in the face of this grim outlook, Severino da Silva Brito still maintains hope.
“The Chico Mendes reserve is just like the planet: it has a chance, because we have to do something right now,” he says. “It’s no use to come by and fine people when they cut down the forest to clear pastures. What we need to do is raise awareness. Because if all the extractivists move out, I wouldn’t give this place even three years before all the trees have been taken down.”
Banner image of a harvester using a special sickle to break open the bur and get at the Brazil nut inside, by Flavio Forner.