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Rainforest rubber: from the tree to the soles of your shoes


Did you know that rubber doesn’t grow on trees, it flows through their trunks! Natural rubber is a tree sap – a latex – produced by the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). This tree is native to the Amazon rainforest, where it grows wild among the hundreds of other rainforest tree species. And it can be harvested without harming the tree.

Rubber tapper from the Sky Rainforest Rescue project area © Simon RawlesRubber tapper from the Sky Rainforest Rescue project area © Simon Rawles

While most of the world’s natural rubber comes from plantations, mostly in Asia, communities of rainforest dwellers still exist in the Amazon who tap this rainforest bounty that here we like to call Wild Rubber, because it is truly wild!

Despite massive changes over the last 100 years in the world’s rubber trade, rubber tapping is still a locally important economic activity in some parts of the Amazon. It is especially important for certain communities living in very remote areas of the rainforest.

Thanks to our partnership with Sky on the Sky Rainforest Rescue project, we have been working with more than 60 rubber tappers in the Brazilian state of Acre. In Peru and Bolivia, we’ve also been supporting work with rubber tappers. The common thread is that by improving market conditions for the people who sustainably harvest forest resources, we are helping promote forest conservation at the same time as improving lives. But until now, these experiences have remained isolated from each other.

As programme manager for the Sky Rainforest Rescue project, I was so thrilled that we have been able to support these country initiatives to come together, to learn from each other and share experiences. At the end of May our staff from Brazil, Peru and Bolivia led this exchange. We believe this is the first time that rubber tappers from these different parts of the Amazon have been able to meet in person to share their knowledge and discuss the future of their trade.

The exchange participants © WWF-BrazilThe exchange participants © WWF-Brazil

In total, 32 people were involved and visited two study sites in Peru and Brazil. The exchange looked at how wild rubber is tapped, processed and marketed by the different participants. The challenges and the opportunities of wild rubber production were also explored.

Different contexts, different experiences

While tapping the trees is done much in the same way, what then happens with the latex collected can vary quite a lot from place to place. In Acre, thanks to Sky Rainforest Rescue, tappers have been equipped to produce a type of high-value sheet rubber, known as FDL in Portuguese. This type of rubber is used for the manufacture of shoe soles and other products. One of their buyers is shoe firm Veja, who uses the rubber in their shoe soles. Check out their cool video.

A participant holds the type of rubber sheet that is used for Veja's soles © WWF-BrazilA participant holds the type of rubber sheet that is used for Veja’s soles © WWF-Brazil

One rubber tapper José Rodrigues, nick-named the Master of Rubber for his knowledge of the subject, has pioneered the manufacture of shoes that are 100% wild rubber. These are made from coloured sheets of rubber, known as FSA rubber in Portuguese. He sells the shoes in São Paulo and Brasilia, and even has an outlet in Europe. Last year, Joseph exhibited his work in a design fair in Milan, Italy.

In Peru, a cooperative of 24 rubber tappers working in the town of Iberia called Ecomusa produce a similar type of sheet rubber that they sell to a European company called Piola for shoe soles. Another group coats cotton with the latex to produce a type of vegetable leather that can then be made into bags and other accessories.

For Kaline Rossi, the Sky Rainforest Rescue lead for rubber at WWF-Brazil, the exchange sought to demonstrate the different realities that exist for rubber tappers.

Rubber tapper holding a sheet of coloured rubber © WWF-BrazilRubber tapper holding a sheet of coloured rubber © WWF-Brazil

“Many of them live in the Amazon in isolated areas and hardly leave their communities. So, we wanted to address not only the issue of the rubber, but also show other things that can help them live responsibly and generate income from the forest, such as tourism and agriculture. We also wanted to offer something that would enrich the participants not only professionally, but personally.”

For Edith Condori, of WWF-Peru, working with wild rubber is also about working with cultural identity “More than talking about markets, it is important to remember that wild rubber tapping is a way of life – it’s a strong cultural issue, it’s the identity of a people.”

In their words

“It was a very good programme. I learned many things that I can take home and share with my community” Francisco, a tapper from the county of Feijó in Brazil, an area that makes up part of the Sky Rainforest Rescue project area

“Exchanges are good because we always learn. For us, from other countries, it is very important to understand the processes the Brazilians use. We learned a lot, and have seen a lot” Peruvian tapper Saturnino

“Everything we’re seeing will help us improve the lives of Bolivian rubber tappers. With what we are learning we can improve our prices, improve our processes and try to create new products” Ruben, Director of the Forest Complex of Pando Province in Bolivia

Going wild for rubber

Sky Rainforest Rescue has been promoting markets for Wild Rubber. Check out our brochure (PDF) that gives an outline of the different types of wild rubber being produced, their uses and how they can be obtained. We contributed to the creation of the website wildrubber.com that provides a platform for those selling wild rubber products. In 2014 we collaborated with Sky Rainforest Rescue Ambassador Lily Cole and shoe firm Veja on a collection of trainers that included a donation to the Sky Rainforest Rescue project. Our aim: to help the (wild) rubber hit the road!

Why don’t you leave a comment below, and let us know how wild you are about this rubber!

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