Betting on a new rubber cycle to improve livelihoods and strengthen conservation in the Amazon rainforest

In the midst of the pandemic, a natural rubber factory in the heart of the Amazon forest is defying the odds and paying more than double the market price to community rubber tappers using a clean, sustainable technology improved from traditional indigenous techniques.

Headed by Francisco Samonek, the factory in Castanhal – about an hour’s drive from the capital of the northern state of Pará – produces rubber sandals, flip flops, home and fashion products without polluting the water or the air.

Samonek’s certified and organic cooperative in which rubber tappers own the factory and share the profits, protecting the standing forest and its rubber trees, results from his Master's research at the University of Acre – the home state of Brazil’s most famous rubber tapper, Chico Mendes.

The traditional techniques that he combined with scientific research and patented technology won him several awards for innovation and social technology over the past two decades. In addition, it was selected as one the first four startups to receive impact investment through the Partnership Platform for the Amazon (PPA) and joined the first group of small Amazon-based companies to join the PPA Acceleration Program.

Convened and facilitated by USAID/Brazil as part of its private-sector engagement strategy, the PPA has attracted local, national and multinational companies committed to creating a new model of sustainable development for the Amazon region. 

During the PPA's First Forum on Impact Investment and Sustainable Business, back in 2018, the impact investment manager Nonprofit Enterprise and Self-Sustainability Team (NESsT) decided to invest and mentor the cooperative, which was rebranded as Seringô the following year. NESsT, one of the pioneers in impact investment in Brazil, selects social enterprises to invest in and scale up their business. 

“Up to two years ago, the factory was actually more of a lab,” says Samonek. With PPA’s support, he created a business plan and developed a better understanding of investment needs, costs, and margins. This, combined with the cooperative's rebranding under the PPA Acceleration Program, attracted the interest of high-end fair-trade retailers and the largest footwear brands in the country. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed plans of scaling-up production, but Seringô is now designing a new collection to be marketed through direct sales. Mercado Livre, one of the biggest e-commerce platforms in Brazil, and a new member of the PPA, is supporting Seringô and nine other startups connected to the Acceleration Program to sell their fair trade products online.

Maria Angélica Correa was trained by Samonek's team five years ago – alongside other women in Vila Franca – on how to produce crafts from rubber. She and her colleagues nurtured the revival of traditional rubber tapping in her village, one of over 70 small ones located within Arapiuns-Tapajós Reserve, a protected forest in the state of Pará.

This idyllic village, on the shore of the clear blue Arapiuns river, saw its rubber economy disappear due to the lack of buyers, and the decline of natural rubber. Most youths have left to look for work in Santarém (an hour and a half away by boat), and the remaining ones depend on government grants to make ends meet, leaving the community without autonomy.

Angélica, as she is known in the community, has always worked as a craftswoman. However, after developing mobility problems, she was no longer able to collect straw from the forest to make her baskets. The R$ 100 (approximately US$ 18) she receives monthly from the government cash transfer program, Bolsa Família, is not enough to support herself and her two children. The creation of a rubber artisans group helped her to more than double her income. Now, Angelica increasingly sells products to tourists through the Reserve`s Association shop in Santarém.

The cooperative pays R$ 5  per kilo of latex to associated local rubber tappers – more than twice the minimum price of R$ 2. Angélica and her group also pay that price to locals for the rubber they use to create the crafts sold by the group in an Association stall in Santarém. 

At the end of 2019, she and a group of women from other communities nearby, together with an artisan from Oriximiná municipality, took part in a bio jewelry and handicraft workshop. During the event, they exchanged experiences about producing natural rubber accessories, colored rubber sheets, bags, rubberized tablecloths, and even table mats in the format of giant Amazon water lilies (known as vitória-régia).

They are particularly proud that their bags were chosen as part of a Press Gift Pack for journalists covering the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “We worked around the clock and managed to meet the deadlines and deliver,” recounts Correa. 

While the women learned and taught new techniques, Samonek delivered a workshop to share best practices on proper latex collection and storage with local rubber tappers. The cooperative is keen to ensure that its training activities are gender-balanced. Indigenous who have their own group and rubber trees within the village also participated.

In addition to trading with local women, the rubber tappers can now supply rubber to the factory. The price stands well above the minimum price set by the government, as the Co-op is able to advance the profit of the manufactured goods to them.  Now that women in the community have their own source of income, they also feel more empowered, and have greater autonomy to invest in their own priorities.  

The schedule for holding workshops in other communities has been delayed due to the pandemic, and the plans to scale up production and reach 220 tons of rubber this year have been affected. Still, Vila Franca is maintaining its latex production and sending it to the Castanhal factory.

“This extractive forest reserve has enormous potential,” says Samonek: “There are 71 communities and 23,000 people here – and everywhere, the rubber trees are very close to where the people live.” They only currently use a tiny percentage, so he believes there is tremendous potential for sustainable growth. 

Brazilian extractive Reserves are Protected areas that allow the sustainable use of natural resources by their riverine and indigenous residents. In Vila Franca, as in other communities within the 777,000 hectares Reserve, rubber trees are all around, within the natural, native forests, and near homes. Most were planted in the late 19th century by the first settlers in the region. Studies show that for each kilo of natural rubber produced, one hectare of forest is conserved.

Samonek feels closer than ever to his dream of seeing a new, more sustainable rubber cycle in the Amazon. And this time, he says, rubber tappers will be in the driver’s seat, as owners of the factory, selling organic certified products, partnering with big players and promoting a new sustainable development model ensuring forest conservation.