Amazon Ecotourists Invited on Rubbery Adventure

By Bill Hinchberger

COSTA MARQUES, Brazil, January 15, 2003 (ENS) - After Japan occupied Malaysian plantations during World War II, the Allies needed dependable supplies of rubber to keep their jeeps rolling and protect their soldiers from venereal disease.

They called upon the predecessors of Galego, my Brazilian guide. With a calm sense of self-confidence that belies his modest means, Galego leads me along a rubber trail through the Amazon rainforest.

Approaching a tree, he strips away dried latex from old cuts. Then he pulls out a "rubber knife." This is no toy. The name describes its utility, not its composition. A rubber knife is a stick with a "V" shaped blade on one end. With it Galego carves two intersecting diagonal cuts just above a series of old cuts. Then two more just below. Rubber tappers call this a fishtail cut. If you step back a few feet, you can see the resemblance.

Beads of creamy goo ooze from the fresh cuts. White liquid trickles into a vertical groove at the intersection of the diagonals. Then down to a little stick that has been fashioned into a spout. That leads to a small bucket held in place by carefully carved sticks.


Rubber tapper demonstrates how the sap is collected. (Photo courtesy Guapore Valley)
Native to Brazil, rubber trees here are scattered about the forest instead of concentrated in plantations. A rubber tapper must wend his way through the jungle. This demo trail includes just a few dozen trees. But on a typical day, a tapper like Galego would cover 150 to 250 trees. He would make the cuts early, starting by 6 am, and return by noon to collect the drippings. Back home, he would light a wood fire to cure the latex. Cured and bundled up, it would be ready for market.

Galego can collect 16 kilos (35 pounds) a day. At the market rate of one Brazilian real per kilo, he earns a few paltry dollars a day - hardly enough for a Big Mac value meal.

In our era of synthetics, rubber tapping is not exactly a lucrative enterprise. That economic reality partly explains why I am here. To augment their incomes, Galego and his fellow rubber tappers have launched a community ecotourism project.

Besides the rubber trail tour, they take visitors to a riverside beach to camp out in the low water season. During high water, they run boat treks on aquatic trails through the flooded forest. They whisk travelers some 240 kilometers (150 miles) downriver for a few nights in an isolated village. There they find hiking trails, a bird watching tower, and piranha packed fishing spots.

All adventures take place on extractive reserves. These areas are protected under Brazilian law. Residents can carry out subsistence tasks but must otherwise preserve the natural environment.

For now Galego and I return from the rubber trail to his hometown, Costa Marques, population 10,000. McDonald's has not yet made it to this backwater outpost across the Guaporé River from Bolivia. Perhaps that is why the ecotourism venture has adopted the slogan "Undiscovered Amazon."

Instead of a burger joint, we head to a restaurant that features the catch of the day. It stands at the end of a series of two-story wooden structures overlooking the "port" - a riverside strip where boats throw down their anchors.


Brazil and Bolivia face each other across the Guaporé River at Costa Marques. (Two photos by Betty Brito courtesy Coisas Nossas)
Across the river on the Bolivian side, similar structures are built on supports as a defense against seasonal flooding. The compound contains sundry retail outlets. Folks call it the Pala-Shopping, the Mall on Stilts.

Our fish restaurant is a converted company store. As recently as a decade ago, rubber tappers came here to buy supplies and merchandise and sell their commodity. Many fell into virtual debt slavery. "I always tried to pay off my balance," Galego tells me. "But some guys couldn't make it and ended up owing money."

Bosses assigned tappers their territories, and demanded exclusive rights to their rubber. "We didn't even know what price these guys were getting when they resold our rubber," says Galego.

Successive boom cycles had attracted immigrants to work the Amazon rubber trees since the 19th century. But after Brazil signed a treaty with the United States in 1942, strongman Getúlio Vargas had a problem: though rubber trees were plentiful in the Amazon, laborers were not. Thousands of extra hands would be needed.

Vargas knew where to go. Then as now, unskilled workers abounded in Brazil's drought plagued northeast. He would recruit these unoccupied citizens and match them up with unattended trees. "More Rubber for Victory!" exhorted socialist realist style posters.

Those who responded enlisted as Rubber Soldiers.

Casualties were high. Of the 55,000 recruits, over half failed to endure the ravages of malaria, yellow fever, beriberi, jaundice, occupational accidents, hunger and exposure, according to the Brazilian newsmagazine "Isto É."


A neighborhood in Costa Marques
Survivors fell into the debt-slavery system described by Galego. They only escaped after forming an association about a decade ago. Today the same association is spearheading the ecotourism drive.

"Our parents never had the chance we have," says Gato (the Cat), Galego's colleague. "Today the rubber tapper controls his own destiny."

Accounts of disease and hardship in the 1940s should not deter the 21st century tourist. It would be a good idea to get a yellow fever shot, but other ailments are under control. The food is plentiful and the cabins, though pretty Spartan, offer ample protection from exposure.

The biggest problem for the rubber soldiers, their isolation, may offer the biggest attraction for the socially conscious ecotourist. If you really want to get away from it all, this is the place.

The ecotourism project is a partnership between the Rubber Tappers' Organization of Rondonia and the Guaporé Valley Rubber Tappers' Association, with the collaboration of two environmental NGOs, ECOPORE and WWF-Brazil.

The two grassroots rubber tappers organizations have been searching for income generating opportunities for extractive reserve communities.

Their members survive on the extraction of rubber, complemented by Brazil nut collection, subsistence agriculture and fishing. Prices of rubber have dropped in the last few years, throwing people into poverty. Still, the groups say, "Preserving local culture and environmental conservation have always been taken into consideration in the development of alternatives to rubber extraction."

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{Brazil-based writer Bill Hinchberger is the editor and publisher of the website BrazilMax:}