Latex extraction provides income to indigenous peoples in Brazil

30 Apr 2010

The Rikbaktsa – an indigenous community spread over 34 villages and 400,000 hectares in the state of Mato Grosso, northwest Brazil – are extracting latex from native rubber trees and receiving a fixed income. Latex extraction had been a common practice among their community for more than seven decades, but faced with a declining number of buyers and increasing international competition, they had to abandon this environmentally safe practice more than 20 years ago. Thanks to a partnership between the government of Mato Grosso, Michelin (international tire company) and UNDP, for the past two years the Rikbaktsa have resumed the extraction of latex. This economic activity is also preventing the youngest community members to leave their villages to work in neighbouring farms.

Member of the Rikbaktsa community extracts latex from a native rubber tree (Photo: UNDP Brazil)
Carlos Castro, head of UNDP Brazil’s Environment Unit explained that the sustainable use of the forest in these indigenous reservations is also a crucial means to prevent logging and other destructive practices. “Our strategy is to support the indigenous peoples’ economic activities while promoting an eco-friendly production that helps maintain some of the most diverse forests in the world,” Castro said. “This means that in a region that has shown the highest deforestation levels in Brazil in the past 10 years – where the native rubber trees could have been slashed or burned without having ever been explored – indigenous peoples are now producing high-quality latex. And the genetic resources that were kept intact are an invaluable asset to the planet.”

The Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity of Forests of Northwestern Mato Grosso project, funded by the Global Environment Facility, provides training to the Rikbaktsa community to improve the latex quality so that it better meets the market’s needs. The Association of the Rikbaktsa Indigenous People is managing the use of their own land, seeking a kind of economic development that respects their traditions – and the environment. Nearly 200 families have benefitted in the past two years. With the equipment provided and the training sessions, the indigenous peoples are now extracting latex in 20,000 native trees.

From the forests to the automobile industry
The Rikbaksta Association requested UNDP Brazil’s support to kick-start negotiations with Michelin. Through an agreement between the Rikbaksta, Michelin and the National Foundation for Indigenous People (FUNAI, as it is known in Brazil), the international tire company  buys the Rikbaktsa’s entire latex production, paying 30 percent more than market price, as long as the latex meets the company’s quality requirements. To achieve such standards, Michelin is also donating material, providing training sessions and helping the community undertake quality control practices, including in the latex storage facilities – which are a crucial part of the production process.

Rikbaktsa ceremony marks the beginning of a training session on latex quality control (Photo: UNDP Brazil)
Today, the Rikbaktsa are extracting 10 tons of latex every year,  and the production should rise to 15 tons per year. The indigenous families’ incomes have also increased: from R$ 800 (around US$460) in 2008, reaching now around R$1500 (around $860) per month. 

“It’s a win-win situation,” Castro added. “According to Michelin, the quality of these native trees’ latex is higher than the one extracted from the planted trees – even if in the same area. And this is all done in a way that promotes economic development, conserves natural genetic resources and protects the indigenous peoples’ cultural and social diversity. And since there was no burning or cutting down of trees, carbon dioxide was kept stored in the forest and not released to the atmosphere.”

Prior to extracting latex, the Rikbaktsa had been focusing on harvesting and selling Brazil nuts, but were unable to work during the drought period.

"Such harvests are periodic, so we were always looking for other activities to generate income," said Paulo Skiripi, president of the Association of the Rikbaktsa Indigenous People.  "When the nut season was over, most of our youngest members went out to work in neighbouring farms. And some never came back. Now, they can stay among us, extracting latex.”

Skiripi added that his major concern is to keep the youth in the village, “close to the family, close to their culture and their language. Today, our people are spread out in large and small villages, all very distant from each other. I believe that the latex extraction will help expand the Rikbaktsa villages, also helping us keep and protect our lands."

The project is expanding latex extraction to two neighbouring indigenous territories. Other indigenous peoples, such as the Arara and Cinta Larga, have also shown interest in being part of the initiative.