© WWF / Dado Galdieri

The forest factory

 The Amazon forests of Peru’s Madre de Dios region produce a wealth of products that sustain hundreds of thousands of people.
Picture the tyres on your car or the sneakers on your feet. Where did they come from? No doubt some factory, somewhere; but before they rolled off the assembly line, an essential component came from a “manufacturing plant” of a different sort. The natural latex produced by shiringa trees in Peru ends up in all sorts of everyday products, from the gloves your doctor wears to the rubber backing on your living room rug. 

As the foreman of his particular parcel of forest factory, Eduardo Escompani Viñas makes the rounds each day. Before dawn, he sets out to walk a specific route from tree to tree, stopping at each one to make a diagonal scratch in the bark. Milky white latex rises instantly to the surface and flows down the new channel into a rusty can wedged into the bark. Above the can, the tree looks like a patch of corduroy – a new wale added each day.

After visiting each of his 200 trees, Escompani returns home to eat and rest before walking the same path to collect the latex. Now in his 70s, Eduardo has been a shiringuero for some six decades. He is the child and grandchild of shiringueros, and he knows his forest like the back of his hand. He and the other members of ECOMUSA, a cooperative of natural rubber producers, feel duty-bound to protect their natural resources and their way of life.

“Shiringueros never cut trees,” Escompani says. “We are defenders of the forest. You start cutting, and the whole forest is degraded. We have always lived with the animals in a natural balance. If we cut trees, we lose the animals and all the knowledge of the natural world.”

As committed as Escompani and the others are, this is not an easy life, and no one is getting rich. There have been times when the market for natural rubber was so poor, it was hardly worth the effort to collect. That’s when offers from timber companies or agribusiness can start to seem tempting.

WWF supports the shiringueros’ commitment to sustainable use of the forest, and respects their time-honored tradition of living in harmony with nature. To that end, WWF has assisted ECOMUSA in improving the quality and consistency of their product, which allows them to command a higher price. This profession may not be as profitable as some alternatives, but it can provide a stable livelihood.

Sharing shiringa with the world

A yellowing newspaper article hangs on the wall in the dusty workshop of the Association of Shiringa Artisans of Iberia. The clipping describes the fashionable “vegetable leather” purses shown during the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris. The women who made the handbags – crafted from fabric coated with the natural latex of the shiringa tree – may not know much about high fashion, but they know plenty about hard work.

Day to day, the women produce water-resistant items such as tablecloths, ponchos and backpacks. For the show in Paris, the group had the additional support of a professional designer to guide their work. Alicia Quino Velarde, director of the 30-member artisan cooperative, explains that the group aspires to specialize in this kind of high-end retail product.

“We can learn any pattern. But we need the training from a professional to improve our sewing skills,” Quino says. “You have to have a lot of practice to work with this unique material. You can’t just sit down and sew it. We’re always looking for ways to get better and better. This association doesn’t exist to be a distributor of tablecloths. We want to make fine products that are profitable.”

WWF’s early support helped the association get the business started; now it’s a matter of getting to the next level. With the right investment, the group could be a reliable buyer for ECOMUSA’s natural latex and capitalize on the global demand for chic, environmentally friendly fashion and décor.

“We’re working to make this business successful, and it takes time,” says Flore Quispe Sulca, treasurer of the group. “But we’re making progress. We’re not at zero. We’re proud of what we’re doing, and we’re showing young people about business and protecting the environment.”
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Shiringueros scrape the bark of the tree to release the latex, but this doesn't harm the tree.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Eduardo Escompani Viñas, left and Juan Saavedra Lucas pause for a laugh during the day's labor in a Shiringa plot in Iberia, Peru.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
Ecomusa associates display shoes with soles made of the natural rubber they produce in the Amazonian city of Iberia, Peru.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Ecomusa associates display shoes with soles made of the natural rubber they produce in the Amazonian city of Iberia, Peru.

 Defenders of the forest

José de la Cruz Carrasco is another employee in the forest factory. For 30 years, he has harvested Brazil nuts from his parcel of forest. These treats from the Amazon are currently fetching a good price on the global market, but de la Cruz says production isn’t what it used to be.

“They had to cut many castaña trees to make the highway,” he says. “And farmers don’t care about castaña – they will cut them down and sell them for any little bit of money. They have already cleared so much land they aren’t even using. It just sits there, empty. We have to defend the forest and our castaña or it will be lost before anyone even realizes.”

De la Cruz protects the forest because it’s his livelihood, and also because he believes it’s the right thing to do. But he is frustrated by the lack of support or compensation for the services Brazil nut gatherers provide. Farmers in Peru, for example, are provided health insurance by the state. No such scheme exists for castañeros.

“As the people who look after the forests, we get no benefits,” says de la Cruz. “We have heard that other countries are investing in Madre de Dios to protect the forests, but we haven’t seen anything.”

This is an area of ongoing work for WWF, which for many years has been advocating global programmes that will pay to keep forests standing, with many of the benefits going directly to poor communities who depend on forests and who are crucial allies in their conservation.

Already, WWF has helped the cooperative of Brazil nut gatherers improve their organization, and achieve both organic and Fairtrade certification. This has improved the product’s marketability and increased profits.

De la Cruz and others are also looking for investors in a business to make Brazil nut energy bars and sweets. They have already started buying equipment, outfitting their production facility and perfecting their recipes. De la Cruz says the idea is to employ the wives and older children of the Brazil nut gatherers. Such specialty products would likely be too expensive for the local population, but could be appealing to the numerous tourist lodges in this part of the Amazon.

Use without harm

The Amazon’s resources are precious. Timber, gold, hydropower, fisheries and other industries are worth billions of dollars globally. The forest’s role in stabilizing the global climate is valuable beyond measure. For too long, people’s use of forest resources has meant the destruction or degradation of those resources. But as Eduardo, Alicia and José demonstrate each day, there are ways to reap the value and benefit of forests without harming them. WWF is working to make these livelihoods more secure and lucrative, so people aren’t driven to unsustainable alternatives – because we all depend on our forest factories.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Jose de la Cruz Carrasco, 52, cuts the shell containing Brazil nuts at his plot in La Novia, Peru.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
Jose de la Cruz Carrasco, 52, carries a 70kg sack of harvested Brazil nuts from his forest in La Novia, Peru.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Brazil nut harvester Jose de la Cruz Carrasco calls himself a defender of the forest.