Saving the Rain Forest Needs More than Trendy Ice Cream

July 21, 1991|By JON CHRISTENSEN

The fast growing market in rain-forest products has been touted as the last best hope for saving the world's remaining tropical forests -- and good business to boot. But on a recent U.S. tour, Indians and their rubber-tapper allies from the Brazilian Amazon argued that the eco-market is no quick fix for the rain forest.

Rainforest Crunch candy and other trendy new items made from Amazon harvests -- ice cream, soaps, rubber toys and buttons -- may make consumers feel good. But tour leaders claim that newly formed producer cooperatives are being overwhelmed by soaring demand. To meet the demand for Brazil nuts, for example, eco-entrepreneurs have had to buy on the open market, benefiting businesses and land owners who have long monopolized the trade, not the rain-forest people themselves.

Touring the United States with the Brazilian pop star Milton Nascimento, the Indians and rubber tappers, representing the Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest, met with numerous groups, from consultants with the Rockefeller Foundation to rain-forest activists in five states, all eager to take advantage of the market in rain-forest products.

''The first thing we told people was 'calm down','' says Ailton Krenak, president of the Union of Indigenous Nations.

He said that Indian communities are reluctant to get hooked onto the market economy too quickly. ''The future we want is not the same as what they call progress in industrial, technological societies. We have always lived in equilibrium. If we put a heavy hand on nature it could be dangerous.''

The rubber tappers, for their part, had a different reason for distrusting the market. Pointing to the plummeting world price of rubber, Julio Barbosa, president of the National Rubber Tappers Council, argued that the government should guarantee forest-product prices for the ecological value of keeping the producers in the forest.

''You can't protect the rain forest unless the government guarantees the forest economy,'' Mr. Barbosa says.

Jason Clay, an anthropologist-turned-entrepreneur with the /^ Cambridge-based group Cultural Survival, set up the Rainforest Marketing Project two years ago to act as a middleman between producers and buyers. Mr. Clay was inspired by academic studies claiming that a living forest can produce more wealth than one cleared for timber, farming or cattle ranching. He aims to prove it in the marketplace.

But while the Rainforest Marketing Project has moved $3 million worth of Brazil nuts and generated $117,500 in profits for grass-roots projects, not all its intended beneficiaries believe what's good for the eco-market is good for them.

Cipasse Xavante runs the Jaburu agro-forestry project in the Indian village of Pimentel Barbosa, set up to improve local nutrition by planting native fruits in areas once cleared for cattle pasture. Surplus produce is be sold to generate extra income. But the saplings -- only now ready to leave the nursery -- won't bear fruit for a few years. And Mr. Xanate worries that when they do, ''the market will prove very demanding. If we do business with it,'' he says, ''we're going to create an incentive to only plant products that are in demand. That's not our idea.''

Last year rubber tappers in the town of Xapuri received $25,000 from the project to build their own processing plant for Brazil nuts, plus a $100,000 advance for nut shipments. So far, the benefits of controlling the processing have been few. To remain competitive the tappers had to pay the full market price for the nuts. And when the plant's first shipment reached the Rainforest Marketing Project this year, the nuts were rancid.

Rubber tappers in the Amazon know well the dangers of depending on the market. Last year they were hit hard when the government finally eliminated long-standing subsidies for native rubber. The value of Amazon rubber fell by half -- to the market price for imported Malaysian plantation rubber -- and production plummeted to an all-time low. In many areas, says Julio Barbosa, rubber tappers have had to turn to commercial hunting to survive.

''It's ridiculous to think that natural rubber can compete on the market,'' Mr. Barbosa asserts. ''Amazon rubber has more ecological and social value than whatever it will earn in the market place.''

Mr. Barbosa says government price guarantees for forest products are the only way to ensure a stable livelihood for people who use the forest without destroying it. A thriving market in forest products, he says, is no substitute for a political program that protects the forests and the people who live in it.

Eco-entrepreneurs and rain-forest leaders agree that improved communication between producers and traders on how to handle tricky market situations is essential. But decisions need to be made fast, says Jason Clay, and not just in Brazil. The trade in rain-forest products has expanded rapidly beyond the Amazon, to the Philippines, Indonesia and Zambia.

Mr. Krenak proposes forming a corporate board to oversee the trade of rain-forest products. ''We need to discuss on an equal footing what we want to put on the market and regulate the

demand as it falls on the forest and our people,'' he says.

Despite their differences over how to relate to the marketplace, the Indians, the rubber tappers and the eco-entrepreneurs share a vision. The forest must be used by the people who live in it and not simply be preserved.

Looking up at the giant redwoods during a walk through Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco, Anine Surui, a Surui Indian, commented, ''This is a real woods. It's not &r producing anything. It's very sad.''

Jon Christensen spent a year reporting on environmental issues in Brazil. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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