The idea gained support at least in theory from ecologists, scientists, government officials, and Indian leaders. In practice, however, a considerable part of the original concept was either lost or changed.
There are 12 federally-controlled extractive reserves in Brazil, as well as a number of others run by the states or municipalities. But ten years after Mendes was murdered because of his radical ideas, the reserves are still far short of his ideal.
Some reserves have been repeatedly invaded by illegal loggers and other groups and some extractivists, as the forest dwellers are called, have abandoned the areas to live in city slums. In general, the reserves continue to face basic problems Mendes had hoped to address: poor conditions for production and trade, poor health services, and inadequate education.The traditional communities are mostly rubber tappers, obviously keen to improve their lives but at the same time committed to preserving their forest homelands. But the Amazonian economy that was once powered by rubber extraction now relies increasingly on timber. While there is still a demand for natural rubber, of which Brazil used to be the main supplier, today less than a third of the product consumed in Brazil is domestic.
It is estimated that there is still a market for the 75,000 families of rubber tappers left in the country, but the lack of a production policy to help these families is forcing them to change their activities, leaving the forest unprotected. So WWF, the international conservation organization, has stepped in to help seek sustainable economic activities that will maintain the extractivists in their traditional surroundings and improve their lives.
The demand for timber provides an obvious alternative and WWF's Programme Officer for the Southern Amazon region, Mario Menezes, believes it can offer economic improvement without predatory deforestation. Sustainable community logging can yield as much as US$80 per hectare per year, compared to just US$60 per hectare for the cattle ranching that is making such devastating inroads into the Amazonian forest.
But real improvement in the lives of the forest dwellers depends on a range of activities, so they also produce Brazil nuts, palm hearts, medicinal plants, and even shellfish. It is also important to add value to the original forest resource, and the Rubber Tappers Organization in Rondonia has led the way in producing a "vegetable leather" made from rubber trees. This is used for bags, clothes and even shoes. Rubber tappers also collect the seeds of rare trees for dissemination and they are planning to take advantage of the beauty of their scenery by developing ecotourism.
Other projects involving WWF include palm heart extraction from the acai tree, developed in the Amapa state reserve of Cajari in the northern Amazon. There extractivists are producing their own palm heart preserves in a small community factory.
It is hoped such models can be replicated elsewhere, protecting the rainforests by consolidating the existing reserves and by establishing new ones. It is a cheap and effective solution, requiring an investment of just ten cents a hectare one American dime according to Menezes. It is a small price to pay as a memorial to Chico Mendes, who is credited with preserving at least three million hectares of forests in the Amazon.
*Regina Vasquez is Communications Officer for WWF Brazil