ERJ staff report (TP)
Chazuta, Peru – The discovery of rubber trees in a Peruvian jungle is helping some rural families to drop coca and start cultivating this new resource.
Tomas Fasabia, a former coca grower, was part of a group of campesinos (people living in rural areas) who, in early 2014, travelled to the jungle mountains that overlook the district of Chazuta, near Tarapoto in northern Peru.
“At first we thought that they were just small remnants of what was being exploited in the last century, but then we realised as we walked, that it was an extraordinary hidden treasure,” he told Peruvian newspaper El Comerico.
A week after the trip, their hopes were confirmed: 2,500 adult shiringa (rubber) trees were ready for latex extraction.
But in Chazuta, the idea of rubber sparking an economic boom brought back unpleasant memories of last century’s social and environmental disaster.
In 1915, the Peruvian Amazon’s rubber boom stopped due to the deaths of 40,000 indigenous people from typhus, malaria, and starvation.
This loss of life was because of the forced labour and the poor sanitation conditions they were exposed to by businessmen.
During the rest of the century, the shiringa tree was thought to have disappeared, after being indiscriminately harvested by those who thought it was an infinite resource. “No one imagined that in 100 years, there would be a 250-hectare reserve,” said Fasabia.
In fact, as Fasabia and his colleagues point out, the trees were located in the buffer zone of the Cordillera Escalera conservation area, and steps would have to be taken to protect the zone.
“Our idea was to use the traditional methods, like our ancestors used to extract rubber. Reawakening this technique after so much time was the challenge,” said farmer Julio Saurin Apagueño.
The first product made from the rubber was a waterproof poncho. Later, they made backpacks and other kinds of bags, then soles for shoes.
The results were surprising. “The rubber has all the qualities needed for exportation. Now there’s a project to make everything from condoms to shoes to umbrellas, which lots of tropical countries need,” said Elvis Vidaurre, engineer and advisor at the Central Huallaga and Bajo Mayo Project, which is part of the regional government of San Martin.
Just two months after the shiringa trees were discovered, the regional government had already provided infrastructure and specialists to help the new rubber cultivators in order to ensure a future for the business.
“Here, many families have been surrounded by terrorism and narcotic trafficking. The only livelihood they had for years was selling coca leaves, but that business exposed them to constant danger. This is their opportunity,” explained Vidaurre.
Now, rubber has helped 80 families in Chazuta to walk away from the illegal production of coca and into the business of selling rubber to factories in Lima and San Martin.
In June, new rubber cultivators began to work on their own shiringa plantations, which, in a year, will allow them to stop depending on the 250 original hectares they discovered.