Rubber Gatherers' Unions

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Rubber Gatherers' Unions

Rubber Gatherers' Unions, groups of Amazonian rubber tappers who unite to address financial, social, and environmental issues. Formation began in 1974, when the Confederacão dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura (CONTAG), a government agency controlled by the minister of labor, sent its field delegate, João Maia, to Acre to establish workers' unions. Maia founded the first union in Sena Madureira, Acre. Later that year, a more powerful union was developed in the small border town of Brasiléia, Acre. Elias Roseno was the first leader of the Brasiléia union. He was succeeded by Wilson Pinheiro, who headed the Brasiléia union until his assassination in 1980. Chico Mendes founded the Xapuri Rural Workers' Union in 1977. His leadership, and later, his assassination by a rancher in December 1988, brought international attention to the rubber tappers because his union addressed Brazilian environmental and social problems. An extractive reserve of nearly one million hectares was later designated in his honor.

In 1978, local unions in Acre, led by Chico Mendes, organized FETACRE (Federacão dos Sindicatos dos Trabalhadores Rurais do Acre) at a state level, and by 1990 it had 30,000 members. Rubber gatherers' unions extended to Rondônia, Amazonas, Amapá, and the few remaining areas in Pará where tappers extract latex from rubber trees. In 1985, Mary Allegretti, an anthropologist who worked for the Instituto de Estudos Sócio-Econômicos, helped these unions form the Conselho Nacional dos Seringueiros (CNS), which meets semiannually in Brasília. The CNS sets up schools, health-care posts, and cooperatives that enable members to buy products at reasonable prices as well as to market their rubber.

In the 1980s, conflicts between cattle ranchers, who wanted to cut down the forest to create pasture, and the populations who live from the forests and collect their products, became acute. With financial backing from OXFAM, the Ford Foundation, and various Brazilian organizations, rubber tappers focused international attention on their fight to save the rain forest through their tactic of empate (nonviolent standoff) to halt clear cutting. International environmentalists and CNS also formulated and promoted the concept of extractive reserves (federal lands based on traditional land tenure structure on which workers live and from which they extract goods, like latex, fruit, and nuts, but which they do not destroy). As of 2005, the Brazilian government had established twenty-five extractive reserves encompassing 3.8 million hectares in the Amazon.

Since winning recognition for their struggle, rubber tappers have entered the political arena. The cofounder of the union movement in Acre, Marina Silva, was elected to the the federal senate, and forester Jorge Viana was elected governor of the state.

See alsoEnvironmental Movements; Forests; Labor Movements; Rubber Industry.


Chico Mendes, with additional material by Tony Gross, Fight for the Forest: Chico Mendes in His Own Words (1989).

Augusta Dwyer, Into the Amazon: The Struggle for the Rain Forest (1990).

Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (1990).

Andrew Revkin, The Burning Season (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Almeida Neto, Domingos José de. "Aos trancos e barrancos": Identidade, cultura e resistência seringueira na periferia de Rio Branco-AC, 1970–1980. Rio Branco, Brazil: EDUFAC, 2004.

Cardoso, Catarina A. S. Extractive Reserves in Brazilian Amazonia: Local Resource Management and the Global Political Economy. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002.

Costa, Francisco Pereira. Seringueiros, patrões e a justiça no Acre Federal, 1904–1918. Rio Branco: EDUFAC, 2005.

Martins, Edilson. Chico Mendes: Um povo da floresta. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 1998.

O'Dwyer, Eliane Cantarino. Seringueiros da Amazônia: Dramas sociais e o olhar antropológico. Niterói, Brazil: Editora da Universidade Federal Fluminense, 1998.

Posey, Darrell A., and Michael J. Balick, eds. Human Impacts on Amazonia: The Role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Conservation and Development. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Rodrigues, Gomercindo. Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes: Struggle for Justice in the Amazon. Edited and translated by Linda Rabben. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Souza, Márcio. Chico Mendes. São Paulo: Callis Editora, 2005.

Teixeira, Carlos Corrêa. Visões da natureza: Seringueiros e colonos em Rondônia. São Paulo: Educ: FAPESP, 1999.

Wolff, Cristina Scheibe. Mulheres da floresta: Uma história: Alto Juruá, Acre, 1890–1945. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 1999.

                                            Carolyn Jostock

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