IT’S A GRAY JUNE MORNING in Brazil’s Amazon, and Julio Barbosa de Aquino is carving a long, shallow line into a tree outside his home in the state of Acre. The tree’s bark looks like a patchwork quilt: Semi-horizontal and vertical grooves cover just about every inch you can see.
Seconds later, a white liquid that almost resembles Elmer’s glue fills the space where Barbosa has carved, and it flows down diagonally into a separate vertical line. Finally, a few beads drip into a small black bucket that’s attached to the bark.
This is the morning’s main event: This is how you get wild rubber.
TO REACH THE CHICO MENDES EXTRACTIVE RESERVE where Barbosa lives, you have to drive down a long, bumpy dirt road until you reach a river. Then, a short boat ride across the water later, you climb up a steep path to the top of the hill. The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is named after Barbosa’s best friend, Chico Mendes, who led a peaceful movement in the ’80s to protect Acre’s rubber tapping community from deforestation and farming, and was killed in 1988. Today, Barbosa, 64, is the president of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve Residents and Producers Association Xapuri, AMOPREX.
This is just one of eight associations where Veja, the sustainable French footwear brand, works with rubber tappers, or seringueiros, who collect wild rubber from the forest that goes into Veja’s popular lines of sleek and stylish sneakers like the Esplars, the Campos, and V-10s—all of which are made with the wild rubber.
“You need to get to the vein of the milk, but you cannot reach the tissue that is right behind,” says Barbosa, a few hours later while leading us on a nearly four-hour hike through the forest with the rubber tappers. It’s only part of a route the rubber tappers take every three days during the week. Along the way, they cut sections of the trees called “flags” to collect the rubber. “When they do this, there will be a scar,” he says. When a cut has gone too deep, the tree releases water, he explains. Instead, it’s better for the tree to make shallow cuts to get the rubber.
From there, once collected and dry, wild rubber is sent to get processed, then it’s assembled with the sneakers in a factory in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
“We buy the wild rubber from Amazonia,” Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp says during a break in our hike with the rubber tappers and Barbosa. “We buy the rubber coming from the trees from the forest, inside the forest. And this rubber becomes the soles of our shoes.”
According to Kopp, each pair of Veja’s sneakers’ soles have about 20-40 percent of the wild rubber. “This year we’re going to buy 170 tons of wild rubber at a price that we call fair that has nothing to do with the market price, and that is how the rubber tapper can make a living out of it and can make a living better than raising cattle or cutting down the forest.
“Because the paradox is that [the rubber tappers] can be the destroyer of the forest if they don’t have an income, don’t earn money, they can cut the forest to sell the trees and put cattle,” he says. “But they can also be the guardians of the forest, and that’s the way we try to push them towards.”
KOPP, ALONG WITH François Ghislain Morillion, founded Veja in 2005 and began working in Acre just a year earlier.
In 2007, Bia Saldanha, who lives in the Brazilian Amazon, started working as Veja’s wild rubber chain designer and coordinator to help streamline the production process. “My mission is to make sure that the relationship between the company and the rubber tappers is growing and being fair and healthy for both parts, especially for the rubber tappers,” says Saldanha.
After years of working in Acre, the brand’s work with the rubber tappers who help maintain the forest feels especially important today.
This summer, Brazil made headlines because of the Amazon’s wildfires. NASA could see the smoke from space, and the Amazon saw over an 80 percent increase in wildfires since this time in 2018, along with an increase in deforestation in June.
We try to say that a forest which is up has more value than a forest which is down.
“We don’t try to fight against deforestation. We try to valorize the forest,” Kopp explained to me on our walk through the forest, weeks before the wildfires made the news. “We try to say that a forest which is up has more value than a forest which is down. That’s what we’re trying to do with the rubber for 15 years. We’re trying to prove that you can make an economic value with the forest—but with the forest standing up.”
Now, months since Barbosa demonstrated how to properly collect wild rubber, Veja’s launching its next project: the brand’s first running shoes. The name: the Condor. Four years in the making, the Condors retail for under $ 150 and forego some of the materials and plastics you might find in other running kicks in your closet. These pack in an upper made of recycled plastic bottles, for example, along with organic cotton in the lining.
Morillion explains that, for the brand, the decision to eventually design running sneakers was “quite natural.” He says the Condors are built for running a 20K, or a half-marathon race.
The Condors’ outsole alone has 31 percent rice husk, 30 percent synthetic rubber, and 30 percent wild rubber that came from the Brazilian Amazon. The Condors are what Veja calls the “first post-petroleum running shoe”—a pair of sneakers that are 53 percent recycled and bio-based.
“We know we’re not 100 percent,” Morillion says, “but it’s the direction. And it’s really the goal that we want to reach.”