BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Luzineide Marques da Silva knows the location of each of the 748 rubber trees scattered in her area of the Brazilian Amazon, where she and her family hold rights to tap the trees for latex to sell to a sneaker manufacturer. So she watched in pain and anger last week as two of them were badly damaged by a fire she said was started by one of the land-grabbers encroaching on her territory.
“I see the fire engulfing my rubber trees, and I feel as if I myself were being murdered right there,” Silva told The Associated Press in an interview. “He’s burning down the trees from which I earn my livelihood, and I cherish them so much.”
After nine months in office, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has halved Amazon deforestation, which reached a 15-year high under predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, and has promised to promote development that makes sustainable use of its resources.
But progress has been uneven, and in the symbolic Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, it could be too late for scores of rubber-tapper families like Luzineide’s, who are increasingly under siege by illegal cattle ranchers.
Smoke rises from recent fires in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, in Xapuri, Acre state, Brazil, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gleilson Miranda)
Extractive reserves are federal conservation units set aside for non-Indigenous forest communities to pursue their traditional lives protected from land-grabbing and deforestation. The areas were created after the international outcry that followed the 1988 assassination of Mendes, a rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist, on the orders of a local cattle rancher.
Despite the land’s protected status, cattle trickled into the reserve in the years after it was created, and their numbers exploded during Bolsonaro’s four-year rule as the far-right president tried to shrink protected areas and legalize large-scale cattle herds inside extractive reserves.
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Now Luzineide, who leads a family of 12, including her husband, daughters, and grandsons, fears being killed as Mendes was. Her area, with four rubber tree groves, has become a forested island surrounded by pasture and cattle. She says she has repeatedly received death threats for opposing deforestation.
Her situation is not unique. The reserve this year has registered 300 fires, the second-largest figure among conservation units in the Amazon biome, according to official data. Most fires in the rainforest are human-set, either to clear the forest or manage pasture. The context is especially complex in the Chico Mendes reserve, where some former rubber tappers are eager to make more money by turning to cattle or illegally selling their rubber tree groves to ranchers.
Luzineide said the federal agency in charge of managing the reserve, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, also known as ICMBio, does not have enough people to curb environmental crime in the 3,600-square-mile (about 9,300 square kilometers) reserve. She said she requested their presence for weeks, but agents came only two days after the fires and briefly detained a man suspected of setting them. He was arrested for illegal possession of a weapon and released after posting bail.
The ICMBio did not respond to questions from AP.
But Mauro Pires, president of the institute, addressed Luzineide’s case when he was asked about it on the sidelines of an ecotourism congress last week near Rio de Janeiro. Pires said the Mendes reserve had been deliberately targeted for its symbolism, and in what he called a coordinated effort to disrupt rubber tappers’ lives.
He suggested that Luzineide could seek help from a government program that offers protection to grassroots leaders and public servants who face threats.
Marina Silva, Lula’s minister of Environment and Climate Change and herself a former rubber tapper, told AP in an August interview that Bolsonaro was to blame for deforestation inside the reserve. She urged patience as the government designs an ecological transition toward a low-carbon national economy.
Lula has promised to end net deforestation by 2030 — two years beyond his current term. The federal government is hiring new personnel for the understaffed environmental agencies, but the process is bureaucratic and it will take months to train new officials before being deployed for fieldwork.
Luzineide Marques da Silva, a rubber tapper, poses for a photo near a damaged tree in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, in Xapuri, Acre state, Brazil, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gleilson Miranda)
Mary Allegretti, an anthropologist who was a close friend of Mendes and has spent decades working to improve the lives of rubber tappers in the Amazon, said the ICMBio’s response to Luzineide’s pleas was “unacceptable and inexcusable.”
“What is the role of ICMBio in the reserve if it can’t verify a complaint in time to prevent the burning of rubber trees, which is her livelihood?” Allegretti said.
Angela Mendes, a daughter of Mendes and herself a social activist, blamed large-scale land ownership that she said is entrenched in Brazil’s political system. She said stopping continued deforestation requires electing a more diverse Congress and getting state governments and the attorney general involved against criminal activities.
“These are complex issues that can be resolved with political will,” she said.
Rubber tapping has been the main source of income for Luzineide’s family for three generations. She is part of a network of 500 rubber tappers who sell their production to Veja, a French shoemaker, currently the only buyer of local rubber. About 10% of the rubber tappers are women, according to the local cooperative.
“I want you to publish my story,” Luzineide said. “For this is not only my pain but also that of thousands of people who live inside the reserve. If something happens to me, if I fall, my story will already be written.”
This story has corrected the first name of the president of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation to Mauro, not Maurilo.
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