Can fashion help small farmers save the Amazon rainforest?

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Fashion entrepreneur Bia Saldanha leans on a young rubber tree in her garden.

After meeting Chico Mendes in the late 80s, she moved to the Amazon to see how she could contribute to the cause of the rubber tapper. She developed vegetable leather by coating the canvas with wild latex, a material that she sold to Hermès, the French luxury brand (which made it high end handbags), and then managed Veja’s rubber supply chain. She has been involved in various other efforts to develop the bioeconomy, including WildRubber.com, as part of a World Wide Fund for Nature campaign to raise awareness of the conservation benefits of Amazon latex.

Wearing black square-rimmed glasses, a black t-shirt with “HUMANITY” written on the chest, and Veja sneakers, Saldanha recounts how she helped negotiate a deal between Farm (a tropical-themed fashion brand with outlets). Rio, Paris, and Soho) and the Yawanawa tribe to sell the tribe’s extravagant handcuffs, which she also wears.

Saldanha may sound like a person suffering from a savior-capitalist complex, but her entrepreneurial spirit comes through political activism. She has no illusions that fashion startups are overtaking the Amazon’s beef economy – if Brazil’s deforestation laws were properly enforced, the biggest players in the beef industry, who own ranches with dozens thousands of acres, would be held in check, she said. Its aim is to harness ethical brands to support small-scale pastoralists deep in the forest, who are often those who push back agricultural frontiers, which the larger farms then exploit. By investing in these communities, she believes it is possible to preserve much of the forest that remains.

“We have the law, and then we have international interests,” says Saldanha, waving his arms in anguish. “The big guys, let them be screwed. We need solutions for the little ones, because otherwise they will cut down the forest. If their prosperity is not taken into account, there will be no more forest.


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