In all 12 host cities during the World Cup, the Brazilian Ministry of Health is distributing 2 million free condoms, including those made using wild Amazonian rubber trees, as part of a government initiative to promote safe sex, protect the rainforest, and provide sustainable jobs for hundreds of seringueiros (“rubber tappers”) who collect latex from trees.
The manufacturing company Natex claims to produce the only condoms worldwide from wild seringa trees and using all-natural lubricants, which are packaged inside a green square wrapper marked with the words “Latex Natural da Amazonia.”
These “wild rubbers” are getting what could be considered their first major international test during the World Cup, as Natex prepares to double annual production to 200 million condoms, and potentially go international if the right investors step forward.
"Natex is receptive to partnerships with the private sector that would maintain our mission and strategy, and is interested in commercializing its products in fair-trade or eco-friendly markets," Dirlei Bersch, executive director of government-owned condom factory Fábrica de Preservativos Masculinos Xapuri in the northwestern state of Acre, told VICE News in an exclusive interview. "Currently we don’t have a commercial line."
Exposure during the World Cup offers "a very strong opportunity,” adds Alberto Tavares, who heads Acre’s public-private Company for the Development of Environmental Services (CDSA). “We would like to bring investors that think about potentially connecting Natex condoms with the international market… and the possibility of people supporting the Amazon rainforest by their love,” he adds, smirking.
Many condom-makers have already scored big wins during the World Cup. Top condom-maker Karex has said that sales of its yellow-and-green Prudence brand — some flavored to taste like lime-infused Caipirinha cocktail — are up 25 percent this year in Brazil. That strong demand comes despite a warning from the US Centers for Disease Control for World Cup travelers to "bring condoms from the United States, since those in other countries may not be up to US quality standards."
The recommendation against buying Brazilian condoms sparked a flurry of reports in Brazil, as well as a sharp rebuttal from Bersch at the Amazonian factory.
"The alert was totally unfounded," Bersch said. "Our legislation is extremely rigorous in quality control... Whoever knows the production process and quality controls knows that our condoms are 100 percent secure."
How the Amazonian Condoms Are Made
Bersch's unassuming factory on the side of a pot-holed road in a remote no-man’s-land bordering Bolivia and Peru already supplies about 20 percent of condom demand in Brazil’s north and central regions, which includes World Cup host city Manaus.
More than just a condom — and a very rubbery condom at that, from its thick texture to its pungent odor — the prophylactic symbolizes the nexus between the government’s health, environment, and economic initiatives.
“The object of the factory is to preserve the forest,” said Janadia Santos, assistant director of quality control at Natex. “Seringueiros don’t have many options — this gives a lot of benefits.”
Officials said the condoms are carrying on the legacy of the environmental activist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated 25 years ago during his fight against the rapid deforestation of the Amazon from government-backed cattle ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers.
The Natex factory stands just a few miles away from Mendes’ old home, which is now preserved as a museum with his original Remington 15 typewriter, and blood stains on the kitchen wall where the activist was shot dead while walking outside to use the toilet.
He inspired a generation of Brazilians, from two-term state governor Jorge Viana to former Environment Minister Marina Silva, who is running for vice-president in October’s election. Silva herself attended the condom factory’s opening in 2008, lauding the "new process of inclusion that would value the forest being left standing.”
A Questions of Quality
What is still unclear is what appeal the Amazonian condoms will have for the international market. An American living in Acre, who says she has tried the product, described using them as “like having sex with a Goodyear tire.”
“With other condoms you're not really aware that it's latex, but this smells like rubber, it's a lot thicker,” she said.
To be sure, these no-frills condoms are built more for utility than for pleasure, although that could change.
Officials are quick to highlight that the condoms meet the highest quality, which includes the rigorous process of quality control tests — from pumping the condoms with 45 liters of water to inflating them to the size of a small human.
“Every three months we have an audit of the lab tests,” said Santos. “We verify all the analyses and all the processes.”
The Natex factory employs 166 locals and buys rubber from about 700 seringueiro families at above-market rates, effectively subsidizing a profession that’s being priced out by cheaper oil-based synthetics.
Rubber tappers who sell their latex to Natex are given additional income through the government’s program to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), which has sold about $25 million in carbon credits on the international market.
Also sourcing wild rubber from the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is boutique French shoe firm Veja, which buys from 60 seringueiro families at double the price of synthetic oil-based rubber.
“The survival of the Amazonian rainforest is dependent on more sustainable management of its resources,” Veja says on its website.
That reality is too clear for former rubber tapper Francisco Romario de Souza, who fought alongside Mendes back in the 1980s but in recent years left the forest because of weak demand for Amazonian rubber.
None of his 10 children or 27 grandchildren have stayed in the family trade, he says — all have left the forest or turned toward agriculture and cattle farming to supplement their income.
But there is one hope.
“The serenguerios are coming back to tap more trees for the condom factory,” de Souza said.
Photo via Flickr