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Can Fashion Help Small Farmers Save the Amazon Rain Forest?


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

After meeting Chico Mendes in the late ’80s, she moved to
the Amazon to see how she could contribute to the rubber tapper’s cause. She
developed a plant-based leather by coating canvas with wild latex, a material she
sold to Hermès, the French luxury brand (which made it into high-end handbags),
and later managed Veja’s rubber supply chain. She’s had her hands in various other
efforts to scale up the bioeconomy, including WildRubber.com,
part of a World Wildlife Fund campaign to publicize the conservation benefits of Amazonian
latex.

Sporting blocky, black-rimmed glasses, a black T-shirt with
“HUMANITY” written across the chest, and Veja sneakers, Saldanha tells of how
she helped broker a deal between Farm (a tropical-themed fashion brand with
stores in Rio, Paris, and Soho) and the Yawanawa tribe to sell the tribe’s extravagant
beaded wrist cuffs, which she’s also wearing.

Saldanha
may sound like someone suffering from a savior-capitalist complex, but she
comes by her entrepreneurialism through political activism. She holds no
illusions of fashion startups overtaking the Amazon’s beef economy—if Brazil’s
deforestation laws were adequately enforced, the biggest players in the cattle industry,
who own ranches with tens of thousands of acres, would be held in check, she
says. Her goal is to harness ethical brands in support of the small-time
ranchers deeper in the forest, who are often the ones pushing open the
agricultural frontier, which the larger operations then exploit. By investing
in these communities, she believes it’s possible to preserve much of the forest
that remains.

“We
have the law, and then we have the international interests,” says Saldanha,
flailing her arms in angst. “The big players—fuck them. We need solutions for
the small people, because otherwise they will cut the forest. If their
prosperity is not considered, there will be no forest left.”





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