Black gold

Riverine communities exist all over the Amazon and are settled in "palafitas" and other types of housing along the major rivers. Different from the indigenous communities, they are made up of migrants and their decedents.

Boas Novas is one of many non-indigenous riverine communities along tributaries of the Amazon river. As ironic as it may sound, even though located on the largest river basin in the world, they suffer from lack of access to clean water.

photo credit: Raquel Luna

Corporate interest in rubber from the Amazon dates back to the 19th century, when an American company, run by Nelson Goodyear, invested in this natural resource. Goodyear invented the process of vulcanization of rubber and had identified Brazilian trees as a source of this material and this demand for the production of tires. During this boom, rubber was called the “black gold”. From this point on, the rubber industry in Brazil had peaks and valleys, all subject to multiple corporations’ needs and interests and brought a great deal of environmental, economic and social instability to the area.

In 1927, Henry Ford started the creation of Fordlandia — a plantation of 7,000 acres of rubber trees on the banks of an Amazon tributary, pushing for a big wave of internal migrant workers. During WWII, American interest in Brazilian rubber grew due to the wartime embargo on Asian supply. The American Government made a deal with Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, that asked him to provide more migrant workers to rubber plantations. Thousands of low-income Brazilians were encouraged to leave their homes in other states and settle in the Amazon with the promise of a job. As the war ended, Ford lost interest in the Brazilian rubber, as a result, the industry plummeted and migrant workers were left to fend for themselves in isolated parts of the Amazon. Without the income, they were promised and without means to return to their original communities, they were neglected and forced to find other ways to survive. These groups form what are now known as Amazon riverine communities, or Riverines — migrants that came mainly from the Northeast, Brazil’s most under resourced region.

While studying this history, our team made a conceptual connection to access to clean water and sustainable jobs in the Rust Belt in the American Midwest. In general, there has been an interest in the area concerned mainly with environmental preservation of the Amazon but few efforts are made in terms of the social, education needs and empowerment of these communities.

The schools in these isolated riverine communities across the Amazon, are precarious and suffer from lack of resources and basic infrastructure. There aren’t enough teachers, not enough classrooms or supplies. One of the main infrastructure needs in the region is related to access to safe drinking water. The extreme environment eliminates the possibility of digging wells for the schools, so students and entire communities resort to using untreated river water, which causes diseases that require extra money for medication and interfere with their learning experiences.

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