Crossing from Rondônia into the state of Acre, territory annexed from Bolivia during the rubber-boom days in the first years of the twentieth century, there’s nowhere to stop before you reach the capital at RIO BRANCO. The state is a vast frontier forest zone, so it comes as a real surprise to find Rio Branco is one of Brazil’s funkiest cities. It’s a small but lively place with little of specific interest, perhaps best known as the home of the famous environmentalist and rubber-tree-tapper Chico Mendes. Arriving at night (as you usually do) after an eight-hour journey through the desolation of what’s left of the jungle between here and Porto Velho, the brightly coloured lights and animated streets can make you wonder if you’ve really arrived at all, or simply drifted off to sleep and are dreaming. By day Rio Branco doesn’t have quite so much obvious charm, but it remains an interesting place.
The relaxed air of Rio Branco masks many tensions, above all to do with population movement – people are still arriving here from the east – and the conflicting claims of small rubber-tappers and multinational companies on the jungle. The tappers, who have lived here for a long time and who know how to manage the forests in a sustainable way, see the multinationals as newcomers who aim to turn the trees into pasture for beef cattle and short-term profit, destroying not only the forest but also many local livelihoods. When hired gunmen working for the cattle ranchers shot dead Chico Mendes, the leader of the rubber-tappers’ union, in 1988, the plight of the forest peoples of Acre came to the world’s attention. Today, the political situation in Acre remains uneasy, with the second- and third-generation tappers and gatherers joining forces with the native population in resisting the enormous economic and armed might of the advancing cattle-based companies.
A short ride out from town, at Km 7.8 on Senador Guiomar, you can find the Ambiental Chico Mendes, an interpretive centre about the history and reality of rubber tapping in the region. Further afield, the state of Acre is dotted with ancient geoglyphs made from earthworks with spirals, circles and crescents that can only really be visited in guided groups.