Sometimes you start something and you have no idea where it will take you. So it was with Eduardo Filgueiras, a struggling guitarist whose family worked in an unusual business in Rio de Janeiro: they raised toads. Filgueiras discovered a way to take the skins of small toads and fuse them together, creating something big enough to sell.
Meanwhile, miles away in the Amazon, a fisherman and a scientist have come up with an innovation that would help save a key giant fish that thrives in freshwater lakes alongside tributaries of the Amazon River.
The ingenuity of these three men is why beautiful and rare sustainable fish skin can now be found in luxury handbags from New York, cowboy boots from Texas, and in a striking image from a pregnancy photo shoot from Vogue by Rihanna, where a red jacket with fish scales hangs open. above her belly. The sales provide a living income to hundreds of Amazonian families who also keep the forest standing and healthy while protecting their livelihoods.
drive a giant
The leather is a byproduct of pirarucu meat, a staple food in the Amazon that is gaining new markets in Brazil’s largest cities.
Indigenous communities working together with non-indigenous riverside settlers manage the pirarucu in preserved areas of the Amazon. Most of it is exported and the United States is the main market.
Pirarucu can grow up to 3 meters (almost 10 feet) long. Overfishing put them in danger. But things began to change when settler fisherman Jorge de Souza Carvalho, known as Tapioca, and academic researcher Leandro Castello teamed up in the Mamiraua region and devised a creative way to count the fish in the lakes, the favorite habitat of the giant fish.
They took advantage of something special about this species: it comes to the surface to breathe at least every 20 minutes. A trained eye can count how many show their red tails in a given area, coming up with a fairly accurate estimate.
The government recognizes this counting method and authorizes directed fishing. By law, only 30% of the pirarucu in a particular area can be fished the following year. The result is a recovering population in these areas, allowing for larger catches.
In riverside communities, people eat the fish skin and all. But in the large slaughterhouses, where most of the pirarucu catch is processed, the skin was discarded. Then the Nova Kaeru tannery appeared on the scene.
very low starts
Thousands of kilometers away from the Amazon, up a steep dirt road on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Nova Kaeru will process some 50,000 skins of legally caught giant pirarucu, or arapaima fish, this year.
This midsize company got off to an unlikely start. In 1997, Filgueiras, the guitarist, became involved in his family’s toad business, where amphibians were raised for meat. He was struck by the beauty of his skin, but it was all being thrown away. He decided to give it a try, took a leather working course and started experimenting.
“I had no financial resources. I bought a used concrete mixer and covered it with fiberglass, adapted a washing machine and started developing frog leather,” Filgueiras told The Associated Press at his office.
He managed to transform the skin into leather, but there was a problem: it was too small. No potential client wanted it. Filgueiras tried to sew it up, but the result was too ugly. So he invented a way to weld various pieces together.
His creation began to attract attention at international fairs. A few years later, with a partner, he founded the Nova Kaeru tannery, specializing in exotic skins, expanding to salmon and ostrich with techniques that do not produce toxic waste.
Then one day a businessman knocked on the door with a pile of pirarucu skins and asked him to take a look.
Experimenting with the new hides, Filgueiras discovered that he could fix the many holes in the pirarucu hide using the same technique he had created for the toad hide.
The first results impressed him. But in the meantime, the businessman died in a plane crash. With no prior experience in the Amazon, so different from its base of operations in Rio, the company decided to source pirarucu skin on its own from the vast region.
They contacted the people who manage the fishery in the state of Amazonas. That network has now grown to 280 riverside and indigenous communities, most of them in protected rainforest areas, employing some 4,000 fishermen, according to the Coletivo do Pirarucu, an umbrella organization. The Nova Kaeru tannery bought the skins —the first buyer the communities had— and today the most important.
“The sale of leather has been essential for riverside communities,” Adevaldo Dias, a riverside leader from the Middle Jurúa region, told the AP in a telephone interview. “It helps make the whole business viable.”
The Association of Rural Producers of Carauari, from the Middle Jurua, sells each skin for $37, a significant sum in a country where the minimum wage is around $237 a month. The money helps pay the fishermen, who receive $1.60 per kilo (2.2 pounds). Dias says that the ideal price should be $1.9 per kilo of fish to cover all costs related to managing the fishery. They hope to earn that in the near future by exporting pirarucu meat.
From Medio Jurua and other regions, the pirarucu hide must travel several thousand kilometers by boat to Belem, where it is loaded onto trucks for another long journey to the Nova Kaeru headquarters, a journey of several days. From there, it goes by plane to foreign buyers.
Pirarucú leather was first introduced to Texas, where it is used in cowboy boots. But the fashion industry is taking more and more notice. In New York City, luxury brand Piper & Skye has used pirarucu leather for shoulder bags, fanny packs and purses that can cost up to $850.
“In terms of pirarucu being a food source and feeding local communities and putting food on people’s tables in the fishing areas and beyond, it’s not just a durable and beautiful material. It promotes circularity of the species in using a material that would otherwise go to waste,” Joanna MacDonald, the brand’s founder and creative director, told the AP in a video call.