Sometimes you start something and have no idea where it will lead. So it was with Eduardo Filgueiras, a struggling guitarist whose family worked in an unusual business in Rio de Janeiro: They farmed toads. Filgueiras figured out a way to take the small toad skins and fuse them together, creating something large enough to sell.
Meanwhile, miles away in the Amazon, a fisherman and a scientist were coming up with an innovation that would help save a key, giant fish that thrives in freshwater lakes alongside Amazon River tributaries.
The ingenuity of these three men is why you can now find a beautiful and unusual sustainable fish leather in upscale New York bags, Texas cowboy boots, and in a striking image from Rihanna’s Vogue pregnancy photo shoot, where a red, fish-scaled jacket hangs open above her belly. Sales provide a livable income to hundreds of Amazon families who also keep the forest standing and healthy while it protects their livelihood.
Managing 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 riverine settlers manage the pirarucu in preserved areas of the Amazon. Most of it is exported, and the U.S. is the primary market.
Pirarucu can grow to 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) in length. Overfishing endangered them. But things began to change when a settler fisherman, Jorge de Souza Carvalho, known as Tapioca, and academic researcher Leandro Castello teamed up in the Mamiraua region and came up with a creative way to count the fish in lakes, the giant fish’s favorite habitat.
They took advantage of something special about this species: It surfaces to breathe at least every 20 minutes. A trained eye can count how many flash their red tails in a given area, arriving at a pretty precise estimate.
The government recognizes this counting method and authorizes managed fishing. By law, only 30% of the pirarucu in a particular area may be fished the following year. The result is a population in recovery in these areas, allowing for larger catches.
In the riverine communities, people eat fish, skin, and all. But in the big slaughterhouses, where the bulk of the pirarucu catch is processed, the skin was being discarded. Then tannery Nova Kaeru showed up on the scene.
Thousands of miles away from the Amazon, down a hilly dirt road on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Nova Kaeru will process about 50,000 skins from legally-caught giant pirarucu or arapaima fish this year.
This middle-size company had an unlikely start. In 1997, Filgueiras, the guitarist, got involved in his family toad business, where the amphibians were raised for meat. He was struck by the beauty of their skin, but it was all being thrown out. He decided to try to use it, 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 to develop the frog leather," Filgueiras told The Associated Press in his office.
He managed to transform the skin into leather, but there was a problem: It was too small. No prospective customer wanted it. Filgueiras tried to stitch it together, but the result was too ugly. So he invented a way to weld several pieces together.
His creation started to gain attention at international fairs. A few years later, with a partner, he founded Nova Kaeru tannery, specializing in exotic leather, expanding to salmon and ostrich with techniques that don't produce toxic waste.
Then one day a businessman knocked on the door with a stack of pirarucu skins and asked him to take a look.
Experimenting with the new skins, Filgueiras found he was able to fix the many holes in the pirarucu leather using the same technique he had created for the toad leather.
The first results impressed him. But in the meantime, the businessman died in an aircraft accident. With no previous experience in the Amazon — so different from its home base in Rio — the company nevertheless decided to procure pirarucu skin on its own in the vast region.
They got in touch with the people managing the fishery in Amazonas state. That network has now grown to 280 riverine and Indigenous communities, most of them in protected rainforest areas, employing some 4,000 fisher people, according to Coletivo do Pirarucu, an umbrella organization. Nova Kaeru tannery bought the skins — the first buyer the communities had — and today their most important one.
“The commercialization of the skin has been fundamental for the riverine communities,” Adevaldo Dias, a riverine leader from the Medio Jurua region, told the AP in a phone interview. “It helps make the whole business viable."
The Association of Rural Producers of Carauari, from the Medio Jurua, sells each skin for $37, an important sum in a country where the minimum wage is around $237 per month. The money helps pay the fisherfolk, who receive $1.60 per kilo (2.2 pounds). Dias says the ideal price should be $1.9 per kilo of fish to cover all costs related to managing the fishing. They expect to earn that in the near future by exporting pirarucu meat.
From Medio Jurua and other regions, the pirarucu leather must travel several thousand miles by boat to Belem, where it is loaded onto trucks for another long journey to Nova Kaeru headquarters, a multiday trip. From there, it goes by plane to foreign buyers.
The pirarucu leather first made inroads in Texas, where it is used in cowboy boots. But the fashion industry is increasingly taking notice. In New York City, the luxury brand Piper & Skye has used pirarucu leather for shoulder bags, waist packs and purses that can fetch up to $850.
“As far as the pirarucu being a food source and feeding local communities and putting food on the table for the folks in the areas where it’s fished and beyond, it is not just a durable and beautiful material. It does promote circularity of the species in utilizing a material that would otherwise go to waste," Joanna MacDonald, brand founder and creative director, told the AP in a video call.