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Avon Is Calling, and It's a Jungle Out There : Brazil: Women find independence doing big business in the Amazon.

August 29, 1994|RON HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PATROCINIO, Brazil — Elisa Maria Rodrigues doesn't ring her customers' doorbells, because in the middle of the Amazon jungle there aren't any. Many times there aren't even any doors, just stick-frame houses covered with big, black plastic tarps or dried palm fronds.

Still, as she and thousands of Brazilian women like her make their way across rivers, down dusty roads, up hills and through swamps to the homes and habitats of gold miners, prostitutes, farmers and others trying to scratch out a living, the refrain is one familiar to Americans for about 30 years.

"It's the Avon lady."

Every day in Brazil, a small army of women armed with Bart Simpson deodorant and Eros and Topaz colognes spread out through the world's most dense vegetation, hawking their wares in remote places like this mosquito-infested gold-mining camp and scores of other small towns and villages accessible only by water or air.

In canoes, on riverboats and aboard small, propeller-driven aircraft, they venture to the unlikeliest places, selling products to the unlikeliest of people and with the most surprising results--tens of millions of dollars in sales. For Avon, this Amazon sales force, which is beginning to take on legendary proportions and is even being considered as the subject of a major motion picture, has proven an unexpected boon.

Last year, Avon's Amazon sales force accounted for $70 million, 15% of the company's $465 million in sales nationally. Brazil is now the largest single market outside of the United States for Avon, which recorded $3.8 billion in sales worldwide in 1993.

"The economists thought we were crazy to go to the Amazon, and they're right if you analyze the economic indicators," said Avon Brazil's president, Ademar Serodio. "People (there) live in places where there are no banks, no infrastructure, no major employers and payments are made through bartered goods."

Avon discovered, however, that it was exactly for those reasons that it was successful. The company's flexible system allowed representatives to be paid in chickens, eggs, gold, fruit, vegetables or services. And because these remote communities were so cut off from commerce, they contained the pent-up demand of potential consumers who wanted to look and smell good.

"Everybody thinks a miner is like an animal," said Juarez Araujao Limas, 36, covered with rust-colored dirt as he tried to wrestle grams of gold out of the ground in the sweltering heat of Patrocinio. "But we're normal people who want normal products like everybody else. Nobody likes to get next to a good-looking girl smelling bad."

They'd better not, said Eliene da Silva Costa, a 20-year-old prostitute and Avon customer in one of the four brothels that serve Patrocinio.

"When a guy is smelling, we send him away," Costa said.

While the Amazon market, growing at 50% annually, has been a huge plus for the world's largest cosmetics company, it has been an even greater blessing to the company's 42,000 regional representatives, part of Avon Brazil's 400,000-strong national sales force.

In a country where the vast majority of women are confined to menial jobs, particularly in undeveloped rural areas, the opportunity to work independently in a more professional setting has been as much a psychological as economic boost for thousands of women. It has awakened in them abilities that many did not know they possessed.

"Women who had nothing are learning for the first time to be independent, that they can have control of their lives," said Maria das Gracas Gomes, 44, who manages 1,000 sales representatives in an Amazon area slightly larger than Austria. "They learn to relate better to other people, to find (their) own place in society. It was the same thing I discovered in myself--that I was capable of doing things that I didn't think of before."

These saleswomen, who operate entirely on a 30% commission, make $250 to $700 a month--figures far above the regional average and in many cases higher than the national average.

But it is a tough way to make a living.

Traveling through the region is difficult at best. The saleswomen must venture down treacherous rivers to pick up products and make deliveries. Periodically, boats capsize and representatives lose their products, and sometimes more.

Last month, three people were killed and one Avon representative barely survived when their small boat went over a waterfall after the boat lost its engine as they were venturing upriver to make a pickup.

And bandits are always lurking, so salespeople go in armed. Three Avon representatives have been robbed and killed.

The most dangerous areas are the rough-and-tumble mining camps, places like Abacaxi or Castelo de Sonhos (Castle of Dreams), which resemble a scene from a Clint Eastwood Western. Almost weekly, one of the camp's many pistol-packing miners ends up dead after a saloon brawl or an argument over a mining claim.

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