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published on September 28, 2003
Letter from Manaus by Mark Aitchison other columns

The Tree that Weeps: A History of Amazon Rubber

Manaus - The story of the late 19th century Brazilian Rubber Boom, like it’s Northern counterpart the Klondike Gold Rush, is a drama of “plata” and poverty, love and loss, beauty and brutality. But long before the wonder product rubber became known to the developed world Indians of the Americas played with rubber balls, protected their feet with rubber shoes, and used rubber to waterproof weapons and caulk holes in their canoes. The Maya called it caa-o-chu, meaning “the tree that weeps.” When rubber later became a crucial cog in the gears of the industrial revolution this melancholy name would not be forgotten. The precious white tears of the caa-o-chu represented the suffering and death of thousands of innocent Americans.

By the 1750s, army boots and knapsacks were being sent from Lisbon to Belem to be waterproofed and by 1800, Belem was exporting rubber shoes to New England. There is some debate as to when the boom really began, but most historians agree it was triggered by a series of coincidental inventions. In 1823, a Scotsman named Charles Macintosh began to manufacture rubber-coated cloth. Simultaneously Thomas Hancock developed a method to make raw rubber pliable. And in 1839 Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process and the versatile rubber we know today was born. Rubber before vulcanization had never been perfect; it hardened like brick in the cold and melted away like water in the heat. As wonderful as they looked Charles Mackintosh’s waterproof coats weren’t much good in winter nor in summer. Goodyear’s process combined rubber with sulfur and made rubber elastic, durable and useful in any kind of climate. Vulcanized rubber revolutionized the world and lead to many more wonderful inventions. For one rubber contraceptives appeared in the 1840s. With John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the first pneumatic rubber tire in 1888 the Rubber Boom reached its peak. Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford became millionaires in the United States with their automobiles and rubber tires.

In Brazil the rubber barons of Manaus and Belem were living the vida dolce. Manaus, which had been founded by the Portuguese as a small garrison village in the 1660’s, became the richest city in the Americas almost overnight. The barons lived in palaces filled with imported furniture, chandeliers and pianos. They bought (and laundered) their clothes from London and Paris, transacted business in gold coins, drank in luxurious cafes, and rode through the city on electric trolleys, the first in the Americas.

Meanwhile, the seringueiros, or rubber tappers, worked like dogs in the forests with little return for their efforts. If he hoped to make any kind of profit, the seringueiro had to tap at least a hundred trees within the first four hours of the morning, before the sun thickened the resin and sealed off the holes. The hundred trees would yield approximately twelve pounds of latex. Then, he would go to his shack to cure it over a fire of palm nuts into a ball of rubber weighing seventy to eighty pounds, called a pele.

Most of seringuiros lived in a perpetual cycle of debt. The aviador, or middleman to whom the seringuiero would sell his rubber peles, kept his warehouse full of canned food, equipment, and clothing. The seringuiero, who received little for his harvest, could buy these goods only on credit as he was forever without cash. With each new harvest, his debt would be deducted from his earnings, and he never managed to get ahead. He was bound to his aviador like a slave.

In the Peruvian Amazon thousands of Indians were enslaved outright. One of the richest rubber barons in the Amazon was Suarez of Bolivia. His solution to the shortage of labor was the creation of a harem of Indian slave girls he made available to his visiting friends and guests. He bred his own supply of serengueiros and inspired the Nazi’s to create their love camps 50 years later.

Another notorious rubber baron was Julio Arana, owner of The Peruvian Amazon Company. He worked his way up from a poor hat seller to one of the richest men in South America. To his friends, he was the perfect gentleman. He was a man of taste, more European than Latin in style and dress. Unlike his wild, debauched brothers he believed in family and hard work before all else.

Arana created his empire through the dubious purchase of 11.5 thousand square miles of rainforest along the Putumayo River, a disputed region between Colombia and Peru. It was loaded with wild rubber trees, but it was also the home of fifty thousand Bora, Andoke, Huitoto, and Ocaina Indians.

Arana sent a militia of armed black men from Barbados into the jungle to round up the Indians. They recruited thirty thousand Indians and placed them in company-owned villages, from where they were forced to collect rubber. Soon, rumors began to circulate about the cruel treatment of the Indians working in Arana’s new territory. A court of inquiry five years later revealed that all but eight thousand of the fifty thousand Indians in the region had been killed. Arana’s operations amounted to nothing less than genocide.

Acknowledging that his Bolivian rubber was far from his main markets, Suarez began construction of a railway known as the Madeira-Mamoré railway. Six thousand foreign laborers died working on the railway, which was never completed. Engineers referred to the project cruelly as “Mad Maria.” The Boom had finally gone Bust. (For more on the Madeira-Mamoré, click here.) In the meantime the British, led by plant collectors Richard Spruce and Henry Wickham, had successfully replanted Brazilian Rubber in huge plantations of Ceylon and Malaysia. The South Americans only learned what hit them when it was too late.

During the Second World War these “new” plantations of rubber in the Far East were taken over by the Japanese - a warning still unheeded today - and countries of the Alliance were forced to return to Brazil in order to collect much needed rubber for the war effort. The resultant (second) boom put to work tens of thousands of “soldados de borracha” (rubber soldiers) mostly impoverished Brazilians from the arid Northeast. (For more on the rubber soldiers, click here.)

Interest in American rubber was kept up after the war led by the famous ethnobotanist Richard Schultes of Harvard University. Years or dedicated fieldwork enabled Schultes to identify the hardiest and most productive rubber specimens in the Northwest Amazon/Rio Negro watershed. Plantations of blight disease resistant rubber were planned in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica by the American Rubber Corporation. But without warning the project was scrubbed; many say in favor of the emergent field of petroleum-based products and synthetic rubber.

Despite the hopes and fears surrounding the new age of synthetics natural rubber continues to be an important and vital product in the developed world, unique and irreplaceable in many cases. The second half of the 20th century has seen the trade in American rubber all but dry up. Far Eastern plantations, now in the hands of weak national governments, still provide most of the world’s supply of natural rubber. At any time this supply might be disrupted by civil war or terrorism. Leaf blight disease threatens to destroy this supply once again, plants which have never been rejuvenated since they were born of Wickham and Spruce’s seedlings.

Brazilian rubber is today collected by forest workers as part of a smorgasbord of forest products that also include Brazil nuts, cupuaçu fruit and rosewood oil. Trade in all these products is heavily subsidized by the Brazilian government when the industry should be either revitalized or abandoned altogether. Brazilian rubber is most often seen in arts and crafts and little else these days.

Considering the pain and suffering endured by so many in the name of American rubber perhaps it is just as well that the business be left to flounder. That or substantial investment and development should be to put in motion to once and for all create the plantations of American rubber Schultes had envisioned. Rubber is still a valuable commodity today, the world over. American plantations would insure that good rubber is always available, at fair prices and without risk of terrorism or disease, to those who require it in this part of the world.

Visit the website of Mark’s company Swallows and Amazon Tours.

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