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Hevea brasiliensis: Rubber Barons in the Amazon

Written by Luka Dursan (B.A. student, Carleton University).
Nominated by Professors A. Diptee & D. Kinsey.

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Image: Gathering rubber in Brazil, 1907. See http://commons.wikimedia.org.

Despite its calm and unassuming place in society today, the history of rubber is tumultuous and violent, with roots in dark times for many people of the world. Two centuries ago, rubber was an isolated and ignored resource in Central and South America. Very quickly, it became a widespread and important necessity in this newly industrializing world, influencing social and economic factors that continue to affect us today. In Brazil, these effects, both today and in the past, are evaluated in a global context and are necessary to understanding broader implications around the world.

The story of rubber begins in the Americas, where it has been known to humans for millennia. Newcomers to the continent mostly ignored rubber; in its natural state it is brittle and weak when colder, yet sticky when warm (Schultes, 1993, 480). It was not until the vulcanization (a chemical process by which the rubber is cured) of rubber in the 1840s that its commercial potential was realized (for use in clothing, as a building material and for industrial purposes) (Schultes, 1993, 481). The demand for natural rubber increased, and the British Empire moved to gain control of the resource itself. Seeds of rubber trees were taken from Brazil in 1876 and used to establish plantations in Malaysia, India, as well as in parts of Africa in the ensuing decades (Schultes, 1993, 479). However, rubber remained in the domain of its homeland in the Americas for at least until the 20th century.

Before the production of the resource shifted heavily to these new areas, Brazil experienced a boom in rubber production from 1879-1912. Rubber produced in the Amazon basin accounted for 50% of world rubber between the 1860s and 1910s (Coomes, 1994, 241). Previous to the emphasis on rubber as a resource, the Amazon basin was unattractive for settlement. The brutal nature of the Amazon rainforest coupled with the lack of enticing mineral reserves left the Amazon basin mostly uninhabited for the colonial period, with the exception of a few native groups. However, this all changed rapidly with the demand for natural rubber, as the trees were most widespread in the basin (Barham, 1994, 73). The nature of Brazilian rubber production was focused around untamed wild rubber trees on estates, not on plantations but intermingled with the forest. A massive migration occurred of both workers and entrepreneurs to the region, all looking towards the growing wealth of the rubber boom. The city of Manaus quickly became a bustling urban and merchant center, filled with rubber barons who controlled the production in the basin. Other cities grew from indirect involvement in the rubber boom, such as Belém, which became the main exporting centre of the Amazon rubber industry (Barham, 1994, 105). In 1840, Brazil exported 388 tonnes of Rubber. In 1860 this figure became 2,700 tonnes, and by 1879, 10,000 tonnes of rubber were exported from Brazil (Resor, 1977, 342). Prices continued to rise despite the increase in production until 1910, when widespread rubber production became more popular in Africa and Asia. These new plantations were far more efficient than estates of wild rubber trees. They also did not have to worry about local threats to the rubber tree found in the Americas, and they could avoid the harshness of the Amazon rainforest. Cheap Asian rubber flooded the market, and Brazilian producers could not compete (Barham, 1994, 73).  Thus, production quickly shifted away from Brazil, and emigration from those previously affluent regions became common, undoing the economic development of the past decades. However, the administrative development of these regions remained, alongside the settlement patterns and the established economic networks (Barham, 1994, 103).  The presence of the Brazilian state was finally established throughout the depths of Amazonia.

The impact of the Amazon rubber boom was noted by contemporaries, and the Brazilian story of rubber quickly gained a reputation of opulence, exploitation and cruelty, not unlike other developments in rubber around the world (Barham, 1994, 74). Despite the influx of labour following the boom, the extreme intensity of the labour required meant that rubber barons were always looking for new sources of labour. The abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888 (and the slave trade decades earlier) led to new alternatives, with a focused on ‘paid’ labour (not indentured labour, as one might expect) both for natives and whites (Coomes, 1994, 242). Men were coerced into work and brought out to the Amazon basin with promise of good payment, good working conditions and a return trip. However, it was inherently exploitative, as the men were underpaid heavily and made to work in horrible working conditions with a very high mortality rate in the Amazon rainforest (Schultes, 1993, 483). They had no alternatives, since they were unable to go back home as a trek through the forest was impossible. The natives had a worse experience, as villages in the basin were often violently attacked and men taken to gather rubber under the same conditions. Hundreds of thousands of labourers died, many of them native. Tribes were pushed back and wiped out due to disease and Brazilians restricting their access to traditional areas (Schultes, 1993, 483).

The legacy of rubber in the 19th century, though great, pales in comparison to its influence throughout the 20th century and continuing today. With the growing demand for rubber following the prominence of automobiles and aircraft, the necessity of rubber became more apparent than ever (Resor, 1977, 344). However, during the Second World War, with the occupation of rubber producing regions in south-east Asia by the Empire of Japan, the allies desired an alternative. Indeed, this actually led to a second rubber boom (with the accompanying increase in economic activity and migration) in the Amazon, but this was short lived and ended soon after the war. During the war, the development of synthetic rubber made from petroleum was spurred, and this shift proved to be permanent (Resor, 1977, 364). Indeed, two thirds of the world’s rubber produced today is synthetic (Coomes, 1994, 254). The emphasis on synthetic rubber tied into the grander importance of petroleum, leading rubber having a large part to play in the oil politics of the mid to late 20th century. Rubber is absolutely essential in any industrialized society, and its fundamental nature has led to rubber shortages being practically unheard of in recent decades. However, natural rubber remains useful in clothing and architecture, with 84 percent of today’s natural rubber produced in South-East Asia, a legacy of British influences in the 19th century (Kumar, 1992).

The influence of rubber on the world stage only truly began to blossom after the end of the industry in Brazil. Regardless, the legacy of rubber is undeniable, and all over the world (not just in areas it was produced) the development of rubber, both natural and synthetic, has been intensely transformative in numerous economic and social ways.

References

Barham, B. (1994). Reinterpreting the Amazon Rubber Boom: Investment, the State, and Dutch Disease. Latin American Research Review29(2), 73-109.

Coomes, O. (1994). The Amazon Rubber Boom: Labor Control, Resistance, and Failed Plantation Development Revisited. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 29(2), 231-257.

Kumar, K. (1992). Romancing Rubber. Economic and Political Weekly27(26), 1306.

Resor, R. (1977). Rubber in Brazil: Dominance and Collapse, 1876-1945. The Business History Review51(3), 341-366.

Schultes, R. (1993). The Domestication of the Rubber Tree: Economic and Sociological Implications. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 52(4), 479-485.

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