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The Rubber Army

Rubber’s Legacy

Written by Kalila M. S. Dahm (Undergraduate Student, Carleton University).

Nominated by Professors A. Diptee & D. Kinsey.

On June 12 2014, officers used tear gas on crowds before Brazil’s opening FIFA match win against Croatia in São Paulo, Brazil (BBC News, 2014).  On the surface it seemed that the protests stemmed  from increased transportation costs. However, as protests escalated, it became clear that there were a number of issues that frustrated the public including endemic corruption, poor education and health services, and high spending on sporting events, like the World Cup (Hochstetler 2013). For several years Brazil appeared to be earning a more powerful status in the global market, even earning a place in Goldman Sachs’ 2003 “BRIC” moniker for emerging markets, yet economic problems nevertheless began to emerge (Sweig, 2010).  To make up for these economic hardships, Brazil took to its rainforests: as of 2013, an area of the Amazon larger than Germany has been turned into pasture, plantations or farmland to try and meet increasing global demand for commodities like soybeans and beef (Tollefson 2013).

Brazil rubber

This is not the first time in Amazonian economic history industries such as these have played a pivotal role: the deforestation and harvest of the Amazon very closely parallels the rubber boom that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both of these periods of Brazilian, and by extension Amazonian, history are characterized by massive growth and prosperity. In analyses that offer a long run perspective, it is easiest to draw on the political ecology of underdevelopment to answer why the boom did not lead to sustained economic growth and social change (Bradford and Coomes, 1994).

To understand the ramifications of the rubber boom, Bradford Barham and Oliver Coomes (1994) explain the political ecology interpretation as “the underdevelopment of Amazonia and marginalization of its rural people.” Grasping the severity of the impact of underdevelopment is best understood from the working conditions of the rubber tappers, who also tend to be among the marginalized rural and poor population.

An analysis of the situation during World War II, makes the situation clear.  As a result of World War II, demands for rubber grew exponentially. To meet this need, the Brazilian government forcibly displaced approximately 50,000 to 55,000 poor Brazilians to the Amazon to create the “Rubber Army.” From there, the rubber soldiers (the tappers) were left to their own fate: many died due to disease, like malaria or yellow fever, or attacks from wild animals, like snakes or jaguars (Rocha & Watts, 2013). A member of the Rubber Army, Alcidino dos Santos, reported he earned a wage of 50 cents a day (Rohter, 2006). When the war ended, the government’s promises of compensation and paid tickets home were never fulfilled. In May of 2014, the Brazilian Congress finally approved a plan to compensate the rubber soldiers. Roughly 6,000 survivors (between 80-90 years old) received a one-time payment of approximately 11,000 dollars and compensation was promised for about 7,000 descendants of deceased workers (BBC News, 2014).

It should not be forgotten that the Amazon was, until Asian rubber plantations joined the world market in the 20th century, the premier supplier of rubber in the global market supplying roughly 60 percent of the world’s demand at the time (Reisz, 2007).  Extracting rubber from the Amazon, set Brazil on an economic trajectory that did not serve it well in the long run, as it ultimately led to reduced future possibilities for productive, and extractive, economic opportunities. The continual dependence, by local elites, on resource extraction created export earnings and developed an economy that undermined the resource base on which the region depended (Barham & Coomes, 1994). This has resulted in a continuous cycle of resource extraction, environmental destruction, impoverishment and underdevelopment.

But what was rubber so desperately needed for? The rise of the popularity of rubber can be contributed to the invention of the solid rubber bike tire in 1890, after a series of important bicycle races in Scotland (BBC News, 2008). From there, rubber’s industrial use expanded and was used in everything from hoses to washers to diaphragms for birth control (Harms, 1975).   Since its use in the production of bike tires, European demand for rubber increased exponentially between 1850-1910.

There is no question that rubber has had an important influence on the world.  It has facilitated the growth of many industries which have allowed for conveniences that we now take for granted.  Unfortunately, there is also another history to be told.  This is a history of the people who have paid the ultimate price – through their labour, super-exploitation, and marginalization – so that the rest of us could benefit from all the advantages that rubber facilitates.  Quite often, the stories of these people are forgotten and untold in the narratives of rubber’s history.


Barham, Bradford & Coomes, Oliver. (1994a). “Reinterpreting the Amazon rubber room: Investment, the state, and Dutch disease.” Latin American Research Review.

Barham, Bradford & Coomes, Oliver. (1994b) “The Amazon Rubber Boom: Labour Control,     Resistance, and Failed Plantation Development Revisited.” The Hispanic American    Historical Review, 74(2), 231-257.

BBC News. (2014, June 12). Brazil World Cup: Clashes at Sao Paulo and Rio protests. Retrieved from

BBC News. (2014, May 14). Brazil to compensate rubber workers from World War Two. Retrieved from

Harms, Robert. (1975). “The End of Red Rubber: A Reassessment.” The Journal of African History 16(1), 73-88.

Hochstetler, Kathryn. (2013, June 20). “#MudaBrasil: The Protests are Too Broad for Their Own Good.” Foreign Affairs.

Reisz, Emma. (2007). “Curiosity and Rubber in the French Atlantic.” Atlantic Studies, 4(1).

Rocha, Jan & Watts, Jonathan. (2013, December 20). “Brazil salutes Chico Mendes 25 years after his murder.” The Guardian. Retrieved from     after-murder

Rohter, Larry. (2006, November 23). “Of Rubber and Blood in Brazilian Amazon.” The New York Times.

Sweig, Julia. (2010, November/December). “A New Global Player: Brazil’s Far-Flung Agenda.”   Foreign Affairs.

Tollefson, Jeff. (2013, March/April). “A Light in the Forest: Brazil’s Fight to Save the Amazon   and Climate-Change Diplomacy.” Foreign Affairs.





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