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Rubber tree – A genocide undercover behind a big business

November 25, 2019

The exploitation of the rubber tree from the last quarter of the 19th century in the Amazon presents a double reading.

One related to capitalist technical progress for the global automobile industry, and the process of expanded reproduction of capital for the enrichment of a small and unscrupulous elite, known as the rubber barons.

And another reading loaded with death.


The exploitation of the rubber tree: progress and genocide of the hand.

The one of progress is inscribed in the need, first, to offer tires for the nascent automobile industry and that had a very rapid expansion, and then, two decades later, in the need to attend to the transport of military troops during the First World War (1914 -1918).

The other story, that of the exploitation and genocide of the indigenous peoples who extracted the product, took place in the jungles of the Amazon basin where it grew wild rubber tree ( Hevea brasiliensis ), which was, among other uses, the natural raw material used to make car tires.

rubber tree
Rubber tree ( Hevea brasiliensis ) . Source: Luis Alfredo Quiroga… [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The two stories, that of industrial progress and that of the exploitation of Amazonian indigenous people , were mediated by the greed and cruelty of businessmen who, using armed foremen, used inhumane methods to enrich themselves by sowing terror and death in the Amazon.

The first rubber fever (1879-1912)

The exploitation of rubber at the end of the 19th century meant a time of great prosperity for the rubber barons and the Amazonian trade, since the nascent automotive industry, which was developing in Europe and the United States, demanded more and more rubber to produce tires.

This growing demand for the raw material caused its price to rise and the consolidation of some Amazonian regions, from where the rubber was extracted, and of some Amazonian cities from where it was exported.

During that period began the massive incursion of many settlers and workers in the Amazon jungle, following the course of the main navigable rivers , in search of native rubber.

At that time cities grew and became rich in the middle of the jungle, such as Belem and Manaus, in Brazil , and Iquitos , in Peru . Those cities were modernized with the first public services, and ostentatious urbanism.

Manaus was the most prosperous city in Brazil: the only one that had electricity networks and a sewage system. It had 15 km of electric tram.

It boasted of having, in the middle of the jungle, large and dazzling buildings such as the Amazonas Theater (1897) and a majestic Palace of Justice, in a region where the law of the strongest prevailed.

Amazon Theater
Amazon Theater / Manaus-Brazil
Author: Karine Hermes ( CCby4.0 )

There were luxurious brothels with prostitutes brought from Paris or Baghdad. Researchers point out that, for example, a 13-year-old girl, virgin, Polish, was offered for $400.

The excess reached such a point that the dirty clothes of the rubber barons were sent to London or Lisbon to be washed.

Something similar, but of smaller proportions, happened in the Peruvian city of Iquitos , with its large mansions, such as the Morey house, or the rise of the Iron House , which, apparently, was designed by the Frenchman Gustave Eiffel.

Iquitos-Iron House
Iquitos-Iron House
Source: DiverDave [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Iquitos-Iron House
Iquitos-Iron House
Source: DiverDave [CC BY-SA 3.0]

That conspicuous consumption crumbled, false prosperity deflated, and cities stagnated.

A decline that historians attribute to two main reasons.

Rubber tree biopiracy

The first was that the British had illegally extracted seeds from the Brazilian rubber tree, the first notable and well-documented case of international biopiracy, and had propagated and planted those seeds over large areas of Ceylon, British Malaya and sub-Saharan Africa. substituting the supply of Amazonian rubber for the cheaper rubber produced in the British colonies.

Some 70,000 Amazonian rubber seeds were stolen in 1873 by British explorer and agent Henry Wickham.

Rubber Tree Seeds
Seeds of the Rubber Tree / Serengeira / Rubber tree seeds.
Source: Luis Fernández García ( cc-by-sa-2.5-es )

Of that total, only 4% of the total survived. In 1876 some 2,000 seeds were planted in the British colonies of Ceylon and Singapore. And then other seeds were sown in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

By 1898 there was also a large rubber tree plantation in Malaysia. Rubber production in Asia expanded because the plants had higher productivity than those in the Amazon.

These were renewed plants, genetically improved and in large, well-planned plantations, offering a product at a lower cost than the Amazonian.

And prices fell globally. Purchases of Amazonian rubber were reduced and replaced by cheaper Asian rubber, because the product did not have to travel long distances through the jungle to be marketed, and there were efficient railways and ports close to the production sites. .

Thus, the extraction economy in the Amazon collapsed, in what has been called the first rubber boom.

Synthetic rubber.

The second reason that influenced the decline of the foreign trade of Amazonian rubber in its first stage was the invention of synthetic rubber, whose use replaced that of natural rubber around 1925.

Synthetic rubber was the result of many advances that began in 1879 by Bouchardat, until it was perfected in 1940 and marketed under the name Ameripol.

Synthetic rubber (Ameripol)
Synthetic rubber (Ameripol). This worker stands in a “purge” tank, almost ready to touch a polymerizer tank at the BF Goodrich Company’s Akron, Ohio synthetic rubber plant (1942). The latex mixing tank increases the uniformity of these synthetic solutions by mixing the contents of seven or eight of these tanks. Goodrich (Public Domain)

In that first period, rubber was extracted not only from the Amazon jungle of Brazil, but also from Bolivia , Peru , Colombia , Ecuador and Venezuela.

In Peru, the center of the boom was Iquitos, Tarapoto, Moyobamba, Pucallpa, Lamas and Leticia (then belonging to Peru).

In Iquitos, large mansions were built and the lifestyle of the rubber tappers and urban dwellers changed, while the indigenous people became increasingly miserable.

Beneficiaries of the exploitation of rubber in the Amazon

The great beneficiaries of the rubber trade were the commercial houses, such as those of Julio César Arana, Luis Felipe Morey and Cecilio Hernández.

Julio Cesar Arana of the Eagle
Julio César Arana del Águila (1864-1952) Peruvian rubber businessman and politician.
Source: Courret study. Lima, c. 1912 [Public domain]

Casa Arana was the most powerful, associated with an English company, to become the Peruvian American Company , with headquarters in London and shares on the Stock Exchange. He extended his domain to the Colombian rubber zones of Putumayo, where Casa Arana began to operate in 1904.

In Bolivia, rubber has been exploited since the 1870s in some areas of the upper course of the Beni River, the Madera and the lower Mamoré.

In 1880, upon discovering the confluence of the Beni and the Mamoré, and its communication with the Amazon, the exploitation of rubber spread rapidly to the north, facilitating the migration of Creoles and mestizos to the interior of the Beni territory, forcibly incorporating indigenous labor to harvest.

There, in the Beni, the Casa Suárez Hermanos dominated, using the same procedures of subjugation of the indigenous people that the system of debt slavery advocated.

the rubber tree

The rubber tree ( Hevia brasiliensis ), or seringueira in Portuguese, is a tree 20 to 30 m tall, with a straight, cylindrical trunk about 30 to 60 cm in diameter, with light white wood. It belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family.

Hevia brasiliensis
Hevia brasiliensis Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen [Public domain]
rubber tree
Rubber Tree: Image by Simon Steinberger on Pixabay

A white liquid or latex, also called rubber, which is composed of 35% hydrocarbons, is extracted by incision from its thick stem.

Latex is a substance with a pH of 7 to 7.2, neutral, but if it is allowed to dry for more than 12 hours, the pH drops to 5, and it coagulates spontaneously forming a polymer, known as rubber.

However, it acquires impurities and becomes very perishable, prone to decomposition. To avoid that problem, the rubber is heated and vulcanized. Vulcanization is a process, discovered in 1839, in which rubber is heated, with the addition of sulfur, to harden it and make it more resistant.

The additive modifies the composition of the polymer, forming crosslinks or bridges between the different polymer chains. In such a way that the rubber becomes resistant to solvents and changes in ambient temperature.

The latex or rubber is obtained from several plant species, such as Castilloa elastica, Gutapercha palaquium, Ficus elastica, etc., but the preferred one, due to its quality, was the Hevea brasiliensis species.

The second rubber rush

The rubber boom began in 1879, mainly in the Brazilian Amazon, and spread until 1912 to other Amazonian countries, such as Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela, where the rubber plant grew wild.

In 1942 there was a second rubber boom that lasted until 1945, due to the incidents of World War II (1939-1945).

Manaus, on the banks of the Negro River, in the Brazilian Amazon, was the main export port for rubber obtained in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and for harvesting Brazil nuts ( Bertholletia excelsa).

For the rubber, indigenous labor was used, not exactly for the payment of a salary, perhaps not very interesting for the economy of the native communities, with little contact with urban settlements and the market, but for the exchange or exchange for utensils, weapons, tools and clothing, which the merchant delivered at an increasingly higher price, and which were delivered in advance, and then the value owed was deducted with the delivery of the product collected, poorly weighed and with an increasingly lower reception price.

Thus, an unpayable debt was generated that promoted debt slavery, from which the indigenous were never freed and was the basis of a system of subjection of the person to a relationship of cruel exploitation.

That was the economic system applied by the great rubber exporting houses, such as that of Julio César Arana (1864-1952), the most cruel and powerful of the rubber barons, who had his family residence in a luxurious mansion in London. Another important exporting house was that of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald (1862-1897).

Manaus was, around 1914, the main outlet for Amazon products to the Atlantic Ocean.

Amazonian products arrived there from the Peruvian jungle, both rubber and Brazil nuts or chestnuts. They came from Loreto, with its capital in Iquitos, or from the department of Madre de Dios, whose capital was Puerto Maldonado, and products were also received from neighboring Bolivia and Brazil itself.

Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa)

In part, the Madeira-Mamoré railway was used, with 364 km in length, begun in 1907 and completed in 1912, under the direction of the American businessman Percival Farquhar.

The fall in the price of Amazonian rubber, the competition of the Panama Canal (active since August 1914) and the heavy rains in the region condemned the abandonment of the railway, which was reduced to its minimum expression as of 1930. Today only 7 km remain in operation for tourist purposes.

The indigenous people, who collected the latex, were obliged to deliver a certain number of arrobas to the merchants.

If they did not, they suffered punishments and even mutilations of parts of their bodies, to instill fear in the others and the obligatory nature of the commitment. To dominate them, the indigenous groups were hunted down and forced to move to the rubber tree-producing regions, forcibly removed from their lands and taken to live with ethnic groups from other cultures.

In the Putumayo river basin alone , 40,000 indigenous people died , out of the 50,000 who inhabited it at the beginning of the 20th century.

The extraction of Amazonian rubber reached its minimum expression in 1912, replaced by Asian rubber. But the evolution of the events of World War II created a second chance for the economy of the Amazon.

The Japanese forces, aligned with Germany against the Allies, invaded Malaysia, in the South Pacific, and other rubber areas came under the control of Japan, cutting off the supply of Asian rubber to England, producing a great shortage in the Allied countries.

The United States and England looked towards Brazil, presided over by Getulio Vargas, and established the Washington Agreement.

Brazil promised to increase its production from 18,000 t to 45,000 t, in a campaign of intervention in the Amazon known as the “rubber battle”.

To meet that goal required the recruitment of 100,000 workers. And its operations center was established in the city of Fortaleza, in the northeast of Brazil.

The company was organized by the Special Service for the Mobilization of Workers to the Amazon (SEMTA). The expenses caused by the transfer, equipment and food of this enormous contingent of workers was financed by the Rubber Development Company (RDC), at a cost of 100 dollars for each worker who arrived to sign up to work in the Amazon.

Most of the workers came from the Brazilian state of Ceará, in the northeast. From that enormous effort, a kind of epic was created that described the workers as “rubber soldiers”.

The economy of Manaus, Belén and other Amazonian cities was strengthened. In the end, once the objectives were met, many workers never returned: some 30,000 died from malaria or hepatitis, or did not survive the dangers of the jungle, and others, the majority, were abandoned to their fate in the Amazon, once the great war ended, in 1945.

The illustrated epic of rubber

Much literature has been written about the dramatic history of the exploitation of rubber and of the Amazonian indigenous people.

From the famous costumbrista novel of La Vorágine , by the Colombian novelist José Eustacio Rivera, to novels by contemporary writers such as Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa, with his “Manaus” , or “The Celt’s Dream” , by the Peruvian Mario Vargas-Llosa, Nobel Prize winner of literature.

Roger Casement in Putumayo
Roger Casement in Putumayo. Main character of the novel El Sueño del Celta by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas llona (Public Domain)

Or it has served as a theme for the realization of some great film productions, such as the exceptional Fitzcarraldo , in 1982, by German director Werner Herzog, starring Klaus Klinski. Or the valuable Colombian film “The Embrace of the Serpent ”, by director Ciro Guerra, in 2015, filmed in the Colombian Amazon to tell the story of two natural scientists.

One of them, Richard Evans Schultes, considered the greatest Amazonian botanist of the 20th century. In the background of these films, and of these literary works, is the bloody exploitation of the rubber tree in the jungle and the great suffering inflicted on the Amazonian indigenous people.

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