Rubber fever

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plantation hevea  caoutchouc

In 2009, 8.9 million tons of natural rubber were produced throughout the world. This accounts for about 40% of the world’s rubber; the rest comes from elastomers made from oil. In spite of the development of synthetic rubber, natural rubber is still essential as its resistance is incomparable to any other. The fact that airplane tyres are made out of 100% natural rubber proves this.

Today, 95% of rubber is produced in Southeast Asia, and more particularly in Thailand and Indonesia. However, the rubber tree (hevea) from which the latex used to make rubber is extracted, comes from the Amazon. The Indians called it “the tree that weeps” and used it to caulk their dugout canoes’ waterways. For a long time, latex was hard to handle because it melted at high temperatures and became hard and brittle at cold temperatures. Charles Goodyear was the first to finally vulcanize it in 1839. This process – named vulcanization in tribute to the roman god of fire, Vulcan – made latex resistant to differences in temperature and launched the rubber industry.

Indeed, tyres first appeared at the end of the 19th century. Rubber, which was needed for the development of the car industry, rapidly became an important economic issue. From that moment on, the Amazon Forest became the focus of keen interest which could be compared to the gold rush: rubber fever.

Thousands of men lured by profit penetrated into the deepest forest and many towns were born. Out of all of them, Manaus symbolises this golden era the most. This old garrison town connected to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore to the world, by the Amazon River, became one of the most prosperous towns in the world. As the palaces in which the rubber barons would hold receptions worthy of those in Europe were being built, telephones, electricity and tramways came to the heart of the jungle.

This pomp and luxury contrasted starkly with the reality of the seringueiros (the workers who collected the latex) who were exploited in conditions close to slavery.

From 1876 onwards, the Amazonian rubber empire started to decline following the incredible theft of 70 000 rubber tree seeds by an Englishman named Henry Wickham. The rubber barons nicknamed him “the executioner of Amazonas”. Less than 3 000 seeds sprouted but this was enough to introduce rubber trees in British colonies, firstly in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then in Malaysia and Indonesia. Stocks in the Amazon collapsed. The latex producers sold their land at low prices to cattle breeders who razed the forest to the ground and made the seringueiros redundant. In 1975, one of them called Chico Mendes created a union to defend the Amazon forest and those who live there. This charismatic man obtained the creation of forest reserves to stop breeders from deforesting, but he was assassinated on the orders of a wealthy owner in 1988. To this day, he is still a symbol encapsulated by one of his quotes: “At first, I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees; then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon forest. Now, I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

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