Latin America was once the source of most of the world's natural rubber. It was gathered in the wild from various latex-bearing plants, principally Hevea brasiliensis, a tree native to the Amazon Basin. This species was transferred to Southeast Asia and, by 1913, when plantations there had begun production, the Amazon gathering trade largely collapsed, surviving in Brazil to the present only because of government subsidies. Factories for the production of tires and other rubber products have been in operation in several Latin American countries since the 1930s. Latin America now depends on synthetic rubber for most of its requirements. Synthetic rubber manufacturing plants were installed in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina by the 1950s.
Natural rubber is a product derived from latex, a milky white fluid produced by a number of plant species, probably as a protection against insects. Among those plants commercially exploited, the most important is Pará rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), a tree whose natural habitat is the lowland tropical rainforest of the southern tributaries of the Amazon River. Less important is caucho (Castilla elastica), a tree that grows from Central America to the western part of the Amazon basin. Another is guayule (Parthenium argentatum), a northern Mexican desert shrub that has been the object of fifty years of desultory experimentation.
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon knew of the elastic properties of latex. They had learned how to coagulate it by "smoking" it over an open fire, and they made various objects from it. By the late eighteenth century Portuguese colonial authorities were ordering waterproof boots and other articles of latex for their army. The trade in rubber was unimportant, however, until the late 1830s, when it was discovered simultaneously in Great Britain and the United States that rubber could be made to retain its elasticity by mixing it with sulphur and heating it. Numerous applications were quickly found for vulcanized rubber, from gaskets for steam engines to bumpers for railway cars, and demand grew immensely with the invention of the bicycle and of the automobile and with its use in electrical insulation.
Rubber trees, like other tropical species, grow extremely scattered in the forest. It was usual to strip the caucho tree of its bark to obtain the latex, a practice that resulted in a highly itinerant trade that brutalized its workers. The Pará rubber tree's bark was incised, or "tapped," to extract the latex. This practice may be continued for many years, but often the trees were damaged in haste or greed; as a result, rubber gathering spread rapidly ever further up the rivers. Steamboats, supplies, and labor recruiters, all financed in Belém and, ultimately, in London, accompanied this expansion. In 1876, however, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew obtained a shipment of rubber seeds, which it planted and sent on to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malaya (Malaysia). Through the efforts of a few dedicated colonial service botanists, by the turn of the century a vast plantation industry had been launched.
There were numerous attempts in Brazil and the Guianas to plant rubber, just as other native plants, such as cacao, had been domesticated there. All were failures, including the large plantations of the Ford Motor Company at Fordlândia and Belterra, founded near Santarém in the 1920s and abandoned in 1945. The Pará rubber tree, grown in close stands in its native habitat, is vulnerable to South American leaf blight, caused by the fungus Microcyclus ulei, and to other leaf diseases, none of which have found their way to Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, no wild specimen or cultivated clone has been found that combines high latex yield and high resistance.
During World War II the U.S. government, desperate to replace lost Southeast Asian sources of supply, tried to stimulate wild rubber gathering in the Western Hemisphere. Despite large investments in transport, public health, and labor recruitment, only a trifling increase in exports was achieved, at the further cost of disorganizing the trade in other extracted products. The war effort did institute in Brazil a policy that was continued for nearly fifty years—a guaranteed price for natural rubber. Brazilian rubber manufacturers were obliged to pay a price double or triple that charged in the world market. This policy, however, failed to stimulate the gathering trade, and by 1951 Brazil was obliged to import rubber from Southeast Asia. The investment during World War II still resonates in the early twenty-first century because the 1988 Brazilian constitution stated that World War II rubber workers should receive a state pension. However, in 2006, many workers still have not received anything due to the difficulty of finding documentation.
Later attempts to cultivate the Pará rubber tree in the Western Hemisphere have mostly failed to overcome the parasitic problem, but rubber planting has developed on a modest scale in Brazil. Recent efforts to establish "extractive reserves" in the Amazon gave new life to rubber gathering, which was moribund, but the ending of Brazil's rubber price guarantee has rendered these reserves much more problematic.
Rubber tire manufacture began in the larger countries of Latin America before World War II. In the early 1960s, synthetic rubber plants were installed in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. By 1989, the Latin American countries were producing only 60,000 tons of natural rubber, while they were obliged to import 225,000 tons from Southeast Asia. In Latin America, synthetics equal 66 percent of consumption; by comparison, India, a developing country that grows all of its natural rubber, is able to restrict its use of environmentally less desirable synthetic rubbers to 21 percent of consumption.
From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, considerable planting of Pará rubber was carried out in Brazil in various non-Amazonian states, in the hope that the leaf blight fungus would not appear in cooler, drier regions. Although rubber trees were surviving on Brazilian plantations in the 1990s, more time was needed to evaluate their long-term resistance to plant disease.
As of the early twenty-first century, Brazil has had only limited success in regenerating natural rubber production. However, the project still receives support from environmental groups, who see natural rubber gathering as a less environmentally damaging form of development.
Walter E. Hardenburg, The Putumayo: The Devil's Paradise (1912).
Dudley M. Phelps, Rubber Developments in Latin America (1957).
Loren G. Polhamus, Rubber: Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization (1962).
Roberto Santos, História econômica da Amazônia (1800–1920) (1980).
Barbara Weinstein, The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920 (1983).
Nelson Prado Alves Pinto, A política da borracha no Brasil (1984).
Paul Holliday and K. H. Chee, South American Leaf Blight of Hevea Rubber (1986).
Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber (1987).
Barham, Brad, and O. T. Coomes. Prosperity's Promise: The Amazon Rubber Boom and Distorted Economic Development. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Stanfield, Michael Edward. Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850–1933. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.