The Industrial Revolution created the demand, and the process of vulcanization the means, to exploit Brazil's unique Amazonian seringueiras (rubber trees). For centuries, indigenous Amazonians had collected rubber from the trees to make items such as water bags. But the rubber boom that began in the 1880s created an extractive industry in which seringalistas (rubber barons) achieved control of the forest through the forced labor of indigenous people, local mestiços and poverty-stricken migrants.
Each seringueiro (rubber tapper) family received up to 200 trees to tend. They carved trails in the forest to reach distant trees and tap the latex, the white sap that dipped from shallow cuts in the bark into cups hung below. Collecting the liquid, they formed it into large balls using the heat of wood fires. The balls became currency used to pay the seringalistas, at inflated prices, for housing, food, and fuel. Most fell into a cycle of debt designed to tie them to the seringalistas. Despite abuse and debt-peonage, rubber-tapping provided a livelihood that was relatively secure for the seringueiros given the lack of alternative employment in Brazil's northern and northeastern regions.
By World War I the Brazilian rubber market had collapsed and many seringueiros fled the rubber estates. During World War II, however, the demand for Brazilian rubber surged and the government impressed into service more than 54,000 "rubber soldiers," receiving payment for each from the U.S. government. When the war boom subsided, some seringueiros stayed on to control their own rubber trails and produce at a subsistence level for existing markets.
In the 1970s the seringueiros organized unions to defend themselves against government colonization schemes and investors from the south. Unionized seringueiros attracted international attention as defenders of a forest endangered by destructive development projects designed to reap quick profits through exotic wood extraction, gold mining, cattle grazing, and soybean cultivation.
To preserve their environmentally sustainable way of life, seringueiros joined ranks with indigenous people and ecologists to establish extractive reserves. The first was named in 1990 to honor Chico Mendes, a second-generation rubber tapper who personified the seringueiro struggle internationally until murdered by a cattle rancher in 1988. Studies have concluded that the extractive reserves have worked to raise seringueiro income and preserve portions of the Amazon rain forest.
Revkin, Andrew. The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004.
Weinstein, Barbara. The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.