Thursday, November 15, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Rubber Boom and the Rubber Barons of the Iquitos Slave Trade (Part Two)

The Amazon river is the premier navigable river on earth, and to what purpose? The Amazon region itself has little to offer to the world of Modernity that can't be found nearer and better almost everywhere else, with the possible exceptions of scenery and exotic culture. There is so little of use in the Amazon that in Iquitos, for example, a rush to pave all the city streets results in a black pancake later over a dusty hardpan, there being so little gravel available in the region that the tarmac is soft to the point that on a warm day, and aren't they all, a motorcycle kickstand sinks into the pavement to the point the bike falls over onto the ground, digging even more pockmarks into what a day before was a pristine layer of glistening back for as far as the eye can see. There's not much here. The topsoil is so thin that agriculture is a menace to the land, once stripped off for crops, it being nothing more than fine yellow sand that would in short order turn into Sahara style desert. Forestry is less than what one finds in northern Europe, and the fine woods one desires for furniture is better found in Asia. Bananas are abundant in Ecuador, but moreso in Central America and Africa, and better to eat there. The Amazon has, in short, little to recommend to the world at large. The Amazon is amazing, indeed, but it really doesn't go anywhere. For a short period over 100 years ago the Amazon was the one place on earth to find latex that could be used as finished rubber, for which the world has great interest and demand. That boom burst quickly, leaving the local left to sink back to obscurity and the short and brutish life of primitives without the benefits of Modernity to keep them alive long enough to join the parade of progress, such as it turns out to be. That obscurity and neglect by the outside world has ended recently with the discovery of oil and particularly with the rise of working-class tourism. Now, the very fact that the Amazon has so little to offer is the great draw: there is little here but nature and a people almost uncorrupted by Modernity's downsides. And with ubiquitous plastic, who misses rubber anyway? But for almost 25 years rubber put Iquitos, among other cities in the Amazon, on the world map. Back then, 20,000 people lived in the city, and it was “Somewhere!”

Absolutely must-see site for Mamore/Madeira.

The Amazonian rubber boom of 1879 to 1912, and a revival during the Second World War from 1942 to 1945, “facilitat[ed] a large expansion of colonization, attracting wealth and causing cultural and social transformations, [in] Iquitos in the Peruvian department of Loreto, for example.”

The rubber boom and the associated need for a large workforce had a significant negative effect on the indigenous population across Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. As rubber plantations grew, labor shortages increased. The owners of the plantations or rubber barons were rich, but those who collected the rubber made very little as a large amount of rubber was needed to be profitable. The rubber barons rounded up all the Indians and forced them to tap rubber out of the trees. One plantation started with 50,000 Indians and when discovered of the killings, only 8,000 were still alive. Slavery and gross human rights abuses were widespread, and in some areas 90% of the Indian population was wiped out. These rubber plantations ... declined as rubber plantations in Southeast Asia became more effective. [1]

One can still find pre-Columbian people in some remote areas around Iquitos, itself fairly remote in real terms. Many of those living in the jungle are descendants of refugees from the Rubber Baron slave trade. Now, slowly, even the most isolated people are coming into contact with civilization proper. There is one group of natives far into the deeps who don't wear clothing other than for ceremonial purposes, and who, with a friend of mine, went once to a tiny village in Ecuador, he having bought them track suits for their arrival in the “city.” the older men panicked at their first sight of ta mototaxi, and they wanted to return immediately to their jungle homes; but the young men were captivated by the promise of so much wonder so available, if only they could grasp how it's all got. This, too, must have been the lure of those 100 years ago who were given guns and machetes for raw rubber. It was not a fair trade. The story of the Rubber Boom is one of horror. But it is also a matter of development in the world of all men, not just those few so directly affected as were the Rubber Barons and the natives. The story of the Rubber Boom tells of how men can enter the jungle in search of the promise of the world and come to lose everything they could have had by staying away. In many ways, and in many individual cases, the Rubber Boom is simply the Conradian tale of “The horror, the horror.” As depressing and oft times as enraging as is the history of the Rubber Boom in the Amazon, it is also a story of man confronting his worst self and overcoming it. It is a tale too of laying the groundwork for those who come, those who step out of the jungle and into the modern, if only to the mudflats of Belen's Freetown section of extreme poverty and hellish life. There is hope for a future. It rests on rubber. The hope of those who will come in time to live lives of peace and plenty is based on the lives and deaths of those who were brutalised in the rush to riches that drove some men mad.

The first rubber boom, 1879–1912

Historically the Amazon held little attraction for European and American investors and entrepreneurs, there being too little mineral wealth, oil not being marketable, and gems not yet being discovered. For most of the post-Columbian era there was no draw to the jungle. But that changed with the advent and expansion of the Industrial Revolution, and in particular with the ubiquity of Henry Ford's working man's automobile. Suddenly almost everyone could have a car of his own, and everyone needed at least four rubber tyres for them. “In the 1930s, Henry Ford, the United States automobile pioneer, undertook the cultivation of rubber trees in the Amazon region, and established the city of Fordlândia, in the west part of Pará state, specifically for this end, but the initiative was not successful because the plantation suffered from a leaf pest.”

Rubber was the seed of Iquitos, Peru.

In 1855, over 2,100 tons was exported from the Amazon; a figure which reached 10,000 tons by 1879.

  • Once the Industrial Revolution got into full swing in Europe and the United States, rubber production boomed.
  • For almost four decades, the Amazon rainforest enjoyed a monopoly position in rubber. Overnight, a class of colonial rubber barons emerged who used their new wealth to build elegant mansions in the rainforest. Enjoying the good life, they threw money around, and left the unlikely civic legacy of Teatro Amazonas, a salmon-pink 640-seat opera house in the port town of Manaus, Brazil on the banks of the Rio Negro.
  • As quickly as the Amazon had become an industrial powerhouse, the international market for its product began to evaporate. Though the Brazilian government instituted capital punishment as the penalty for exporting the rubber tree or its seeds, progress could not be stopped. English explorer, Henry Wickham, smuggled the prized seeds out of Brazil in 1876 and brought them back to London where they were germinated in the greenhouses of the Kew Gardens. Transported to the British colonies of the Far East, the imported seeds allowed Ceylon to get a foothold in the rubber business, filling its defunct coffee plantations with the new crop. The Amazon's disorganized growing conditions in the wild and government regulatory mismanagement proved no contest for the systematic growing techniques of its Malaysian competitors. Plantation-style propagation of the rubber tree species failed in the Amazon due to endemic leaf blight, but other climates proved more hospitable, and over the next two decades, plantations spread across Asia.
  • Amazonian production reached its peak in 1912 when Brazil's export of crude rubber topped 41,000 tons. By 1919, annual world production had reached 350,000 tons. The burgeoning automotive industry created an insatiable demand for rubber that spawned more innovation. Synthetic rubber using petroleum was perfected in the 1940s, dealing Amazonian rubber its final blow. Though the industry was briefly invigorated during World War II by the decimation of the Asian rubber industry and increased US demand, the revival was short-live.

As the rubber industry grew, Amazonian cities such as Iquitos, Peru, grew rapidly as well, calling forth adventurers such as the brutal Julio Cesar Arana and the real life version of German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, [see next installment] The rubber trade even created a short-lived Amazonian railroad, soon to be reprised in Peru.

Fortunes were made and lost, and cities rose in the Amazon jungle. So too did the Madeira Mamore Railway, “known as the 'Devil's Railroad' ... having caused the death of around six thousand workers (in legends said to be one dead worker per railroad tie...) The construction of the railroad began in 1907 ... and was one of the most significant episodes in the history of the … Amazon, revealing the clear attempt to integrate it into the global marketplace via the commercialization of rubber. On April 30, 1912, the final stretch of the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad was completed. The occasion was commemorated by the arrival of the first train to the city of Guajará-Mirim, founded on that same day.

But the destiny of the railroad that was constructed with the principal purpose of transporting rubber and other products from the Amazon region, both in Bolivia and Brazil, to the Atlantic ports, and which came at a high human cost, was the worst possible.
First, the price of latex fell precipitously in the world market, making the trade of rubber from the Amazon unviable. Also, the transport of products that could have been transported by the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad were taken by two other railroads, one in Chile and the other in Argentina, and the Panama Canal, which became active on August 15, 1914.
Added to this, the natural factor, the Amazon forest, with its high level of rainfall, destroyed entire stretches of the rails, leveled ground, and bridges, reclaiming a large part of the way that people had insisted on clearing to construct the railroad.

The railroad was partially taken out of service in the 1930s and completely in 1972.... Today, from a total of 364 km of length of track, about seven remain in active use, used for tourist purposes.
I opted for eight days on a "cargo" boat.

[T]he Madeira–Mamoré Railroad, finished in 1912, arrived too late. The Amazon was already losing primacy in rubber production due to rubber trees planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and tropical Africa. These rubber trees were planted from seeds that Henry Wickham had smuggled out of Brazil in 1876.[4] These plantations were able to produce latex with greater efficiency and productivity. Consequently, with lower costs and a lower final price, the British Empire assumed control of the world rubber market.

The natural rubber from the Amazon [was] prohibitively expensive ... in the world market, having as an immediate effect the stagnation of the regional economy. The rubber crisis grew worse due to the lack of entrepreneurial or governmental vision in finding alternatives which would make possible regional development, and had as an immediate consequence the stagnation of the cities.

The second rubber boom, 1942-1945
The Amazon again experienced a rubber boom during the Second World War when Japan dominated the eastern Pacific Ocean from the beginning of 1942 and invaded Malaysia, [and] the rubber plantations there came under [Japanese] control, which resulted in the loss of 97% of Asiatic rubber production [to the non-Japanese market.]

A railroad built to take a failed product through the Amazon jungle to a river to nowhere. The rubber seeds of destruction of many Amazonian people were smuggled to better lands, and the dead who made the boom possible for rubber to evolve today into extraordinary polymers rest unknown in the jungles with a rusted railroad one can barely find by looking. Such was the time and the place, and one should no more complain about it now than one complains that French colonists brought slaves from Barbados to Virginian to work cotton plantations that gave way in time to polyester. Though the birth of Modernity is often soaked in blood and tears there is tomorrow and tomorrow, our futures brighter because of the sacrifices, unknown and unwanted, of others who came before us. We can't change anything then, but we can at least be grateful to those who bring us our good lives now. 

I'm grateful, in spite of being particularly sick at this time. Will return soon with another installment on the Rubber Boom, looking at some of the individuals who made it what it was, good and bad. 

  A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:


Jeff said...

I have a picture of my grandfather standing in front of a hut, with an indigenous man carrying a huge ball of rubber on his shoulder. i think this picture was taken in Peru, in the 1940's.

Dag said...

Hi, Jeff

I eventually wrote a book about the Rubber Boom, much of the book centered in and around Iquitos, Peru. If your grandfather was in Peru at the time, he was likely in Iquitos.

I'd like to see a copy of your photo. If you are inclined, please send me a copy. I'm at

If there's more to the story, please let me know. Sometime or other I'll update the book and if you will, I might include your photo.

Here's a link to the book.

Thanks for writing here.

My best,

Dag Walker
Vancouver, Canada