Luxury and slavery: the light and dark of Brazil rubber

  The glitz disappeared, a mess. For Brazil, is the rubber trade a blessing or a curse?
  The Brazilian rubber tree mainly grows in the wild environment of the Akri region in the western Amazon region. When a cut is made in the trunk, a milky gelatinous liquid will flow out. Collect the liquid in a container and form latex after it coagulates.
  In the late 1830s, American Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process of rubber, and Amazon latex has attracted worldwide attention since then. The vulcanized latex becomes more flexible, strong, and completely waterproof. As a result, latex has become more widely used, and vulcanized latex can be used to make tires and wire insulation (the telegraph and telephone were experiencing explosive development at the time). Later, the tire was patented and was widely used in bicycles and automobiles in a short period of time. Britain and the United States quickly became the largest importers of this key raw material.
  Since no other places in the world can produce such high-quality natural rubber latex, the Amazon region has become the core of the strategic production of natural rubber latex, and Manaus, the capital of the Amazonian state of Brazil, has entered the industrial age “overnight”. During the first few years of prosperity, around 1880, Manaus undertook a radical transformation project.
  |The birth of “New Paris”|
  As the son of positivism, the jungle city of Manaus embraces the belief that scientific development never stops, absorbing the most advanced technologies at the time to urbanization: street lighting, road paving, river cleaning, sewer engineering… …Also dating back to this period are the pontoons in Manaus, the port customs, the market, the Rio Negro Palace and the government headquarters.
  The greatest gem of Manaus is undoubtedly the Amazon Theatre building, which gives the city connotation, highlights the urban style and shows the status of the city. Its architecture is extremely luxurious: Bohemian mirrors, glass from Murano, Italy… Amazon Theatre The building became the center of social and cultural life in Manaus.
  This city has witnessed the years of extravagance: important European stores opened branches here, nightclubs provided wine and beauties “imported” from Europe… Manaus was known as “Tropical Paris” at that time.
  Manaus is a product of the will of a few pioneers, and only latex is the product that supports it. The demographic changes are also obvious. In 1830, Manaus had only 3,000 people; in 1870, the population reached 50,000; in 1910, the population of the entire Amazon region reached 1 million, of which about 300,000 were workers from northeastern Brazil.
  Latex has left a glorious mark in this “vault”, and its price has quadrupled in the first 10 years of the 20th century. The latex trade accounts for nearly 25% of Brazil’s total export revenue. The per capita income of Manaus is nearly twice that of Brazil’s coffee-producing regions (including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo).
  | Welcome to hell |
  In 1888, Brazil abolished slavery, and labor must be employed before it can be used. However, the debt system established by rubber entrepreneurs keeps workers imprisoned in this hard-to-fly world.
  Rubber workers need to sign a contract with intermediaries and hiring agents (because most workers are illiterate, they often use the iconic “X” instead of signatures) in exchange for the latter’s prepaid car travel expenses. The debt system was born from this.
  After several weeks of ups and downs, the workers finally arrived at the rubber plantation. Employers will provide them with various items including food, medicine and tools, while rubber workers need to use the collected latex to deduct expenses. Debts are rising.
  The workers in the rubber plantations deep in the jungle can only get supplies through their employers, and for those with a meager income, prices are too high. As a result, the employer will prepay them the goods in advance, which makes the debt out of control.
  Workers need to collect more and more latex, no matter how hard they work, it will not help: under the shrewd calculation of the employer, the debt will never be cleared. The rubber workers who have been “tied up” by their employers indefinitely seem to live in a prison without fences.
  Various factors have consolidated the foundation of this “prison system.” On the one hand, rubber workers cannot control the fruits of their labor. On the other hand, the widespread illiteracy at the time prevented them from gaining labor liberation, and even if they left this place, it was difficult to find other ways of making a living in this area. Escape is not a feasible option, because the employer will send someone to monitor, and the local government will assist the employer to return the escaped to the rubber plantation.
  | Bad “surprise”|
  From a trade perspective, the effect of this system is obvious. In 1880, Brazil accounted for the largest share of global rubber production. Manaus has achieved a transformation, and the port city of Belém at the mouth of the Negro River has undergone modernization, and Brazil has benefited from it. In this view, the latex trade can be described as a huge success. However, the British, as the largest consumer of Amazon latex, seem to be brewing other plans… The
  UK is the largest importer of Brazilian latex, but it wants to get rid of its dependence on Brazil. In 1876, British botanist Henry Wickham transported nearly 70,000 rubber tree seeds secretly collected from rubber plantations in the Amazon region of East Asia. These seeds were transferred to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, not far from London, and then planted in British colonies such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and sub-Saharan Africa.
  After 40 years, these rubber trees have perfectly adapted to the water and soil of the new habitat and began mass production of latex.
  In 1913, plantations in Southeast Asia had surpassed Brazil. In 1915, the latex produced by the British, Dutch, and French colonies exceeded 2/3 of the total global production. Latex prices began to fall. As the price of Amazon latex has lost competitiveness, the regional economy has also stagnated.
  | Terminus|
  Brazilian rubber merchants do not have the capitalist vision of the British. In addition to investing in the rubber industry, the British in Southeast Asia have also invested in building roads and railways, conducting crop research to increase rubber production, and improving working conditions. These measures have further reduced product costs.
  However, in Brazil, the benefits generated by the latex trade only bring prosperity to the elite, and the local government did not make good use of the years of prosperity. Although the government has also invested in the modernization of Manaus, it has not built an economic infrastructure that can be used for other activities.
  Some rubber workers regained self-sufficient agriculture and planted cassava, kidney beans, rice, etc. Other rubber workers who lost all their sources of income settled in the surrounding areas of Manaus or other cities, hoping to live a better life someday. Looking around, the lights of the Opera House in Manaus are dim, the mansions are closed, and the number of unemployed is on the rise.
  The rubber age came to an end. Since the 1920s, the only slums “built” by unemployed rubber workers in Manaus have been increasing. Manaus in the jungle is lingering, and if he wants to wake up again, he may have to wait for decades.