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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rubber Thief

After retirement my husband and I used to spend winters traveling and in 1994 we flew to South America for four months of exploration. After an Elderhostel course in Brazil, we had a chance to fly up to Manaus, a city in the middle of the huge rainforest 1000 miles up the mighty Amazon River.

We hadn't had a chance to read ahead so knew little about what we would find as we flew over jungle for what seemed like hours. Finally, as the plane slowed, we saw below a city whose size, layout, and buildings amazed us by their grand scale.

The Amazon is still nearly a kilometer wide at Manaus and many of the floating wharfs and buildings were constructed of metal that had been shipped in from Europe. The impressive opera house pictured above, gives a sense of the city's grandeur. We soon learned it all had to do with rubber.

When the Spanish and Portuguese colonized South America they found the natives had learned to score the bark of rubber trees to collect the sap that had the consistency and colour of thick

milk. It was called latex, and when the water was evaporated from it, they learned to make the rubber balls that Columbus described them using in games.

For centuries rubber was viewed as a curiosity until in the 1820’s two British scientists, Macintosh & Hancock, experimented with coating cloth with latex to make waterproof clothing. However it was not until 1843 - when Goodyear learned to keep the rubber from getting very soft in warm weather and stiff in cold, that rubber caught on and the demands from Europe started a rubber boom.

Prospectors and speculators found that a variety of wild rubber trees around Manaus was the most productive and they soon became very very wealthy exploiting that source to supply the insatiable markets in Europe. Everyone in Brazil profited, including the Brazilian government, which carefully guarded its natural resource. Their monopoly on rubber was successful until Henry Wickham, a British biologist, was able to smuggle 70,000 seeds out of the country. They were germinated at Kew Gardens in London and the seedlings shipped to suitable British colonies like Malaysia and parts of Indonesia where plantations were started. The whole process took about 60 years but eventually the rubber trees were able to be milked and profits flowed, and perhaps are still flowing, into British pockets and so ended the Manaus boom.

Actually, we have since visited Malaysia’s rubber plantations and, at night when it is cool, we were able to observe the trained workers, with their calcium carbide lamps, maintaining the latex flow by carefully trimming the channels that ‘milk’ the trees.

Travel holds many charms but the most rewarding for me are those where my knowledge of the world is enriched and expanded. Rie

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