Wild rubber tapping

An Amazon rubber tapper will usually have a few different trails through the dense rainforest. He will reach roughly 100 trees a day, all of different sizes and ages. Some of the largest trees can be tapped on two or three sides on the same day, while smaller trees will only have one side cut. In one year a tree can produce around five litres of latex.

Early in the morning a series of two diagonal cuts are made in the bark for the sticky latex to flow down, and a cup is attached underneath to collect the latex. After about six hours the latex stops flowing, in time for the rubber tapper to return in the afternoon and collect the latex from each cup.

It’s hard work, with long distances to be covered in intense tropical heat and the chance of running into snakes or even a jaguar. However, rubber tappers typically have a close relationship the forest and will gather medicinal plants or wild food during their tapping rounds.

The rubber trees produce latex all year round, but rubber tappers normally produce most rubber between the dry season months of April and September.

Making wild rubber

The rubber tapper will process the latex in one of several ways, depending on the type of rubber he is producing. If the latex is to be used in liquid form it needs to be taken quickly to the factory – often a problem in the rainforest. More likely the tapper will let it coagulate into blocks which are stored until the tapper can sell them to rubber processing plants that clean and purify the rubber.

Recently, working with local tappers, a Brazilian university has pioneered a new approach to producing finished rubber right in the forest. Using a special coagulating agent, local tappers and their families can produce a thin, stable rubber sheet that’s ready for use as it is and can be coloured and vulcanised. This exciting technique lets them earn more money for the product, keeping more of the value in the community.

Wild rubber: a brief history

Around 25 million tonnes of rubber is produced every year. It’s turned into millions of tyres, hundreds of millions of shoe soles, billions of balloons and countless other products.

Over half the rubber we use is synthetic. Some 11 million tonnes is natural rubber, mainly grown in large plantations in Asia. Less than 1% comes from rubber trees growing wild in the Amazon where rubber originated.

But wild rubber could be making a comeback – and that’s good news for the Amazon. Sustainably harvesting wild rubber from the rainforest is improving the livelihoods of local people – and providing an economic incentive to keep the forest standing.

Ancient uses of rubber

Natural rubber comes from the sticky, milky-white sap – or latex – of the Pará rubber tree, native to the Amazon.

Indigenous people in South and Central America were making things from rubber, from Pará and other latex-bearing trees, many centuries before the first Europeans arrived. The name of the Olmec – the first major civilisation in Mexico – even means “rubber people”.

The Mayans used rubber to make sandals, statues, rubber bands and glue as early as 1600BC. Latex was also used to make shoes and cloaks waterproof.

Rubber balls featured prominently in the Mesoamerican ballgame, played by the Mayans, the Aztecs and other civilisations in Mexico and Central America. The sport had strong ritual significance, sometimes involving human sacrifice.

European discovery

Christopher Columbus noticed children playing with rubber balls on Haiti after his first voyage across the Atlantic. Early explorers knew about this strange substance, but it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that Europeans began investigating its uses.

English chemist and polymath Joseph Priestley found that it was good for rubbing out pencil marks, which is how the name rubber came about. Charles Macintosh used it to make waterproof raincoats.

Natural latex is soft and sticky at high temperatures and hard and rigid at low temperatures. Adding sulphur and heating makes it into a stable, much more useful material – a process called vulcanisation.

A man tapping rubber from a tree estimated date as early as 1918.

A man tapping rubber from a tree estimated date as early as 1918.

The Amazon rubber boom: 1880-1912

Soon the demand for this new product was huge – particularly rubber tyres for the newly invented motor car. And the remote Amazon rainforest became the hub of a hugely profitable global trade.

Entrepreneurs and migrant workers poured into the region during the last two decades of the 19th century. Manaus, a small town on the Amazon River, bloomed into a modern metropolis, boasting grand mansions, an opera house, Brazil’s first telephone system, an electricity grid and 16 miles of tram tracks.

Some amassed vast fortunes – and they flaunted it. Accounts tell of these rubber barons lighting cigars with $100 bank notes and giving champagne to their horses. Manaus boasted more diamonds per head of population than anywhere in the world.

But for many migrant workers and the region’s indigenous people it was a very different story. As demand for rubber grew, the rubber barons needed more cheap labour. The local inhabitants, who had previously had next to no contact with the outside world, were rounded up and forced to work as rubber tappers. Tens of thousands were killed, and many more suffered horrific abuses.

In Colombia, rubber baron Julio Cesar Arana used slave labour to export more than 4,000 tonnes of rubber in 12 years, earning over $75 million. In the same period, the native population in the area fell from over 30,000 to less than 8,000.

The rise of Asian rubber plantations

The Amazon rubber boom was short lived. By the time of the First World War, the Amazon had been overtaken by rubber plantations in Asia.

In 1876, an Englishman called Henry Wickham had smuggled 70,000 Pará rubber tree seeds out of Brazil. From these seedlings, Britain established vast rubber plantations in its Asian colonies, with Malaysia eventually becoming the world’s biggest producer.

These plantations were more productive and efficient than the South American rubber industry. The Amazon rubber market collapsed, and cities like Manaus sunk back into poverty.

Rubber soldiers

World War Two brought a second Amazon rubber boom. In 1942 Japan invaded Malaysia and Indonesia, taking control of the vast majority of the world’s rubber supply.

Rubber was vital to the war effort, being used in everything from wiring to warships. The Allies struck a deal with Brazil to reactivate rubber supplies from the Amazon.

To ramp up production to the levels required, the Brazilian government recruited tens of thousands of rubber tappers. More than 50,000 men made the harsh three-month journey from the poor, drought-stricken north-east of the country, lured by promises of riches and a hero’s welcome on their return.

The reality was different. Like the indigenous people half a century earlier, these “rubber soldiers” were effectively slaves, forced to work long hours in harsh conditions for little or no pay. About 30,000 died of tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever, from snake bites or attacks by wild animals.

With the end of the war, the rubber soldiers were forgotten. Only around 6,000 made it home, at their own expense.

Many years later the government began to pay them a small pension, but far less than they were promised. A few survivors continue to fight for compensation and recognition.

Chico Mendes and the struggle for the rainforest

The remaining rubber soldiers and their families eventually settled into a new way of life in the Amazon. Some continued to tap rubber, collecting the latex and coagulating it into rough blocks to sell on to processing plants. They were free of the rubber barons, but it wasn’t much of a living. Demand for natural rubber fell as synthetic rubber – developed during the war – came to dominate the market.

Among those who stayed were the parents of Chico Mendes. Chico began working as a rubber tapper when he was still a child. He grew up to love the forest, and became a leader of the rubber tappers movement.

By the 1970s cattle ranchers were moving deeper into the Amazon, clearing large areas of forest for pasture – often by force. This threatened the livelihoods of the rubber tappers, as well as other settlers and indigenous people who depended on the rainforest.

Chico led the rubber tappers in a peaceful resistance. They lobbied the government to create extractive reserves where people could make a living from the forest without damaging it, through activities like tapping rubber, harvesting fruits and nuts, and collecting medicinal plants.

The movement gained international attention, alerting the world to the destruction of the Amazon. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees,” Chico famously said. “Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

But Chico’s activism earned him many enemies, and he received regular death threats. On 22 December 1988, he was assassinated outside his home. A cattle rancher whose logging plans Chico and his fellow rubber tappers had successfully opposed, was convicted of his murder, along with his son and their ranch hand.


A brighter future

Far from weakening the rubber tappers’ resistance, the assassination of Chico Mendes led to a surge of support for protecting the rainforest. Extractive reserves have been created across the Brazilian Amazon, giving rubber tappers and collectors of Brazil nuts and other forest products the chance to make a living while conserving the forest.

After a long history of exploitation, local people are now benefitting directly from the Amazon’s natural resources. This means they have a vested interest in preserving the rainforest, instead of seeing it cut down.

Many rubber tappers have organised themselves into cooperatives. With the support of initiatives like Sky Rainforest Rescue, they are also finding ways to add value to their product – such as by processing the natural latex themselves into higher quality rubber, or selling directly to progressive manufacturers that want to help keep the rainforest standing.

Sky Rainforest Rescue is a partnership between WWF and Sky, who are working together to help keep one billion trees standing. One way they’re doing this is through helping create better market conditions for rubber tappers in Acre, north-west Brazil, Chico’s home state. Sky and WWF are equipping rubber tappers to produce a higher quality rubber that can be sold direct to manufacturers. 

Wild Rubber (and wildrubber.com) has been developed from the Sky Rainforest Rescue campaign, with Sky and WWF's support, as an independent body to try and encourage and communicate the use of Wild Rubber.