April 2020

More-than-Human Stories Among Brazilian Rubber Seeds from a Local-Global Perspective and Its Entanglements

Rubber materials such as gloves, tires, and industrial items shaped the world to what one might call ‘modern’ by the turn of 20th century.

by Tiago Muniz

The Amazon Rainforest is an anthropogenic forest in constant management of forest resources modifying the environment in persistent ways (LEVIS et. al. 2018). Even though both hybrid and native rubber trees have been tapped industrially, rubber trees have modified the Amazon Rainforest landscape and population at least since the 19th century until now. The Amazon Rubber Boom (1850-1920) and consequent rising of belle époque elites[1] at Amazon is due its economy, which considered rubber by that time as “black gold.” In addition, the presence of ghost cities[2]at Amazon, such as Fordland and Belterra, reinforce the collapse of its powerful industry, which abandoned entire factories, planned cities, rubber plantations, and people. During World War II, the Brazilian rubber industry rose again for a few years. Afterwards, rubber tappers and activists made possible the creation of National Extractive Reserves all over the country for sustainable activities. Nowadays, in these reserves, rubber tappers thrive from traditional practices (fishing, hunting, gathering, handicraft, and tapping in a minor scale) and yet their local knowledge and discourses still tell stories about rubber and entanglements in between things, techniques, forest, fungi, animals, humans, and non-humans.

Fig. 1 “Making rubber” (Champney, 1860) shows daily scenes at Santarém, Lower Amazon, Brazil.

The Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is the most efficient lactescent specie for economical purposes and today is mainly cultivated in Asian countries. Back in 1876, sir Henry Wickham took 70.000 rubber seeds to Kew Gardens (London) and afterwards the India Office planted them in British colonies, changing the world economy. Henry Wickham’s deed in 1876 contributed to the loss of trade monopoly and rubber decay of Brazilian economy. In 1877, the northeastern migration to the rubber plantations began as production increased. Babara Weinstein points out that in the late 1870s they signaled the beginning of the rubber boom, and the rates of such expansion were unquestionable for the years 1878 to 1884, later stopping or decreasing slightly until 1900. The seeds collected by Wickham were sold in London in 1876. Of these 70,000 seeds, only 2,800 twins were introduced into Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and other British colonies. Thus, with the development of seedlings and the beginning of productivity with extensive planting, there was a loss of space for the Brazilian product and at the turn of the twentieth century the beginning of decay.

After the collapse of Brazilian rubber boom (1850-1920), Henry Ford made a plantation of rubber trees at Lower Amazon and tried to create his metropolis on tropics. Due to tropical diseases as fungi action over the plantation, however, Fordlândia (1928-1945) was abandoned. The ongoing research aims to debate on rubber cycles in Brazil, its materials/techniques as the entanglement in between plants, forests, fungi, things, humans, non-humans and local knowledge at Lower Amazon.

Rubber materials definitely enlarged the world, amplifying human interactions from snow boots and tires to gloves and medical/industrial items. Rubber gloves were developed of medical paramentation; rubber tires expanded human activity zones by cars/airplanes globally; and rubber was also used to make snow boots, which improved human capacities during winter. The most enthusiastic would say that would not be possible to imagine the ‘modern world’ without rubber—or, as Bruno Latour would assert, we never have been modern. Even though rubber items did amplify human activities, making it possible through asepsis, globalization and expanded our interactions between body and environment.

Fig. 2 Rubber Plantation at Fordlândia, 1933 (The Henry Ford).

Donna Haraway (2015) in her article dealing with the anthropocene kinship process, or what the author calls “capitalocene,” “plantationocene,” or “cutulucene” (alluding to cutulu, lovecraft apocalyptic monster) brings the kinship category as a non-natalistic solution to the fungal metaphor of multispecies eco-justice. Haraway (2015) proposes to be related (cyborgs, multispecies or humans). However, if today we live an anthropocene or capitalocene (GANE & HARAWAY, 2015) was due to the advent of rubber, therefore, studying the heritage associated with this period is extremely necessary to investigate an archeology of modernity. In this way, the materiality of the rubber period can reveal from local narratives tangled in relationships and materials that have produced so much conflict and wealth in the region.

Reflecting on the approach of How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn (2013: 224) presents that such entanglements created from non-human thinking also create relationships between selves, challenging anthropology to advance in this scenario of otherness and knowledge. Another non-human agency that stands out when in the rubber period is the fungus. Popularly known as “leaf blight,” the fungus that affects all hevea species shook the productivity of South American rubber at the turn of the 19th-20th century, as well as the dream of a foreign metropolis in Fordlândia. Here, we are yet another agent of the elastic god.

The impact of the discovery of Hevea brasiliensis latex and the processing of its derivatives produced discourses on modernity, first with medical care and then with automobiles and airplanes. But if we have not yet been modern or even human, as stated by Latour (1994) and Haraway (2009), there is a debate going on. It is a matter of recognizing the agency of rubber trees (trees) and rubber trees (workers) in this context. And break the silence and inert notion of things, or understand the ontology of things and objects (OLSEN, 2010). Thus, such a symmetrical approach in archaeology advocates that to be human is to live with / among things (VALE, 2015). From a relational perspective on enjoying the environment, it is necessary to contextualize that native syringe trees are found in areas under the influence of an ecological imperative.

Furthermore, entanglements between forests and humans are intrinsic and yet vivid at Amazon, where new theories on ontologies talk about how forests and non-humans negotiate their existences (Viveiros de Castro, 1998; 2015). In a latourian sense, one actant draws attention when it comes to the collapse of rubber in Brazil: the fungi who braked the expansion of Fordland. Thus, independently if we call ourselves modern, living in anthropocence, plantationocene, capitalocene, chtulucene, or even in synthetic/plastic age, understanding these actants and producing these beyond human ethnographies will help improve notions of interactions on new materialisms in world history and rubber heritage.

In the case of Brazilian rubber, Hevea brasiliensis, the tales of natural domination contributed to the environment and human exploitation. Wickham in 1876 was changing world economy through his seeds’ achievements, something he certainly would have never imagined. On the other hand, Ford did hope to change the Amazonian reality into an American Metropolis, although he was not successful. These tales have in common the mentality of botanical colonialism as both Henrys wanted somehow to benefit from rubber production. Afterwards, rubber expanded human relations, as an elastic that stretches, rubber enlarged the world and forged a new era (the synthetic age) as rubber—and plastic—materials were developed, making new relations and things to emerge as other people/places were left behind.

Fig. 3 Chico Mendes, 1988.

“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees,
then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest.
Now, I realize that I am fighting for humanity.”
—Chico Mendes

The sentence above reveals the complex entanglement based on Amazonian knowledge and the political positioning of the rubber tapper, unionist, and environmental activist, Chico Mendes.[3] Chico Mendes’ agency as spokesman for workers and environmentalists contributed to the concept that created extractive reserves in Brazil—through environmental conservation being carried out by traditional peoples of the forest.

Fig. 4 Casa de Chico Mendes. Photo: Iphan/José Aguilera.

Museums and exhibitions on rubber are found in Rio Branco (Acre): as the Museu da Borracha; Manaus (Amazonas): Seringal Vila Paraíso Museum; Guajará-Mirim (Rondônia): Memorial do Seringueiros at the Museu Histórico Municipal in Guajará-Mirim—each telling stories of the rubber tappers by materials left by them. The Fordlândia district located in Aveiro (Pará) is yet another such evidence, as are many other locations in the Amazon. In the vicinity of Fordlândia, the municipalities of Belterra and Santarém are home to remaining residents of rubber tappers who worked for American engineers in the construction of ‘Fordland.’ In this way, there is still a wide collection of local narratives and memories about the second rubber cycle that narrate from aspects about hardness and isolation to knowledge associated with ecology, collection, and storage of ‘milk from the syringe.’

Rubber materials such as gloves, tires, and industrial items shaped the world to what one might call ‘modern’ by the turn of 20th century. In this sense, one could say that asepsis and globalization were hatched under the production of rubber products reinforcing the writing of history across species. Nevertheless, the place where the native rubber tree seeds were collected was left behind. Nowadays, most of these rubber tappers’ communities at Lower Amazon thrive mainly from traditional practices (hunting, fishing, producing manioc flour and selling forest products, in minor scale). Things also play a vital role to rubber tappers, such as claiming their identities: “I have a rubber knife, I am a rubber tapper”—this saying is common nowadays.

Fig. 5 Mr. João and his rubber knife working at Santarém, Pará State, Brazil (Photo: Tiago Muniz, 2017).

Some of these interlocutors in the communities along Tapajós River (Santarém, Pará State) still live on rubber, however, no longer from the sale of raw materials, but from the products they manufacture and associated historic and ecological tourism. Other products such as bio-jewelry, bags and shoes are also manufactured in the communities in the region. However, there is a low commercialization of these products, given the difficult access and production flow, impeding the economic autonomy of these communities.

Solidified and liquid latex collected by chemist and community members at Boim, RESEX Tapajós-Arapiuns, Santarém, Pará. Photo: University of Brasília/LATEQ-IQ.
Handicraft and production line of ‘rubber sheets’ at Jamaraquá, RESEX Tapajós-Arapius, Santarém, Pará. Photo: University of Brasília/LATEQ-IQ.

The fluidity of materials, things, and peoples show us their knowledge and the many ways of doing/working rubber. When proposing entanglement-sensitive ethnographies, a challenge redoubled in the current context of Brazilian environmental policies where social struggles are becoming more intense so that local communities and traditional peoples shall maintain their identities and promote resistance while they act for the conservation of the environment. Thus, this article is about an ongoing project that aims to give visibility to the rubber tapping agencies, mainly historically suppressed, but also, the focus here is to promote the research at Amazon so that the communities there have their voices multiplied.

By presenting the knowledge and materials involved in this context, it is worth recalling from Shanks & Tilley (1988) that archeology is a sociopolitical action in the present, while McGuire (2008) reminds us that all knowledge is political, any form of discourse about the past is also political. Finally, Castañeda (2008) points out that the observer, research and the field intertwine and the view of archeology as a political action challenges the mechanisms of oppression and the production of inequalities for emancipation. Thus, reflecting on objects and things to think about social and economic transformations may reverberate in a relational praxis of correspondence, coherence and context focused on the consequences that still impact the ‘good living’ in the Lower Amazon and what policies for future heritage can be stimulated from such a debate.

In order not to conclude, it is necessary to highlight that this article deals with an ongoing phd thesis in anthropology/archaeology debating the historical context and local-global implications of Sir Henry Wickham’s achievement of rubber seeds and the materiality of the rubber period itself. Amazonian knowledge and heritage policies are also topics to be debated. In this sense, the entanglements between the rubber trees, rubber tappers, and their things will be approached in order to encompass such ways of life, identities in the Lower Amazon region and its heritage futures.

Tiago Muniz currently is a Visiting Researcher at Department of Cultural Sciences at Linnaeus University (Kalmar, Sweden) and a PhD candidate in Anthropology/Archaeology at Graduate Program in Anthropology at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. Muniz has experience in Archaeology, focusing on the following subjects: Contemporary Archaeology, Historical Archeology, Prehistoric Archaeology, Amazonian Archaeology, Archaeology of Ethnicity, Ceramic Analysis, Archaeobotany, Heritage, Critical Heritage Studies, Heritage Futures, Education, Environmental Education, Teaching-learning. Tiago Muniz has a master’s degree in Archaeology and a specialization in Quaternary Geology (subarea: Archaeology) both at National Museum – Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Website: http://tiagosamuniz.wixsite.com/meusite   

Further Reading

[1] Belle époque in the lexicon of cultural history means a complex process of cultural, social and mental relations, but also material and political, developed within a corpus recognized historically as that of bourgeois culture and its affirmation within the hegemonic pictures of industrial capitalism at the end of the 19th century (COELHO, 2011).

[2] Ghost cities occur all around the world; they consist of abandoned built towns. Unlikely most of ghost cities, Fordlandia still is inhabited. In 2016, The Guardian made a list of ten lost cities worldwide, checkout Forldlandia here: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/19/lost-cities-10-fordlandia-failure-henry-ford-amazon#maincontent

[3] Overcoming the preservationist notion of an untouchable nature, Chico Mendes lived for this struggle and was murdered for it. Recognized by the United Nations (UN) as one of the 500 most influential environmentalists in the world, Chico Mendes received several awards and in 2007 he was honored giving the name to ICMBio – Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation – which works in federal environmental management and conservation and creating and supervising conservation units. In addition, the House of Chico Mendes in Xapuri (Acre) was inscribed as material heritage in the Livro do Tombo Histórico, listed in 2011.


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