Posted by: Martin | February 5, 2012

Much More on Rubber

I’m keeping on reading the story of rubber in the book “1493“. It’s quite fascinating, and by the end possible to link to the Ivory Coast without too much of a stretch. Some very long excerpts:

The importance of rubber and vulcanization

The impact of vulcanization was profound, the inflatable rubber tire – key to the adoption of both the bicycle and the automobile – being the most celebrated example. But rubber also made electrification possible: try to imagine a modern building without insulation on its wiring. Or imagine dishwashers, washing machines, and clothes dryers without the belts that transmit the motion of their engines to the appliance itself. Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil gasoline, and exhaust vapor. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids or gases to vent dangerously from the joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust – a potential death trap.

“Three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution,” Hecht, the UCLA geographer told me. “Steel, fossil fuels, and rubber”. The rapidly industrialising nations of Europe and North America had more than adequate access to steel and fossil fuels. Which made it all the more imperative to secure a supply of rubber.

Rubber boom

Even in a time of crazy boom-and-bust cycles the rubber boom stood out. Brazil’s rubber exports grew more than tenfold between 1856 and 1896, then quadrupled again by 1912. Ordinarily such an enormous increase would drive down prices. But instead they kept climbing.

That rubber production went up an order of magnitude while prices tripled is the kind of thing that makes natural-resource economists rub their eyes in bemusement. “It’s pretty amazing,” said Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economics Research, of Winchester, Massachusetts. “No wonder people were going crazy.”

The financial center of the trade was Belem. Founded in 1616 at the entrance of the world’s greatest river, it had a strategic location – but little ability to take advantage over it. So much sediment washed in from the Amazon that the harbour was shallow and treacherous. Worse, the currents and winds generated by the river’s vast outflow isolated the city from the rest of Brazil – incredibly from Belem it was faster to sail to Lisbon, a distance of 3,700 miles, than to Rio de Janeiro, a distance of 2,500 miles. In consequence the city’s population had never risen much above twenty five thousand. The rubber boom allowed it to become, at last, what Amazonian dreamers had long hoped: the economic capital of a vibrantly growing realm.

Convinced they were building the Paris of the Americas, Belem’s newly rich rubber elite filled the cobbled streets with sidewalk cafes, European-style strolling parks, and Beaux-Arts mansions.

Belem was the bank and insurance house of the rubber trade, but the center of the rubber collection was the city of Manaus. Located almost a thousand miles inland, where two big rivers join to form the Amazon proper, it was one of the most remote urban places on earth. It was also one of the richest.

Brash sybaritic, and imposing, the city sprawled across four hills on the north bank of the great current. Atop one hill was the cathedral, a Jesuit-built structure with a design so austere it looks like a rebuke of the monstrosity that dominated the next hill over – the Theatro Amazonas, a preposterous fantasia of Carrara marble, Venetian chandeliers, Strasbourg tiles, Parisian mirrors, and Glasgow ironwork. Finished in 1897 and intended as an opera house, it was a financial folly: the auditorium had only 658 seats, not enough to offset the cost of importing musicians, let alone the expense of construction.

State governor Eduardo Ribeiro aggressively boosted the city, laying out streets in a modern grid, paving them with cobllestones from Portugal (the Amazon has little stone), overseeing the installation of what was then one of the globe’s most advanced streetcar networks (fifteen miles of track), and directing the construction of three hospitals (one for Europeans, one for the insane, and one for everybody else). A celebrant of urban life, Ribeiro took part in everything his city had to offer, including its sybaritic whorehouses, in one of which he died amid what historian John Hemming referred delicately referred to as a “sexual romp”.

The city’s many brothels were largely for the rubber tappers and field operatives who staggered into Manaus after months of labour on remote tributaries. The owners and managers had mistresses, with whom they sported in the decadent style then fashionable. “Guests once knelt to lap champagne from the bathtub of the naked beauty Sarah Lubousk from Trieste.”, Hemming wrote in his prodigious history of the region, Tree of Rivers. “The bather in the bubbly” as Hemming called her, was the mistress of Waldemar Scholtz, a recent migrant who had become the city’s dominant rubber shipper – and the honorary consul from Austria. A few blocks away lived Aria Ramos, who led a celebrated double life as carnival performer and call girl; when she was slain in a hunting accident, her wealthy clients erected a life-size statue in the cemetery.

Teeming bordellos, liquor soaked cafes, cowboy style barrom brawls – Manaus was the very model of turn-of-the-century boomtown, from the warnings against the discharge of weapons on the street to the obligatory lighting of cigars with high-denomination banknotes.

So much wealth – wealth that literally grew on trees – in such a strategic material naturally attracted huge interest, domestic and foreign, economic and political.

The Manaus Opera House - looks fine to me

Out of Brazil

If this ecological tumult [Mass rubber plantations replacing forests in Asia]  could be laid at the door of a single person it would be Henry Alexander Wickham. Wickham’s life is difficult to assess: he has been called a thief and a patriot, a major figure in industrial history and a hapless dolt whose main accomplishment was failing in business ventures on three continents. He was born in 1846 to a respectable London solicitor and a milliner’s daughter from Wales. When the boy was four, cholera took his father’s life and the family left behind slid slowly down the social ladder. Wickham spent the rest of his life trying to climb back up.

In this quest he traveled the world, wrecking his marriage and alienating his family as he tried with blind tenacity to found great plantations of tropical species, Manioc in Brazil, tobacco in Australia, bananas in Honduras, coconuts in the Conflict Islands off New Guinea – Henry Wickham failed at them all. His adventure in Brazil cost the life of his mother and his sister, who had accompanied him. The coconut plantation, on an otherwise uninhabited island, was so lonely and barren that Wickham’s wife who had endured years of privation without complaint, at last demanded that he choose between the coconuts and her. Wickham choose coconuts. They never spoke again. Nonetheless at the end of his days he was a respected man. Crowds applauded as he walked onto testimonial stages wearing a silver-buttoned coat and nautilus-shell tie clip. His waxed moustache curved ferociously beneath his jaw like the moustache of an anime character. He was knighted at the age of seventy-four.

Henry Wickham won the honour for smuggling seventy thousand rubber-tree seeds to England in 1876. He was acting on behest of Clements R. Markham, a scholar-adventurer with considerable experience in tree bootlegging. As a young man, Markham had directed a British quest in the Andes for cinchona trees. Cinchona bark was the sole source of quinine, the only effective antimalarial drug then known. Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, which had a monopoly, zealously guarded the supply, forbidding foreigners to take cinchona trees.

Markham dispatched three near-simultaneous covert missions to the Andes, leading one himself. Hiding from the police, almost without food, he descended the mountains on foot with thousand of seedlings in special cases. All three teams obtained cinchona, which was soon thriving in India. Markham’s project saved thousands of lives, not least because Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia were running out of cinchona trees – they had killed them by stripping the bark. Riding the success to the position of director of the India Office’s Geographical Department, Markham decided to repeat with rubber trees “what had already been done with such happy result for cinchona trees.”

British industry’s dependence on rubber was leaving the nation’s prosperity in the  hands of foreigners he believed. “When it is considered that every steam vessel afloat, every railway train, and every factory on shore employing steam power, must of necessity use india-rubber”, Markham argued, “it is hardly possible to over-rate the importance of securing a permanent supply.” Glory would attach to those who secured the supply. In the early 1870s Markham let it be known that Britain would pay for rubber seeds. When the seeds arrived, they would be sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew in southwest London, and the successful seedlings dispatched to Britain’s Asian colonies. Two separate hopeful adventurers sent batches of rubber seed. Neither batch would sprout. Wickham became the third try.

Cannily eliciting Markham’s promise that the India Office would buy every rubber seed he sent, Wickham sought the help of his neighbours in collecting them. His plantation was located in Santarem, four hundred miles from the river’s mouth, a rubber town built atop a Jesuit mission built atop a native city. Wickham gathered seventy thousand seeds, enough to pay for passage back to Britain for himself and his wife (He left behind, apparently without warning, his brother and his family, as well as his widowed brother in law.) To judge by the frigid reception he received in London, the India Office had not expected to be billed for three-quarters of a ton of rubber seeds. Nor were they overly happy that only 2,700 germinated – evidence, suggested the environmental historian Warren Dean, that Wickham and his associates scrambled through the forest in a hot-brained hurry, grabbing seeds from the ground without consideration for their viability.

Today Wickham is reviled in Brazil. Tourist guides refer to him as the prince of thieves, a pioneer of what has become called bio-piracy; the leading history of Amazonia denounces his actions as “hardly defensible in the light of international law”. At a literal level the claim is untrue; Brazil then had no bio-piracy laws. Nor is there any evidence that anyone tried to stop Wickham. The British were hardly secretive – London newspapers trumpeted Markham’s quest for rubber. And authorities in Santarem were surely aware that an English madman was packing up cases of rubber seeds.

Two months after Wickham appeared in London, Kew shipped out the seedlings, most of them to Sri Lanka. Irritated with Wickham, the gardeners paid no attention to his recommendation that trees be planted in open slopes away from marshes and riverbanks – the roots wouldn’t grow properly in soggy ground. Instead they planted the seedlings in forest wetlands. even if the plants had flourished, Sri Lanka’s British colonists in 1876 were not interested in creating a new plantation industry. Two decades before, they had installed almost eight hundred square miles of coffee in 1869. Three years later the director of the Sri Lanka botanical gardens was reporting that “not a single estate has quite escaped it.” Wickham’s seedlings arrived just as unhappy colonists were ripping out stricken coffee trees and planting tea bushes. (The coffee plague is sometimes claimed to be why the British hot beverage of choice is tea, rather than coffee.) Few were interested in replacing their new tea bushes with rubber. The same coffee disease struck Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1890s. Forced to restart there, planters tried the rubber trees that had been languishing in Sri Lanka. The fortunes quickly  made in Malaysia – and Indonesia, a Dutch colony that also took some of Wickham’s trees – convinced Sri Lanka to take another look. Malaysia and Sri Lanka had a thousand acres of rubber plantations in 1897. Fifteen years later, the figure had grown to more than 650,000. For the first time more rubber came from Asia than from the Americas. Prices fell, and the Brazilian rubber industry was reduced to dust.

Few in Manaus saw it coming – more evidence, if any were needed, of the human propensity to believe that flukes of good fortune will never come to an end. The city sank into lassitude, its opera house shuttered, its mansions abandoned. Rubber executives realized to their shock that labourers scattered across a forest the size of a continent could not produce latex nearly as efficiently as workers who moved down rows of closely packed trees. In their dismay few Amazonian businesses even tried to develop plantations. The first real chance the region had to recoup occurred in 1922, when British colonies in Asia, which had overplanted rubber, sought to control prices by forming a cartel. Among those enraged by this action were Harvey Firestone, the world’s biggest tire maker, and Henry Ford, the world’s biggest car maker. Firestone responded by creating a huge rubber plantation in Liberia. Ford planned one of equal size in the Amazon.

Henry Wickham, 1846 - 1928

Leaf Blight

As a site Ford chose Tapajos River, near Santarem, close to where Wickham had acquired his seeds. In an inauspicious debut for the project, Ford hired a Brazilian go-between who in 1927 sold him almost four thousand square miles of land up the Tapajos that happened to be owned by the go-between. To house his workers Ford built a replica of a middle-class Michigan town, complete with a hospital, schools, stores, movie theaters, Methodist churches, and wooden bungalows on tree-lined streets. On a hill was the Amazon basin’s only eighteen hole golf course. Orderly and straitlaced as Ford himself, the town was the opposite of boomtown Manaus. Wags immediately dubbed the project Fordlandia.

For Ford, the next few years was a series of unhappy surprises. Only after the first season’s rubber trees died did the company find out that Hevea Brasiliensis [the rubber tree] must be established at particular times of the year to thrive. Only after paying steamship bills did the company realize that it would not be possible to offset the cost of clearing all the hardwood trees on its land by selling timber in the United States. And only after planting thousands of acres did the company learn that the Amazon has a fungus, Microcyclus ulei, that is partial to rubber trees. This last sentence is imprecise. The company did know that M. ulei existed. What it didn’t grasp was that there was no way to stop it.

Microcyclus ulei causes South American leaf blight. Leaf blight begins when a spore lands on a Hevea leaf.

Left behind are ruined blackened leaves, which fall off the tree. Leaf blight defoliates H. brasiliensis. The blighted trees I [the author of “1493”; Charles Mann] have seen, with their sparse black foliage, looked as if someone had gone after them with a blowtorch. Many trees survive a bout with M. ulei, but their growth is stunted; a second or third episode will kill them.

M. ulei spores do not survive long after parting from their natal leaf. Thus Hevea trees in the wild are spaced widely apart; if one succumbs to leaf blight, the others are too distant to be attacked. In plantations, by contrast, trees are so close together that their upper branches are entangled. Spores hop from tree to tree like so many squirrels. Or the fungus can travel on the clothes and fingernails of plantation workers. That is what happened in Fordlandia.

The disaster effectively ended Fordlandia, though it wasn’t formally abandoned until 1945. Its fate made most Brazilians conclude that rubber plantations are not viable in the Amazon. When Ford bought land in Brazil, 92% of the world’s natural rubber came from Asia. Five years after Fordlandia ended the figure was 95%.

And still today 90% of the world’s natural rubber comes from Asia, with most of the remaining 10% coming not from South America, but from Africa with Liberia and the Ivory Coast as largest producers.

“And the other party doesn’t know what a lawyer is”

The advent of synthetic rubber during the First World War failed to drive the Asians out of business. despite the brilliance of industrial chemists, there is still no synthetic able to match natural rubber’s resistance to fatigue and vibration.

With its need for materials that can withstand battle conditions the military is a major customer [of natural rubber] – which is why the United States imposed a rubber blockade on China during the Korean war.

The blockade helped convince the Chinese of the need to grow their own H. Brasiliensis. Alas, the nation had only a few areas warm enough for this tropical species. The biggest was Xishuangbanna (syee-schwong-ban-na more or less), at the extreme tip of Yunnan province, bordering Laos and Burma. A homeland for the Dai and Akha, two of China’s minority ethnic groups, Xishuangbanna Prefecture is China’s most tropical place.

In the late 1970s China began its economic reforms. Local Dai and Akha villagers were finally permitted to establish rubber farms. They were effective and efficient. Between 1976 and 2003 the area devoted to rubber expanded by a factor of ten, shrinking tropical mountain forest in that time from 50.8% of the prefecture to 10.3%. The prefecture was a sea of Hevea Brasiliensis.

Rubber Plantation in Asia

Even as burgeoning China became the world’s biggest rubber consumer, its rubber producers were running out of space in Xishuangbanna  – every inch of land was already taken. They looked enviously over the border to Laos; with about six million people in an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is the emptiest country in Asia. [what about Mongolia?]

Beijing announced that it would treat rubber growing in Laos and Burma as an opium replacement program, making the former military farms eligible for subsidies: up to 80% of the initial costs for companies to grow rubber across the border, as well as interest on loans. In addition it would exempt incoming rubber from most tariffs.

Duly incentivised, companies and smallholders flowed over the border. They hired Dai and Akha who lived in China to work with their distant relatives in Laos. Most Laotians lived in hamlets without electricity or running water; schools and hospitals were a distant dream. Seeing a chance to improve their material conditions, villagers jumped starry-eyed on the rubber bandwagon, cutting deals with firms and farms in China. “In China they were as poor as us” one village head told me. “Now they are rich – they have motorcycles and cars – because they planted rubber. We want to have the same.”

Most of the first plantations [in Laos] were created by villagers who knocked down a few acres on their own or worked with equally small plantations in China. Later the bigger Chinese operations moved in, among them the former state farms. Because rubber trees take seven years to mature, companies naturally want to make long-term arrangements with the people who plant and tend them. I was allowed to look at one of the resultant contracts, between the Chinese firm Huipeng Rubber and three hamlets in Luang Namtha Province [Laos].

Written in both Chinese and Lao, the contract consisted of twenty-four numbered paragraphs. Three were boilerplate: legal descriptions of Huipeng and the villages. Eighteen explained the rights and privileges of the company. One listed the villagers’ rights and privileges. In the confusion of the moment I might have got the numbers slightly wrong – the papers were shown to me while a village head and the rubber agent were telling me their views, each in a different language. But it was impossible to miss that Huipeng’s executives had affirmed their contract with their signatures whereas the villagers had affirmed it by rolling their thumbprints onto the page.

Each village would plant a certain amount of its land with rubber, the contract explained. Huipeng would in return improve both roads within the village and highways to it. But the firm could sell its rights to the land at it own discretion and hire anybody it wanted to tend the trees, including people from China. Some 70% of the proceeds from rubber would go to the villages, “depending on the effective results of the planting” – a big loophole, it seemed to me. Contracts of this sort between companies and villages are common in China. But such arrangements seemed less benign in Luang Namtha. To my eye the contract looked like the kind of document that emerges when one party has a lawyer looking after its interest and the other party doesn’t know what a lawyer is.

In Ban Songma, the next settlement down the road, the village leader who negotiated the contract was about thirty years old. On the day we met he wore a white t-shirt and soccer shorts with a Munich logo. Beside him stood his wife, holding a baby girl wrapped in a faded Hello Kitty blanket. I asked him the name of the rubber company, how much land the village was supposed to provide to it, and the split of the proceeds. He couldn’t answer these questions. This was not because he was stupid – he was obviously a shrewd sparky man – but because the questions were beyond his frame of reference. To be a modern economic agent requires a huge set of habits, assumptions and expectations. Few of them had been needed in Ban Songma even ten years before.

The village head didn’t know whether he and his neighbours would be taught how to graft trees themselves, or to tap latex, or to do initial processing for rubber, but he did know that people that worked for the Chinese ended up with motorbikes, which liberated them from hours of walking up and down steep hills. The baby in the Hello Kitty blanket will grow up knowing more than her father about the whirling new world Ban Songma is entering Huipeng’s contract will be in force for forty years. It will be interesting to see at its end how the child regards the deal that her father signed.

I believe that exactly these type of issues lie at the core of why cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast are paid poorly, and why it is so hard to reform the cocoa sector.  Almost everybody with some clout in the sector has an incentive to continue paying farmers poorly and keeping the bulk of the profits for themselves.

Reform of the cocoa sector is a requirement for the Ivory Coast to be accepted in the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Coutries) initiative  which means a much needed debt reduction.  The Ivorian government is thus – for the moment – highly motivated to do the reform and tackle special interests in the Cocoa sector.  The question is what will happen a couple of years down the line.

The head of the law firm I’m working with in the Ivory Coast  is actually involved in the Cocoa reform on the government side – but all I know about it is that he has been very busy, and due to the top guy syndrome, it has meant that the whole law firm has been quite unresponsive.

Back to the story of rubber in “1493”:

A Looming Disaster

Because trees are grafted from the wood of high-yielding specimens, the great majority of the rubber trees in Southeast Asia are clones. And the majority of the trees used to create those clones descended from the few sprouts that survived from Henry Wickham’s original expedition – a slice of a slice of a slice. The trees make a canopy of green so unbroken that Beijing legally describes rubber plantations as “forests”; locals can fill fallow farmland with rubber and fulfill government conservation dictates. As the area of rubber increases, it becomes an increasingly inviting target for pests. “That’s the lesson of biology” Tang [A Chinese ecologist] said. “Disease always come in. Sooner or later they find a way.”

For a century, isolation – the isolation of Southeast Asia from Brazil, of Southeast Asian nations from each other – has spared rubber plantations. But the world is knitting itself together ever more closely. There are still no direct flights from Amazonia to Southeast Asia, but they will come. And in April 2008 the governments in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand opened a brand new highway that for the first time links all of these nations and connects them to Malaysia and Singapore. Trucks will be able to zoom in three days from Singapore to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. If and when M. ulei arrives from Brazil, this will provide transportation. “In ten or twenty years, Xishuangbanna’s trees could be wiped out,” Tang said. “So would everyone else’s trees probably. ”

The disaster would take a long time to repair. The industrial revolution, one recalls, depends on three raw materials: steel fossil fuels and rubber. If one member of the triad suddenly disappeared it would have unwelcome effects. Imagine transportation networks without tires, electric power plants without gaskets and seals, hospitals without sterile rubber hoses and gloves. Industrial civilization could face such disruption  worldwide that organizations from the United Nations to the U.S. Department of Defense list Microcyclus ulei as a potential biological weapon. Synthetic rubber will be deployed to replace it, but only as an imperfect replacement. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be in a 747 about to land on synthetic tires,” the director of the U.S. National Defense Stockpile Center has said.

Breeders are working on new, resistant plants, but progress is slow. “All control measures against the disease have been unsuccessful,” stated the Annals of Botany in 2007. Even the most modern techniques have “failed to prevent large losses and dieback of trees.” Asian scientists pulled some more trees from Brazil in 1981 to increase plantations genetic diversity. These are being evaluated and cross-bred with more productive plants. Researchers in France announced in 2006 that they had fully resistant clones. but few plantation owners want to take up these varieties, which are new and therefore risky. Every ecologist I spoke with in Brazil, China, and Laos believed that Asia was almost as unprepared for leaf blight today as it was fifty years ago.

When I visited Xishuangbanna , I wore the same shoes that I had worn a few months before in Brazil. Because spores are fragile, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t cause an epidemic. Still, I sprayed my shoes with fungicide. At the border neither the Chinese nor the Laotian customs officials battered an eye at the two Brazilian visas in my passport, or the entry stamps that said I had passed through Manaus, the epicenter of leaf blight. I wanted to do my work so I didn’t say anything.

Someday though, there will be a problem. Trees will die fast. The epidemic will cover an area large enough to be seen from space: black-leaved splotches scattered from the tip of China to the end of Indonesia. There will be a major international mobilization of resources to fight the outbreak.

In the Ivory Coast people say that an advantage with rubber trees is that they are less disease prone than other plants, and they are right.  The leaf blight is a one in a hundred year event (but becoming likelier), and there isn’t much else that harm the trees.

It seems possible that the leaf blight could hit Asia but not Africa, which would be bad for practically everyone except synthetic rubber producers, African rubber tree owners and those involved in disease control and resistant trees.

Rubber Plantation in Laos


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