Saturday, 10 December 2011

Amazonas - A World made of Rubber

Before I started researching for this blog, I'd always assumed that rubber is something that has been around since time immemorial.  So widespread is the use of rubber these days that it's hard to imagine a world without it.  But I was surprised to find out that rubber wasn't known in Europe until the 18th century, when the French explorer, Charles Marie de la Condamine, brought back some samples, after a trip he'd made to the Amazon region. 

So what is rubber?

Natural rubber (or gum rubber) is a solidified form of the milky liquid latex which is produced by a variety of plants, including plants like DandelionsLatex from the Para Rubber Tree (Hevea Brasilensis) of the Amazon region, can be collected in containers and made into the elasticated form of rubber that we all know and love.  Latex itself, like a lot of plant sap, evolved as a defense mechanism for trees, to protect their leaves and barks from insects and animals.  It's not surprising that many people are allergic to latex (which includes being allergic to sticking plasters or Band-Aids).  Latex and rubber are nowadays combined with more toxic substances, which could also be the cause of allergic reactions. 

The origin of the word

The word that La Condamine used to describe the sap from the Amazon trees was caoutchouc, believed to be an approximation of the word cahuchu (basically, tree sap) from the Tupi language.  It's the term that is used in languages like French, Spanish and Catalan.  Many other languages use some form of the word gum - Gummi (German), gomma (Italian).  In Portuguese, it's borracha, which came from the Spanish term for a 'skin on wine' (but now means 'drunk' in Spanish!).  The Portuguese word seringa (English syringe) has also been used to describe rubber.  It's quite telling that the first thing the English did with this new substance was use it to rub out pencil marks (hence the term rubber).  I'm sure many a 19th century English bureaucrat's life was revolutionised by this new substance!

Rubber plantation by goosmurf
Rubber around the world

19th century Brazilians refused to believe that rubber could be produced anywhere else in the world, but they were proved wrong by the English explorer, Henry Wickham, who brought seeds from the rubber plant back to Kew Gardens in London and ultimately to the British rubber plantations in Ceylon and Malaya.  The advent of the Industrial revolution, the motor car industry and two World Wars led to a boom in rubber production in the ex-British colonies and a sharp decline in rubber production in the Amazon region.  Manaus and Belem, the capitals of Amazonas and Para, also went into a decline and have never really recovered their erstwhile glory. When we talk about natural rubber production today, it's all about Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Rubber and coffee

As I outlined in a previous blog post, Brazil has become the world's leading coffee producer, although this plant has its origins in the highlands of Ethiopia.  Whilst rubber still grows naturally in the Amazon region, attempts at creating large-scale rubber plantations have failed miserably (have a look at this blog post about the failed Fordlandia and you'll see what I mean!). 

In their natural environment, rubber trees need to be separated by irregular distances, to prevent pestilence and blight.  Outside their natural environment, rubber trees function well in concentrated plantations, as they no longer have an equal concentration of 'natural enemies'.  In the same way, coffee has thrived in Brazil and I can't help but wonder whether all of this wasn't meant to be?

Rubber ducks by Felix63
Rubber production in the 21st century

In the 20th century, the Russians, Germans and British managed to find ways of producing rubber synthetically, which is capital-intensive, but not labour-intensive and therefore more suitable for economies where labour costs are high.  72% of today's natural rubber is produced in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but India and China are the world's biggest consumers of natural rubber. 

For a variety of reasons, the production of natural rubber is in decline and, according to The Rubber Economist Ltd, there is likely to be a shortage of natural rubber in the near future.  A quick look at statistics from the ANRPC (The Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries) shows that the price of natural rubber has doubled in the past two years.  I wonder if natural rubber is going to become somewhat of a luxury item in years to come?

Things we use rubber for

Balls - rubber balls have existed in the Amazon region for a very long time and, along with rudimentary footwear, this seems to have been the main use for rubber in traditional Amazonian societies.

Waterproof clothing - the Scottish inventor, Charles Macintosh, found an even better use for rubber than his English counterparts, ie. in creating water-proof clothing, certainly a very useful invention for Scotland and the world!  Macintosh is responsible for the process of vulcanisation which helps turn latex/rubber into a more durable product.

The Car Industry - the boom in rubber was partly a result of the development of the motorcar industry and the use of rubber in car tyres.  I'd imagine most natural rubber tyres have now been replaced with more durable and economically viable synthetic versions.

Erasers - I remember we used to collect these, when I was at school, in the same way that you might collect fridge magnets or other souvenirs.  I'm not sure I've used erasers much since I left school - except the virtual ones that live on, in digital form!

Unlearning by Jacqueline Tinney
Rubber-bands - the weapon of choice for school bullies, as well as an essential item of office stationery, despite living in an increasingly digitalised world. 

Rubber has also entered the most intimate parts of our lives:

Teats for dummies/pacifiers/soothers - rubber has also replaced that most sacred area of human contact, between a baby and its mother, although in recent years, the practice of breast-feeding is once again coming into fashion. 

Condoms - as well as enabling Europeans to conquer half the world, by providing us with quinine, the Amazon region has also, arguably, given us a solution to the world's growing population.  There is some speculation as to whether condoms are named after La Condamine.  Whilst 'reproductive barriers' have been around for a long time, using latex to produce condoms has given the world a more fail-safe and cost-effective way of controlling reproduction.  No small legacy, to be sure!

Fetish wear and sex toys - rubber and latex products have also been used to produce clothing, which has become a bit of a fetish in the modern world.  Rubber has become like a 'second skin' for fetishists, which I guess means that you are somehow 'naked' when you wear rubber clothing.  For hygenic reasons, natural and synthetic rubbers are also used to produce sex toys. 

There are many, many more uses of rubber in 21st century life - along with plastic and wood, we've constructed a world made of rubber. 

Image credits:

The image of the rubber plantation in Malaysia was taken by flickr member goosmurf aka Yun Huang Yong, who lives in New South Wales, Australia.  You can see more of Yun's work on his website.

The image of the rubber ducks is by flickr member Felix63 - you can see more of his photos on his photostream

The wonderful image of a baby's soother (dummy, pacifier, whatever!) is by flickr member jacquelinetinney who is from Nottingham in England.  You can see more of Jacqueline's photos on her website.

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