A Bio Pirate in the rainforest of the Amazon

By Parag Ranjan Dutta

Nineteenth century Brazil — In the equatorial forest of Brazil some trees, creepers and climbers were growing profusely that yielded juice or latex. Latex, the milky fluid from which rubber products were made was mainly obtained from trees known as ‘Hevea Brasiliensis’ or Hivea which grew predominantly in the Amazon Basin of Brazil and also in Bolivia and Peru and some other Latin American countries. It was also known as ‘para’ rubber because rubber used to be exported through the port of Para, eastern Brazil. The seeds of rubber Hevea contain cyanic compounds and are poisonous to humans unless treated.
Interestingly rubber got its name when people in Britain found that it could be used to erase or “rub out” mistakes written with pencil. Long before Brazilians started manufacturing natural rubber some Latin American nations had already been using rubber for different purposes for generations. That was a period when 99 per cent of world’s natural rubber was produced by Brazil and the whole world was at the mercy of the South American nation for this indispensible commodity. The Brazilian government did not allow the technology to be transferred as it jealously guarded the interest of the rubber industry. Though rubber trade was solely controlled by certain business interests there was no such law prohibiting the export of seeds and plants. Around that time an English gentleman, Henry Wickham, a planter, explorer and adventurer who tried his luck in a number of countries arrived in Para from Trinidad.
The fortune hunter, Henry Wickham in one of history’s act of bio piracy stole a treasure from the rainforest of Brazil that changed the course of history and the monopoly of the South American nation. On June, 1876, at the request of the British India office he silently smuggled out 70000 thousands odd rubber seeds to Queen Victoria’s scientists at Kew Botanical Garden in London that were nurtured carefully. Expenses of procuring seeds, freight and others were met by the British India Office.
Only few survived due to much care and nurturing, but many perished due to cool climatic conditions of Britain. In order to convince the custom department of Brazil to grant him an export license Wickham deliberately misinformed the custom officials about his cargo being exceedingly delicate botanical specimens for delivery to her Majesty’s own Royal Garden at Kew. And for this he came to be known as a bio pirate. Forty four years after this act of treachery he was knighted in 1920. Though only about 4000 seeds germinated at the Kew Garden, but were enough to become the basis of initiating plantations in British colonies across Asia. In his non-fiction thriller Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power and Seeds of Empire the American author Joe Jackson narrates the amazing story of bio-piracy of a man of reckless courage, adventure and self destructive ambition.
Much before Henry Wickham’s adventure in Brazil Christopher Columbus in pursuit of a new route to India landed in Haiti in the Caribbean Islands. On August 3, 1492 Columbus sailed from Palos, Spain in three small ships — Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina. Exploring through the Caribbean Sea looking for gold, Columbus landed in San Salvador, Haiti on October 11. Columbus was the first European to see the native children playing a game with round shaped objects that bounced. Long before Columbus explored the Caribbean region the native South American Indians knew the art of making rubber balls from latex. The rubber balls were used in Aztec ceremonial games. Ancient Mayas and Incas also were making different grades of rubber. In 1735 Charles Marie de La Condamine, a member of the French Geographical expedition team to South America was the first person to give an account of native South American system of rubber production. La Condamine called the rubber tree ‘carutechona’ the French spelling of a native term for ‘weeping trees’.
With the invention of automobiles the demand for rubber boomed. Soon Manaus, situated on the Amazon was booming with activity and became the heart of rubber trade. It was around 1839 it was discovered that rubber had many industrial uses. In 1888 John Boyd Dunlop used the first bicycle with pneumatic (inflatable) tyres and is still remembered today for founding the company that bears his name ‘Dunlop Tyres’. Water proof raincoat, very often called Mackintosh was invented by a Scottish man Charles Mackintosh in 1923.
In olden time when cars started rolling on the streets of London thes tyre used to melt during the summer season and crumble during the winter. This problem was solved when on December 29, 1839, when Charles Goodyear, an American self-taught chemist invented vulcanization, a chemical process of hardening rubber by combining with sulphur that gives rubber strength, resistance and elasticity that would support extreme temperatures.
British realized that it was not possible to grow rubber trees in England due to its cool climatic conditions. Henry Nicholas Ridley, an English Botanist was the person who brought the rubber seeds from Kew Garden to Singapore and then to the mainland Malaysia in Kuala Kangsar. An Anglo-Dutch treaty divided the Malaya Archipelago between the British and the Dutch when Malaya came under the British rule. Only 2400 seedlings were sent to British Malaya, British Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), British Ceylone (Sri Lanka) and India. Because of the similar geographical conditions of Brazil British colonists began promoting the commercial production of plantation rubber in Malay Peninsula.
In Malaysian plantations everything was foreign in nature including capital, management, technological knowhow and others except local labour. Long before in 1895 Ridley convinced two coffee growers of Sri Lanka to make an attempt to plant rubber trees in two acres of their estates. 1919 seedlings grew very fast in the Gamapha Botanical Garden. The first rubber seedlings to India were brought to Goa, a non- traditional area for rubber cultivation. It was an Irishman, John Joseph Murphy, known as Kerala’s ‘rubber man’ who set up the first rubber plantation in India. Efforts also on to grow rubber on a commercial scale at the Botanical Garden, Calcutta. Commercial plantation of rubber in India began its journey with the initiative of the British planters when they formed the ‘Periyar Syndicate’ in Kerala. The local governments of Travancore, Madras and Mysore also encouraged the rubber cultivation and even granted land. It took six years to see the first result and there was no looking back. India entered the rubber map of the world and Kerala, because of the more favourable conditions with high temperature and heavy rain fall became the most important rubber growing region.
During the world war II Japan invaded Malay in December 1941 and captured Singapore. Japanese invasion of South East Asia in cut off about 90 per cent of the natural rubber supplies, a strategic war material to tire manufacturers. Japanese had a very decisive plan, secure the rubber fields and cut off the supplies to all the enemy countries like Britain, China and French colonies. Because of the war the supply of plantation rubber from Malaya became uncertain because it could not be shipped out to major consuming countries. Plantations came under heavy Japanese bombings and work almost came to a halt. During the war every machine needed rubber. It was difficult to fight the war without rubber. US military needed rubber for trucks, airplanes and jeeps. Germany desperately needed rubber from Malaysia during the peak war time because of their stealth submarine called U Boat. It was named U-480, considered by many to be the first stealth submarine, equipped with a special rubber coating, which made it difficult to be detected by British Sonar, a technique which uses sound to detect objects, usually under water.
Many scientists soon realized the importance of rubber and that the development of synthetic rubber will be a goldmine. A German chemist team headed by Fritz Hoffman succeeded in the production of a substance called isoprene, the starting material for the production of synthetic rubber. But it is believed that it was Chaim Weizmann, a chemist and also the first president of independent Israel was the person who first developed Isoprene.
Though the future of plantation rubber is not very bleak but facing a stiff challenge from the synthetic rubber sector. Plantation rubber has a problem of steady supply and the synthetic rubber have more advantages over plantation rubber because it is resistant to certain chemicals and has a better aging and can withstand a wider range of temperature.

(The author is former Head, Department of Geography, St. Edmund’s College)

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