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Airdate: Sep 19, 2000
Scientist: Wade Davis

Rubber: Boom

Rubber: Boom
When Henry Ford invented the Model T, he started a gold rush - for the "black gold" of the Amazon.

ambience Sound of a model T antique car and horn

In the early 1900's a new Model T Ford would roll off the production line just about every hour. All those cars needed tires, and thus began the rush for rubber -- the black gold of the Amazon. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont.

"In Manaos, the Brazilian city situated at the heart of the trade, it was nothing for gentlemen to light their cigars with hundred dollar banknotes."

Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist and author of the book, One River. The rubber boom of the early 20th century, he says, is a story of greed and unspeakable cruelty, all set in motion by an accident of biology.

"In nature, the wild tree that was the source of rubber grew widely dispersed in the Amazon as an adaptation against its major predator, a pernicious fungal disease known as the South American leaf blight. Invariably when trees are concentrated in plantations in South America, that disease breaks out and runs like wildfire, destroying the entire investment. In order to get rubber you had to go after the wild trees and to do so you needed enormous numbers of laborers."

Growers needed native people to work on plantations, and to keep them on the job, the rubber barons resorted to terror.

"The horrendous atrocities that were unleashed on the Indian people of the Amazon during the height of the rubber boom were like nothing that had been seen since the first days of the Spanish Conquest."

The horrors of South America's rubber trade ended when the British smuggled a boatload of rubber treed seeds out of Brazil and began to establish rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. By 1940, almost all the world's rubber was being grown there. But then came Pearl Harbor. We'll hear what happened next in our next program. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation.