Amazon rubber boom: The late 19th century saw a rush to exploit this Peruvian rainforest product

28 February 2018 (2443 visits)

Originally, all rubber was made from the latex produced by three species of trees found in the vast forests of the Amazon basin (Hevea brasiliensis, Hevea guyanensis and Castilloa elastica). By the end of the 19th century demand by industrialized nations for the manufacture of water resistant coatings and car tires had led to a rubber boom.

The rubber boom in the Peruvian Amazon lasted from 1870 to 1918. The rush to exploit Peruvian rubber began in the north of the country, where it fuelled the growth of port cities like Iquitos and Yurimaguas. Because access to the area was extremely difficult, those seeking to exploit natural rubber did not arrive in southeastern Peru’s Madre de Dios region until the beginning of the 20th century. 

It was the Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald who opened up the Madre de Dios region to the rubber industry. Exploiting native workers, he discovered an overland route between the Mishagua and Manu rivers, thereby opening up access via the Ucayali River and the Amazon River itself to Atlantic ports and the insatiable rubber markets of North America and Europe.

 

While the efforts of Fitzcarrald, who founded the town of Puerto Maldonado, led to the rubber-based economic development experienced by this part of Peru, transport costs remained high. It was not until 1906 that a trans-Andean route was opened up from Puno to Astillero, on the Upper Tambopata River. Rubber extraction activities intensified thereafter, and the Madre de Dios region became a major player in the industry, accounting in 1915 for 23% of Peru's total rubber production. 

But the rubber boom ended as suddenly as it had begun, with the establishment by the British of rubber plantations in East Asia, using seeds removed illicitly from Peru by the Englishman Henry A. Wickham. With the collapse of the rubber industry in South America, the importance of the Madre de Dios region quickly declined and workers left in their thousands, returning this part of Peru to the relative isolation it had enjoyed for centuries.

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