The labor for the product was provided by farmers who had emigrated from areas that had been struck by draught. They traveled to the Amazon River, where they were stacked in ships’ holds for transport to their final destination. Already weakened before they began the journey by low levels of nutrition and the spread of disease, many died en route. In 1878, for example, 120,000 of the 800,000 inhabitants of Ceará left for the Amazon, but less than half were able to arrive (Galeano 2004:118).
The forced labor for the export of rubber was a form a debt peonage similar to slavery. In addition to the original debt for transport to the Amazon, other debts accumulated for work tools and food. In general, the older the worker, the greater was the debt that had accumulated. There was an agreement among the companies that no worker with pending debts with another company would be employed, and rural guards were placed along the rivers, firing shots at fugitives (Galeano 2004:118-19).
But by 1919, the Brazilian exportation of rubber had crashed. In 1873, an Englishman named Henry Wickham had clandestinely taken seeds of the Brazilian rubber trees, and this would eventually lead to the cultivation of rubber trees on plantations in Malaysia and Ceylon in a rational system of production, which did not have the extractive problems of the natural production in the Amazon. There was, however, a brief revival of Brazilian rubber during the World War II with the Japanese occupation of Malaysia (Galeano 2004:121).
Galeano, Eduardo. 1997. The Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent, 25th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. Forward by Isabel Allende. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 2004. Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, tercera edición, revisada. México: Siglo XXI Editores.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, rubber, Open Veins of Latin America, Galeano, Brazil, Amazon