SYMP 3-8 - The rubber boom and bust: ecological consequences

Monday, August 8, 2011: 3:40 PM
Ballroom G, Austin Convention Center
Susanna Hecht, UCLA


    Watersheds of the Upper Amazon are often described as among the most remote and pristine ecosystems in Latin America. This position  is a-historical and ignored the degree to which the region was profoundly integrated into global commodity markets, geopolitical rivalries ( the “Scramble for the Amazon” of the late 19th and early 20th century), and major labor deployments and migration. The rubber “boom” ( and really it was an economy that lasted more than a century) had durable impacts on regional landscapes that we outline more genrally, and document for the Putumayo.

      While we use rubber as an inclusive term, the market for latexes at the Boom time exploited  a range of latex producing plants, including the 3000 year domesticate, “Caucho” or  Castilla  sp. While distributed throughout the basin, it was especially economically important on the Putumayo River, where its latex was extracted by killing the tree.. This study uses historical documents about the production of the Putumayo, the area, intensity and spatial location of Caucho extraction within the watershed. Through sale records, tax documents, production data and locational data from the firm and related documents that came to light during the trials of the Arana corporation and those of Roger Casement, we have derived  a significant deforestation pulse associated with the extraction of Castilla latex in the Putumayo. Using remote sensing data we can compare the carbon dynamics in areas that were intensively harvested, versus those that were not exploited, and show that what is often taken as mature forest is secondary. We have also examined species compositions in used and unused sites.


      Our results show that this area experienced several kinds of deforestation ranging from agriculture, wood for steam and especially from deforestation for Caucho latex, a level of environmental impact that rival current selective logging effects, and thus contribute at non trivial levels to the carbon load of the early 20th century.

This study adds to an emerging literature on “deforestation before modern deforestation”, and places the rubber boom within a more complex set of  socio-ecological processes. It helps debunk the idea of a “world lost from time”  and integrates this region into a broader  understanding of historical environmental impacts of what is often portrayed as an untrammeled landscape

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