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Day 4: Beside the Rio Negro

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With the Public Prosecutor and his wife. He's taking a strong line against the miners.
Michael Palin - BrazilWith one bound we've crossed the Equator and are now in a small village on the banks of the Rio Negro, a few kilometres upstream from where this already mighty river joins the Amazon. The houses are modest, clapboard constructions built on stilts, for in the flood season the river can rise by at least ten metres. The odd thing is that they all seem freshly painted in bold, bright colours. I'm told that this is because this village was recently the location for one of Brazilian TV's much-loved soap operas. This one had an ecological twist and catered for the increasingly serious interest being taken in the Amazon.

That was then. Now the TV company has moved on and there is not much left to this small fishing settlement but the glossy colours of the houses and a general air of listlessness. It's here that I meet Elias, one of the last of the old-style rubber tappers, or seringueiros – seringueira being the Portuguese name for the rubber tree. In his mid-sixties now, Elias's deeply lined face, weathered and pinched, betrays a hard life, or possibly a hard-drinking life. He was nine years old when his father took him on his first rubber-tapping expedition. Like the gold prospectors of Roraima, the seringueiros worked in small self-employed groups, often far from home for long periods. He showed me one of the rubber trees, the Hevea brasiliensis: short, slender and with its grey bark scarred with incisions. The cuts are made close to the base of the tree where the latex runs more plentifully. Elias draws his blade diagonally across the bark and as the white sticky juice oozes out he collects it in a small metal pot. This is heated to a temperature of 800°C over an open fire, which contains sulphur to keep the latex malleable. This vital part of the process, called vulcanization, was discovered by the American inventor Charles Goodyear in 1839. Elias adds the vulcanized latex to a growing ball weighing several kilos. In this form the rubber would have been shipped downstream by the seringueiros to the middlemen in Manaus or Santarém. In the late nineteenth century a lot of Brazilians grew immensely wealthy as the world demand for their rubber increased.

It was a French explorer named Charles Marie de La Condamine who first drew attention to the valuable properties of Hevea brasiliensis, but ultimately it was the British who benefited most from his discovery. Sir Joseph Hooker, the industrious botanist who was Director of Kew Gardens from 1865 to 1885, was fascinated by the exotic plants and trees of the world. In the 1860s he had encouraged Richard Spruce to bring seedlings of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, out of South America and had them transplanted to India, providing an antidote to malaria and one of the essential ingredients of gin and tonic. Hooker then turned his energies to the rubber tree. In 1876, at Hooker's instigation, a man called Henry Wickham, now much reviled in Brazil, smuggled out enough seeds to germinate rubber trees at Kew Gardens. By 1900 they were successfully transplanted to Malaya. A most skilful botanist called Henry Ridley – 'Rubber' Ridley, as he became known – persuaded tea producers to raise Hevea brasiliensis on their Malayan plantations. His perseverance paid off. By 1908 there were ten million rubber trees in Malaya producing rubber at a fifth of the cost of the Brazilian product. By 1920 Brazil's most profitable export business had collapsed. Elias's father, like other seringueiros, continued to tap but the days when you could get seriously rich from Brazilian rubber were over.

As one of Henry Wickham's countrymen I feel almost embarrassed as Elias demonstrates the process for us, albeit without much conviction. Everyone looks up in some relief as the skies darken and we just have time to race across the village football pitch and into the Pousada Jacaré (Alligator Guest House) as the first thudding drops of a tropical deluge descend. For a few hours there's nothing much we can do. It's one of those tropical storms of such intensity that, as the writer Álvaro Mutis put it, 'they seem to announce the universal flood'. We eat from a basic buffet of fish, chicken, rice and salad and then take to the hammocks that hang on the veranda.
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Shops like this show the gold prospectors are still in business.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 4: Beside the Rio Negro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio Negro
  • Book page no: 29

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