latex straight from the tree
Rubber is rubbery material made from latex, a milky liquid that drips out of a rainforest tree like the sap used to make maple syrup. It is used in making auto tires, industrial conveyor belts, condoms, surgical gloves, sporting equipment, shoes, sportswear and a wide range of goods for bicycles, cars, motorcycles, machinery, and an additive for other chemicals and other products.

The rubber tree originate in the Amazon. Latex has been used by Indians there since at least the 10th century for waterproofing clothes and footwear. Some South American Indians used the "woodskin" on their canoes. Up until a century a half ago only rainforest Indians knew how to tap latex from the tree.

In the 16th century, Spaniards with Cortes and Pizarro noticed Indians in the New World collecting white liquid from trees and using it to coat capes and moccasins and to make rubber balls for games. They called the substance "tree milk" but didn’t consider using it as a material themselves because it became sticky in hot weather.

Rubber was name in 1770 by the British chemist Joseph Drietsly, who was sent a ball of rubber from America and later discovered it rubbed out pencil marks. Although some Europeans new of rubber, it didn't become commercially important until the 19th century.

Top Rubber Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Thailand, 1698667 , 3166910; 2) Indonesia, 1567233 , 2921872; 3) Malaysia, 575213 , 1072400; 4) India, 439295 , 819000; 5) Viet Nam, 353796 , 659600; 6) China, 293861 , 547861; 7) Philippines, 220475 , 411044; 8) Côte d'Ivoire, 101124 , 188532; 9) Nigeria, 76702 , 143000; 10) Sri Lanka, 69321 , 129240; 11) Brazil, 64851 , 120905; 12) Liberia, 43446 , 81000; 13) Guatemala, 37546 , 70000; 14) Cameroon, 27891 , 52000; 15) Myanmar, 24137 , 45000; 16) Cambodia, 16990 , 31676; 17) Mexico, 14862 , 27709; 18) Guinea, 7455 , 13900; 19) Ecuador, 7375 , 13750; 20) Ghana, 7241 , 13500;

Vulcanization and Other Important Rubber Discoveries

Rubber tree plantation
In 1823 the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh discovered that rubber dissolved in the coal-tar and the mixture could be applied to cloth. He invented the raincoat.

In 1844, Charles Goodyear, an American hardware merchant, patented the vulcanization process, in which sulfur is added to rubber so that it doesn't melt in heat and go brittle in cold. Goodyear discovered the process after eight years of trying to make a useful rubber when he accidently dropped a mixture of India rubber and sulfur onto a hot stove. The rubber melted and bonded with the sulfur, producing vulcanized rubber.

Goodyear's daughter later wrote, "As I was passing in and out of the room. I casually observed a little piece of gum which he was holding near the fire, and I also noticed than he was unusually animated by some discovery which he made. He nailed the of gum outside the kitchen door in the intense cold. In the morning he brought it in, holding it up exultantly. He had found it perfectly flexible, as it was when he put it out." Goodyear patented the process. He spent a lot time in court defending his relights and never gained great financial success from his invention.

The air-inflated pneumatic rubber tires was invented by Scotsman J.B. Dunlop in 1887. After that the rubber industry really took off.

Rubber Boom

Rubber tree leaves
Practically overnight the price increased 400 percent and rich and poor alike came to Brazil to seek their fortune. The rich watched Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt perform at the the Manaus Opera House and sent their laundry to France for cleaning.

The great rubber boom occurred at the end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. It ended in 1907, when cheaper rubber from massive plantations in Asia flooded the market. There was another boom during World War II when refugees from the poverty-stricken northeast tapped rubber to make into tires for jeeps and bombers.

Today, the tire industry—dominated by Bridgestone, Michelin and Goodyear— is the biggest consumer of rubber. High prices for butadiebce, an oil product used to make synthetic rubber, has caused tire maker to turn to natural rubber to make tires. Higher oil and rubber prices have caused tire companies to raise their prices.

Rubber Plantations in Asia

Rubber plantation agriculture was introduced to Southeast Asia in the 19th century. It revolutionized parts of the economy there. Today, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand produce three quarters of the world's rubber as well as three quarters of the world's palm oil and large percentage of the coffee and cocoa crops. These crops were hit hard by the 1997 El Niño and their prices rose significantly.

Rubber trees were identified and studied in the Amazon by Sir Henry Wickham, who shipped 70,000 seedling to Kew Garden in 1876. Seedlings were sent from there to Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

The rubber industry got off to a slow start in Asia and didn’t really blossom until Brazilian rubber merchants tried to corner the market in 1905 and raised rubber prices high enough so that plantation owners in Asia could maker a profit. By 1915, three million acres of land was devoted to rubber in the Asia.

Latex could be grown much more efficiently and profitably on plantations in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries than in Brazil. Asian latex was much quality than wild latex form Brazil, which was filled with impurities. The British made a fortune with massive rubber plantations in Malaysia. Today, the United States alone imports over a billion dollars worth of the stuff every year.

Many trees have been lost to the South American leaf blight.

Rubber in Southeast Asia

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are the world’s largest rubber producers. In the mid 2000s Thailand was the world’s largest rubber exporter. It produced 69,000 tons and supplied 38 percent of the world’s rubber in 2004. Much of the Thailand’s rubber production is bought by China and tire makers. In 2004, Thailand exported 1.5 million tons of rubber, worth $2.5 billion, to China. In 2005 sheets of ribbed smoked rubber rose 57 percent to $1.73 a kilogram on the back of continued strong demand from China.

In 1901 British planters introduced rubber trees into the Malay Peninsula, where the soils and climatic conditions were highly suited to rubber cultivation. In Thailand early government restrictions on foreign investment led to development of the industry by local smallholders, usually subsistence rice farmers who were able to start rubber tree stands on the relatively abundant free land in the area. Land under rubber cultivation expanded rapidly in the 1930s, consisting mainly of smallholdings controlled by Chinese, Thai, and Thai Malays rather than large, European-owned plantations, as in other Asian countries.

The worlds top exporters of rubber in 1988 were: 1) Malaysia, 2) Indonesia, 3) Thailand, 4) the U.S., 5) France, 6) W. Germany, 7) Japan, 8) the Netherlands, 9) U.S.S.R. and 10) the UK. The worlds top producers of rubber in 1988 were: 1) USSR, 2) the U.S., 3) Malaysia, 4) Japan, 5) Indonesia, 6) Thailand, 7) France, 8) W. Germany, 9) the UK, 10) Brazil.

Competition from Synthetics

Rubber tree in Vietnam.
Many types of synthetic rubber were invented in the 1920s and 30, primarily in laboratories in the United States and Germany, but they did not become widely used until World War II, when the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia caused emergency shortages of natural rubber. At that time rubber was vitally important as a component of weapons and war hardware and in making them.

Many traditional rubber products are made with synthetics. But because synthetic substitutes made from petroleum are getting more costly and because radial tires require large amounts of rubber, natural rubber is making a comeback.

Spurred on by high oil prices and increased demand rubber prices doubled in the 1980s. The market then collapsed in the late 1990s. The price for some kinds of rubber dropped from $1,600 a ton in 1996 to $500 a ton in 1999, when oil prices collapsed, making synthetic rubber much cheaper than natural rubber.

Declining prices and competition forced many farmers to abandon rubber, and rubber tappers looked for new kinds of work. To revive the rubber industry, researchers are experimenting with high yield rubber trees and pushing rubber bearing on building foundations to offer shock absorption in earthquakes.

In 2004, Japanese researchers reported they had made rubber from edible wild mushrooms and that the rubber was superior to regular rubber in that it lacked a protein that cause allergies.

Tapping Rubber

Tapping a rubber tree
in Thailand
When a rubber tree is about six years old and six inches in diameter it is ready to be tapped for latex, which lies in tubes that spiral from the ground to the top of the trunk in the inner bark of the tree. The latex is harvested by slicing a groove into the bark of the tree at a depth of a quarter inch with a hooked knife and peeling back the bark. The groove is cut diagonally or in a semicircle across the trunk, deep enough to penetrate the outer bark and reach the inner bark, where the latex lies.

The latex comes out watery and milky white. A cup is set underneath the groove to collect the latex which initially flows out like blood, then slowly clots blood when exposed to air and slows to a dribble and finally stops after about three or four hours.

Tappers usually work early in the morning, often before sunrise with gaslight lamp on their head that produce a small flame fueled by a gas bottle in the tappers backpack. It is a delicate job. The bark has to be gouged just enough to start the latex flowing but not enough that the tree is damaged.

Tappers in the rainforest often leave the cup in place for at least a couple days before they collect the latex. Tappers on plantations often collect the latex in the late morning and carry it away in pales every other day and often add of few small drop of ammonia or another chemical to the cups to keep the rubber from coagulating.

Rainforest Rubber Tappers See Amazon

Killing of Chico Mendes and Efforts to Save the Rainforest

Chico Mendes
In 1988, a Brazilian environmental activist and rubber tapper was shot to death at his home in Acre State by ranchers opposed to his efforts to save the Amazon rain forest.Francisco Alves Mendes, pictured in 1988, was killed by ranchers opposed to his efforts to save the rain forest. [Source: Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times, December 21, 2008]

After his death at age 44, Francisco Alves Mendes, better known as Chico, became a martyr for a concept that is only now gaining mainstream support here: that the value of a standing forest could be more than the value of a forest burned and logged in the name of development.

Mr. Mendes organized tappers to confront crews and flew abroad to confront lenders paying for roads. His efforts to stop logging in an area planned for a forest reserve led to his death. Since his killing, on Dec. 22, 1988, more than 20 reserves have been created, protecting more than eight million acres.

Mr. Mendes was an early advocate of the idea that people who live in the forest could create livelihoods from sustainable forest resources, rather than the one-time economic benefit of cutting down trees. Carbon financing, the compensation of forest dwellers for pursuing sustainable industries, would provide an added incentive, which is vital given the uncertain markets for natural rubber and other non-timber forest products.

Latex being collected from
a tapped rubber tree
“The notion that we in the north will help pay for that climate service is an important development and represents the mainstreaming of the concept that Chico Mendes and those like him were pioneers in creating,” said Richard H. Moss, the head of climate change programs at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

The killings of Mr. Mendes and of Sister Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old Catholic nun who was gunned down in 2005 for speaking out against logging in the Amazon, ratcheted up international pressure on Brazil to find ways to limit forest clearing without sacrificing development.

In 2008, Brazil took what environmentalists hope will be a big step forward in realizing Mr. Mendes’s vision. The government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva introduced ambitious targets for reducing deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions in a nation that is one of the world’s top emitters of this heat-trapping gas.

Some 75 percent of Brazil’s carbon dioxide emissions come from deforestation, Mr. Minc said. Brazil’s plan would sharply slice those emissions, reducing them by some 4.8 billion tons by 2018. Some environmentalists contend that deals involving compensation for forest protection could weaken climate agreements in many ways. They also say the plan leaves the most difficult targets to the government that will follow Mr. da Silva’s.

But some environmentalists question whether the new targets, which would reduce Brazilian deforestation by 72 percent by 2017, are achievable in a country that has shown few signs of adjusting its development model as a major food provider to the world. To achieve the first phase of planned cuts, Brazil would have to reduce deforestation in 2009 by 20 percent, to less than 4,000 square miles. That would be the lowest amount per year ever recorded in Brazil, said Paulo Adario, the Amazon campaign director for Greenpeace in Brazil.

Plantation Rubber and Processing

20120531-rubber production Goa02_kaucuk.jpg
rubber production in Goa
Much of the world's rubber today is produced on large rubber plantations that spread as far as the eye can see, primarily in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. A single tree can be harvested for 25 years or more, and trees that have tapped for this long are scared by parallel lines of grooves. Trees reach peak reproduction at around age 12. Some trees produce until they are 70 years old but have much lower yields than younger trees.

After the initial groove is made, thin shaving cuts about 1/16th of an inch deep are taken from the groove when it is tapped. The groove is lowered by about an inch a year. When it is within a foot of the ground, the other side of the tree is tapped. After about five years the bark on the other side is renewed and taping can resumed there. To increase the productivity of rubber trees farmers shoot them full of hormones which causes the latex not clot.

High grade trees yield about 30 pounds of rubber a year. After the latex is collected from the trees it is poured into pans where rubber is coagulated from the latex by adding formic acid. One pound of rubber is extracted from every three pounds of latex.

The new rubber is squeezed through a wringer to get out excess water and formed into rubber "biscuits," about the size of a hockey puck. These are dried in the sun for several weeks and then cured in a big smoky fire for several days and then pressed into large bales. On large plantation these processes are in processing plants using machine invented in 1963 that removes the waters, dries and bales the rubber in one continuous operation in less than ten minutes.

Baled rubber is sent to factories to be vulcanized and undergo other kinds of processing. Latex from the rubber tree is gooey when hot and brittle when cold. When mixed with sulphur---vulcanization---it becomes smooth and pliable regardless of whether it is hot or cold. The more sulfur the stiffer the rubber. Hard rubber is 30 to 50 percent sulfur.

Rubber Market

Tire companies consumer about 70 percent of the world’s natural rubber.

The price of rubber is often linked with the price of oil, When the price of oil goes up so too does rubber because when the cost of making petroleum-based synthetic rubber goes up many tire and rubber producers buy more rubber as a cheaper alternative, driving up demand for rubber and the price. High oil prices in the mid-2000s and late-2000s increased demand for natural rubber.

China is the largest rubber user as it is now a large vehicle and tire producer and consumer. On the commodities markets rubber sells for about $3 to $4 a kilogram.

In 2004, Japanese researchers reported they had made rubber from edible wild mushrooms and that the rubber was superior to regular rubber in that it lacked a protein that cause allergies.

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2014

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