The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920

The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920

The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920

The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920

Excerpt

If one wished to resurrect the clichéd notion of Brazilian economic history as a series of boom-bust cycles, the Amazon rubber boom would appear to be an excellent point of departure. Recapitulating an eminently familiar pattern, rubber production in the Amazon "took off" in response to increased overseas demand for raw rubber at a time when the Amazon was the world's sole supplier. The export economy that resulted from this confluence of economic and environmental forces generated unprecedented commercial and demographic growth in the region, and turned a neglected backwater into one of Brazil's most promising centers of trade. Then, at the very moment when wild rubber prices were approaching their high point, plantation rubber from Asia began to appear on the world market in large quantities. With its lower production and shipping costs, cultivated rubber virtually drove the Amazonian product off the market, and the regional economy all but collapsed within a few years' time.

In the context of the traditional historiography, the experience of the Amazon during the rubber boom seems highly typical and predictable. When compared to the other export booms of the period, however, the rubber boom takes on a much more anomalous character. The Latin American export economies of the late nineteenth century yielded widely varying results in terms of capital accumulation, social class formation, and technical innovation, but few followed the well-worn trajectory of the boom-bust cycle. In Brazil itself the coffee, cacao, and rubber booms each produced very different effects in their respective regions. The coffee economy of São Paulo, for example, represents the most spectacular case of sustained, export-generated development in all of Latin America. Fueled by the profits from coffee production, the regional economy expanded and diversified to the point where a classic monocultural plantation zone became one of the Third World's leading industrial centers. The prosperity fostered by the rubber trade, by con-

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