The industry's dark past

- Sep 11, 2019-

Those of us who work closely to the modern rubber industry and all its technological brilliance may forget that rubber has a dark and violent history. It has been told in various forms in the past, and has come up again as the subject of a BBC story and podcast.

In the piece—part of the BBC's "50 Things That Made the Modern Economy" series—writer Tim Harford tells of the innovation that made rubber's popularity soar and, at the same time, brought bloodshed to the missionary outpost in Baringa, known then as the Congo Free State.

In his story, Harford delves into the rise of the rubber industry. He talks of Charles Goodyear and the discovery of vulcanization, which made rubber a much more usable material not subject to melting when the weather got hot (to put it in the most simple terms). Demand for rubber boomed as it became used in such goods as hoses, belts and gaskets.

Then John Dunlop reinvented the pneumatic tire while working with his son's tricycle, boosting the rubber business even higher.

With the need for rubber skyrocketing, the powerful nations of Europe went to clearing areas of Asia to plant rubber trees. But, while waiting for these trees to mature and produce rubber, it was found that vines in the Congo's rainforest could supply rubber right away.

To do this, Harford describes the modus operandi of the day: Sending in armed men who would kidnap the women and children and order the males to bring back rubber. If they didn't, the armed forces would chop off a hand, or kill a family.

That brings the story to Baringa in 1904. Alice Seeley Harris took a black and white photograph of a native named Nsala. His wife and children had just been killed, and Nsala, in the photo, is looking at his 5-year-old daughter's severed hand and foot.

The photograph was distributed in pamphlets and shown around at meetings, causing an uproar in Europe. Harford called it the basis of the first photographic human rights campaign. Public pressure forced Belgium's King Leopold II to loosen his grip on the colony.

The author brings his piece into the modern day, telling of how in Cameroon, Halcyon Agri is clearing huge areas to make way for rubber trees on its Sudcam plantation. The actions brought concern from a variety of environmental groups worried about deforestation, and claims from villagers who say they weren't compensated for their land.

That led Halcyon Agri to enact a sustainable supply chain policy and make promises to address working conditions and work in a responsible manner, both to the environment and the land owners it deals with.

That is part of the larger effort in the NR trade, which is under increased scrutiny, to develop a supply chain that is more environmentally friendly and also treats the many smallholders, who still produce the vast majority of natural rubber by tapping trees, in a fair and humane manner.

So while the issues facing the global NR world of today aren't nearly as severe they were more than a century ago, there still is more work to be done.