Rubber and Brazil Nuts, linking the histories of Bolivia, the UK and Kew

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Rubber shoe made in the Amazon region of Para Rubber about the middle of the 19th century. At his time rubber was entirely exported from the Amazon, often in the form of shoes such as this sample. Image courtesy of Mark Nesbitt / RBG Kew

Most people in the UK are unaware of the strong historical connection between Britain and Bolivia. Connections that were built on two major non-timber forest products from the Amazon: rubber, the congealed sap of  Hevea brasiliensis and the incorrectly named Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa). The rubber tree had a great impact on the rise and fall of the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon during the 19thC and early 20thC; the Brazil Nut continues to be Bolivia and the Amazon’s major non timber forest export today. The UK played a key role in developing both markets and today remains the main buyer of Brazil Nuts from the Bolivian Amazon. Being presented with a pair of artesanal rubber shoes (below) by our partner community Palacio brought to life over 150 years of shared history that I was only vaguely aware of.

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Pair of artesanal rubber shoes produced by the Palacio community. Incredibly comfortable as they are, they have since been accessioned to Kew’s Economic Botany Collection. They are made using rubber, smoke and a wooden mold

As a botanist at Kew Gardens, the connection is even closer. The Royal Botanic Gardens played a pivotal role in the history of rubber. The rubber trade was developed from the sap of a tree found throughout the Amazon but particularly in the Western and Bolivian Amazon. Towards the end of the 19thC it made the Beni and the Pando and cities such as Manaus in Bazil amongst the most wealthy (and decadent) in the World and a century ago the Stirling (British) Pound was the main currency in use here. It was seeds collect by two botanists, Robert McKenzie Cross of Kew and Henry Wickham, a free-lancer  and shipped back to Kew Gardens which sowed the seeds of its downfall by forming the basis of the first rubber plantations in Asia. Thereby bringing an  end to the Amazon’s dominance of the rubber trade and the associated great wealth and human suffering it brought with it.

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Mural depicting the human suffering which accompanied the rubber trade. This included the enslaving of indigenous peoples, the virtual enslaving of poor colonists and associated violence and abuses

Clearly neither Britain or Kew were acting on moral grounds but with the desire of generating wealth for the British Empire and the seed was exported very discretely. The impact of their actions though was profound and within 50 years they had brought an end to the dominance of the Amazon on the rubber trade. Our project area falls within the centre of the Nicolas Suarez empire and it is said that gold sovereigns lie buried in and around the now modest town of Porbenir. Palacio and many communities like them still tap their abundant wild rubber trees. Hopefully we will be able to help them improve the income they get from this wonderful product.

Kew Gardens has  a strong interest in the uses and economic potential of plants and houses one of the World’s oldest and most important Economic Botany Collections. Curator of this collection, Mark Nesbitt asked me whether he could add the Palacio shoes to the collection. Despite the fact that they are extremely comfortable and have a very pleasant smell of wood smoke I handed them over and they are currently in the process of being accessioned into the collection.

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A small part of Kew’s impressive Economic Botany Collection which houses many rubber items including the first sample of Macintosh rubberized cloth and a beautiful set of vulcanized rubber jewellery and tableware


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