Featured: Wade Davis The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, 2004.
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 September 2019
Richard Evans Schultes & Rubber
I met a young Swiss man about thirty in Pakistan in 1995. I’ll call him Marc. We shared a jeep with he and his girlfriend up the Kaghan Valley through the snow. The first time I saw Marc, though he was lean and wiry, I mistakenly thought that he was not prepared for the rigours of Pakistan. I was wrong.
He’d walked alone the length of Africa a year or so before. Earlier he’d travelled with a friend in the Pacific. The friend adopted his approach of not wearing shoes through the bush and ended up in hospital with blood poisoning.
I imagine that Richard Evans Schultes was of that type. He was a botanist, explorer and admirer of indigenous tribes for their plant knowledge in the Amazon, at a time when that was still possible.
Schultes’ personal hero [from a young age] was Richard Spruce, a British naturalist who spent seventeen years exploring the Amazon rainforest. (Wikipedia)
Although George Lucas modelled the character of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark on several famous archaeologists, he could equally have been modelled on Richard Evans Schultes. Like Indiana Jones, at Harvard Schultes dressed as a conservative professor and thought of himself as conservative:
[He was] outfitted in grey flannel slacks, red suspenders, starched white shirt and a white laboratory coat. I was to learn that this was his uniform in Cambridge, as much as his pith helmet, khaki pants, and khaki shirt were his uniform in the Amazon.
He remained continuously in his beloved Amazon Valley [from 1941] until 1953, when a Harvard administrator discovered that he had only taken out a one-year leave of absence, and it was time to return. (Michael J. Balick)
In September 1942 he met a young Scottish soprano at his sister’s wedding:
For Dorothy, who already had her own radio show and was as liberal as he was conservative, it was love at first sight. Right from the start, though, she sensed that things might be moving a little slowly, especially when Dick invited his sister Clara along as a chaperone on their first date. Never could she imagine that it would take seventeen years for the courtship to lead to marriage. (Wade Davis)
Yet, after marriage, his wife and children were a central part of his life.
Dr. Schultes unintentionally contributed to the psychedelic era of the 1960s with his ethnobotanical discoveries of hallucinogenic plants; he loathed the recreational use of these sacred plants. [Yet, he partook of them during the ceremonies.] (Karen Robin)
His book The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (1979), co-authored with chemist Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, is considered his greatest popular work: it has never been out of print. (Wikipedia)
Richard Evans Schultes (1915 to 2001) was the father of ethnobotany known for his studies of the uses of plants by indigenous peoples of the Americas in particular. He is also known for his work on plant products used in indigenous rituals particularly of a hallucinogenic nature in North America, Mexico and the Amazon and in involving himself with lifelong collaborations with chemists.
He had [a] charismatic influence in education at Harvard University producing several students and colleagues who went on to further academic distinction writing popular books and assuming influential positions in museums, botanical gardens and other related institutions. (Wikipedia)
One thinks of Schultes as an aristocrat but he was not. He came from a middle class conservative family from East Boston. His father ran a plumbing business during the depression and after, but the business struggled. Attending Harvard was financially tough in Schultes’ first year, but after that he obtained a full scholarship.
His mentor at Harvard was the Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, Oakes Ames and Schultes became an assistant in that museum. His undergraduate senior thesis studied the ritual use of peyote cactus among the Kiowa Indians of Oklahoma. He completed his MA in Biology in 1938 and his PhD in Botany in 1941 both under Ames. His PhD dissertation was on the lost identity of hallucinogenic plants in Oaxaca in Mexico. He then received a fellowship from the National Research Council to study the plants used to make curare in the Amazon (a complex of different plants).
In 1953, he returned to the U.S. and his beloved Harvard University, where he directed the botanical museum and taught until retirement in 1985. He published 10 books, more than 450 scientific articles, and was active in the scientific journals Economic Botany, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Journal of Latin American Folklore and Social Pharmacology, among others.
[H]e is [also] considered one of the founders of the international conservation movement.
More than 120 species bear his name, as does a 2.2 million-acre tract of protected rainforest in Colombia. During the course of his career, he documented the use of more than 2,000 medicinal plants used by Indians of a dozen tribes, and collected more than 24,000 plant specimens. Often consulting local shamans about the properties of the plants he collected, Dr. Schultes won their respect and trust by offering his own. But “time is running out,” he warned in a 1994 article in The Sciences. “The Indians’ botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves.” In the introduction to his Where The Gods Reign (1988), he wrote, “A number of years ago, I heard a high ranking South American diplomat describe the Amazon as a ‘desert of trees that had to be cleared for the benefit of mankind.’ Yet, investigations by Colombian and foreign botanists have recognized an unbelievably rich flora, and the detailed knowledge of it possessed by its native inhabitants. Advancing acculturation and civilizations everywhere spell the doom of extinction of this knowledge faster even than the extinction of species themselves as a result of forest devastation.” (Karen Robin)
Wade Davis’ Biography of Richard Evans Schultes
As is usual in my reading, I came across Wade Davis by accident quite some years ago. He was one of several illustrious students of Richard Evans Schultes and wrote a marvellous biography of him entitled One River: explorations and discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest, 1996.
The book covers everything a biography should, but focuses on Schultes’ Amazon explorations and botanical collecting from 1941 to 1953.
Wade Davis also wrote The Lost Amazon: the photographic journey of Richard Evans Schultes 2004, utilising photographs from the Estate of Richard Evans Schultes, which is also wonderful.
Chapters 10 & 11 of One River: White Blood of the Forest and The Betrayal of the Dream cover Schultes involvement in the US war effort on rubber and the dream of creating a rubber industry and disease resistant plantations in the Americas, as a balance to the over-dependence of the USA in the far east rubber plantations before the war.
A Background to Rubber
In my previous article on Making Rubber Bands in Burma, I said:
South East Asia particularly Malaysia and Thailand were the centre of rubber growing in the world in the late 19th and early twentieth century, even though the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is native to Brazil. English adventurer Henry Wickham smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil in 1876 to British colonies in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and tropical Africa.
Thailand is the top rubber producing country in the world followed by Indonesia now and then Malaysia. Large rubber plantations are not possible in Brazil because of lack of resistance to endemic disease, in particular the South American leaf blight of rubber Microcyclus ulei.
Henry Wickham’s seeds from near Santarém towards the mouth of the Amazon River were not selected particularly carefully. There was also a failed attempt before he could send viable seeds to Kew Gardens in 1876, and the label of smuggling was a post-event claim by Brazil. It also took some years before viable plantations produced rubber successfully in Malaya and elsewhere. The fact that these plantations are based on limited genetic stock is worth remembering.
In Brazil itself and a few surrounding countries the presence of South American leaf blight Microcyclus ulei means, even though some trees are resistant, that rubber can’t be grown in plantations successfully in its native region.
The Amazon Rubber Boom
Nevertheless, between 1879 and 1912 there was a massive rubber boom and exploitation of Hevea rubber trees in the Amazon Basin, which generated vast wealth in the region and was similar in part to gold rushes. The famous opera house in Manaus is an example of the ostentatious wealth of the times.
Because of the blight Microcyclus ulei tappable rubber trees are distributed randomly through the jungle and vast resources of cheap labour were required. The regions were remote and poorly policed. This led to massive exploitation of the local indigenous Indians. Particularly infamous for atrocities, torture and murder were the Arana brothers of the Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co. and one of the areas they operated in was on the Putamayo River above Leticia (see below).
The Rubber Companies’ Plantation Experiments
In the twentieth century before WWII every major rubber company (primarily tyre related) had attempted to break the Asian monopoly on rubber production. Firestone had set up a plantation in Liberia (Africa), Goodyear in Central America, Edison had spent his fortune seeking alternative sources of rubber in North America.
Perhaps the most systematic attempt was by Henry Ford who was granted a site in Brazil in 1927, near where Henry Wickham had obtained his seeds. In a huge investment Ford set up a modern town called Fordlandia and planted 1.5 million rubber trees by 1934, sourced from the best stock in Asia. Then disaster struck with the blight. Undaunted, Ford tried a new site south of Santarém but that failed too.
Because of the failures one of the biologists at Fordlandia in 1936 experimented by grafting the stems with healthy foliage onto the trunks of high-yielding but susceptible clones. The result was so successful that it was repeated on a large scale at Ford’s newer plantation. This horticultural breakthrough, though it didn’t save the Ford project, inspired the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) rubber researchers to believe that a self-sustaining rubber industry was possible in South America. They applied for funding from Congress, but nothing was done until 1940 when an annual stipend of $500,000 was granted and specialised research and propagation stations were established throughout the Americas.
Rubber in the USA early in WWII
The idea of synthetic rubber was ticking over up to WWII. In the USA the first truly synthetic rubber neoprene was produced by DuPont in 1932. In 1935 Adolph Hitler announced that the problem of producing synthetic rubber can now be regarded as definitely solved. Fortunately, for the free world that was a lie.
The USA was unprepared for a rubber crisis in WWII. Wade Davis says:
With a complacency difficult in hindsight to believe. America stumbled towards the abyss. As late as 1940 the country exported 125,000 tons of processed scrap rubber, 60,000 tons of which went to Japan. …It took the trauma of Pearl Harbour to galvanize the nation.
The major effort during the war was into the development of synthetic rubber (a massive effort similar to the incredible industrial mobilisation after Pearl Harbour) and to obtaining natural rubber wherever possible. South America could not supply much rubber, as the industry no longer existed.
Richard Evans Schultes & Rubber in South America 1942 to 1947
Dr. Schultes was deep in the Colombian rain forest when news of Pearl Harbor reached him more than a week after the Japanese attack. He immediately made his way back to Bogotá, the Colombian capital, and visited the United States Embassy to enlist in the armed forces. But the United States government decided his World War II services would be much more valuable as a botanist doing research on natural rubber, particularly since the Japanese occupied the Malayan plantations that accounted for much of the world’s rubber supplies (Jonathon Kandall)
On 20 November 1942 Richard Evans Schultes met with Robert Rands of the Rubber Investigations Division, of the Bureau of Plant Industry of the USDA where he was briefed on the status of rubber in the world regarding the war effort and asked to contribute in South America. With only a week to prepare, he returned immediately to Boston with more than merely logistics in mind to see his future wife Dorothy. A week later he was back in Colombia. In Bogotá he was under the charge of Jules de Wael Meyer, a Dutchman and old rubber hand, who well understood the risks and dangers of the tasks he was setting to men, such as Schultes, and he was determined to look after them in the field.
Schultes first task was his toughest. He was sent to the Rio Ajaju and Rio Apaporis region in Columbia, on the steep slopes down into the Amazon Basin to survey the number of rubber trees in the jungle. The region hadn’t been entered for thirty years and was virtually unexplored. Even the logistics of getting there, cutting trails and setting up base camps with supples was difficult. For the first expedition up river Schultes built a log dugout canoe, which because the motor didn’t arrive they had to paddle upriver by hand.
Schultes was assisted by Everett Vinton another field man, who was given an independent task of exploration. For Schultes’ exploration downstream on the Apaporis River, the company insisted on his team portaging a large motor-boat across 36 miles of jungle, which took fourteen days and exhausted everyone. They had to go upriver first to locate the last point of the survey and then continue down the Apaporis and explore another major tributary.
Meyer had told Schultes not to proceed below the Jirijirimo Rapids because the river was too dangerous. However, in the event there wasn’t enough fuel to proceed back upriver. The portages on the Jirijirimo and other subsequent rapids though short were very treacherous. At some stage Meyer declared Schultes and his party missing. Then a message came several weeks later from La Pedrera several hundred miles away on another tributary of the Amazon. They’d arrived back.
Schultes survey of the Ajaju and Apaporis rivers had estimated the density of rubber on these rivers at about 250,000 trees. However, despite the accuracy of the surveys and the new botanical knowledge of Hevea obtained, Meyer knew that that the access was problematical and the trees thinly enough distributed that 10,000 workers would be required to exploit them. He knew that this was not possible.
In 1943 at the age of 28 the US government considered that Schultes services were no longer required and that he should sign up with the military. But, Meyer had no intention of letting this happen. The next stage of the rubber program was more practical.
For the next three years Schultes was to be based near Leticia for part of the year in the Putamayo Region, which Sorensen a senior agronomist with the Department of Agriculture knew well. The Putamayo and another even better region in the Madre de Dios forests were the two best rubber areas in the Amazon. The latter contained perhaps the best rubber trees in South America, the Acre fino. In this area on the border region of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil Russell Siebert was doing much the same job as Schultes in the Putamayo.
Schultes and Siebert in a labour intensive process identified the most likely trees in terms of yield and resistance to blight and collected the germplasm and transported it to the waiting plantations before it spoiled, in one major transport operation each year.
Out of Leticia, Schultes stayed on a farm belonging to Rafael Wandurraga, who became a close friend, because Wandurraga had an abiding interest in the welfare of the natives and the protection of their forests. Indeed, his rubber tappers came from four tribes who had vowed never to gather latex again because of the misery and torture endured by their parents.
Similarly that year in Manaus, Shultes refused an official invitation to tour the famous opera house because he said it had been built with the blood of Indians.
Schultes followed the rubber tappers with an assistant, examining trees between their morning round of cutting the trees and later gathering of the latex. He did this for three seasons, sending out huge samples of germplasm from the best trees each year, which was deemed the minimum necessary to provide for the development of a major rubber plantation industry.
The main plantations for the rubber program were three experimental plantations near the Gulf of Urabá in Colombia and at Turialba in Costa Rica.
In one visit to Manaus Shultes met Adolpho Ducke, who was the most knowledgeable botanical expert on Hevea. Yet, even Ducke was stumped by Hevea. Of the ninety-six names applied to various species of Hevea, nearly half were published by Ducke himself. His advice to Schultes was to live with the trees and pay attention to the slightest variations, but Schultes also elected to listen to the advice of the Indians. By the time he left the Amazon, Schultes knew as much about wild Hevea as an economic plant as anyone.
The Betrayal of a Dream
All the American rubber men who had worked in Asia had the obsession to establish plantations in the Americas. Every major rubber company (i.e. the tyre industry) was supportive of the rubber plantation program throughout and after the war.
Unfortunately, the American rubber program passed from Agriculture (USDA) to the State Department (possibly a good thing in the short-term). Later on a middle level bureaucrat Rey Hill became in charge of the rubber program and determined to close it down—perhaps for political reasons—despite, pleas from inside the program and from the CEOs of the major tyre companies. Even at a late stage, an angry letter from the Secretary of Agriculture had no effect. Rey fought a sophisticated series of bureaucratic battles and won. Rands the original head of the program was pushed aside. The program terminated on 30 June 1954.
As Wade Davis says:
The wrong man in the wrong place for the wrong reasons…
Despite closing the program Rey Hill had recommended that Schultes be given funding for two years back at Harvard to write a definitive botanical monograph on Hevea rubber. The funding never eventuated.
There was a belief that synthetic rubber was the future. However, the synthetic rubber program was expensive. Between 1946 and 1952 synthetic rubber research had cost $40 million whereas in 14 years the plantation effort had cost $2.8 million (small change).
The Next Forty Years
The destruction of the rubber program, foolish as it was, might have taken its place in history as nothing more than another example of bureaucratic idiocy had it not been for a development that no one involved could have foreseen.
Wade Davis goes on to say that in the next decade a series of things made natural rubber exceedingly important:
- Between 1948 and 1978 world consumption of rubber rose dramatically at a rate of 6.3% per year for 30 years.
- The supply of synthetic rubber (though more expensive) captured a higher percentage of the market because the supply of natural rubber could not keep pace. Then came the oil shock in 1973, which tipped the scales against synthetic rubber.
- The development of radial tyres required the use of more natural rubber, necessary for the sidewalls.
By 1993 natural rubber had recaptured 38% of the market, making the USA more dependent on natural rubber than at any time in the past forty years. The US spent a billion dollars importing rubber.
The Situation of Rubber Today
Rubber is a major product strategically, ignoring its other uses which are many, tyres are required for the car, truck, military and mining industries. 60% of rubber used in the tyre industry is synthetic, while 40% is natural rubber, but this is not the whole story. In cars synthetic rubber constitutes 27% of the tire and natural rubber 14%. In truck tyres this composition is reversed. Rubber in military applications and in mine machinery depends more on natural rubber and large commercial aircraft tyres use only natural rubber.
The plantations of Asia are all still based on the limited genetic material provided by Henry Wickham, though plant breeding techniques have increased the yields almost beyond imagination. However, the entire plantation industry would be susceptible to leaf blight Microcyclus ulei.
Indeed, at the end of WWII the allies were afraid that the Japanese would sabotage plantations by deliberately introducing leaf blight.
The Vulnerability of Rubber Plantations
The vulnerability of the Far East rubber plantations or more cogently the world supply of natural rubber has not changed. The inadvertent or conscious introduction South American leaf blight of rubber Microcyclus ulei into the plantations of the Far East would be a disaster of global proportions.
When I first read Wade Davis’ book, I thought that it might be irresponsible to put this issue of potential bio-terrorism so bluntly in writing. But, a short search of the Internet shows that the information is everywhere. Even National Geographic had an article about the subject in 2015.
National Geographic said:
A single errant spore of South American leaf blight could bring the automobile age to a screaming halt.
Davis himself says:
To this day a single act of biological terrorism, the systematic introduction of fungal spores so small as to be readily concealed in a shoe, could wipe out the plantations, shutting down production of natural rubber for at least a decade.
The global damage caused by Phytopthera species economically and in wilderness habitats is an example of what happens when a fungus-like species is spread inadvertently.
The last word belongs to Davis:
The decision to end the rubber work was made in a miasma of ignorance, unaccountability and arrogance for which modern bureaucracies have become renowned.
This is not too strong a statement. Although Davis mentions politics, even in the McCarthy era, the evidence points more to bureaucratic ‘bloody mindedness’ than to any policy intent. I have worked in the bureaucracy briefly and witnessed such behaviour of internal political gamesmanship as an end in itself, pursued with complete disregard for policy or practical implications.
With climate change having gone beyond the containable to the completely alarming without serious global intervention, one does not need terrorists to create catastrophe for rubber or almost anything. Without dwelling on figures, a conference I attended in 2005 had scientists desperate to contain global warming to within 2 °C, which I’d call containable. Current conservative estimates are 3 °C or more. Thus everyone, including governments, will begin to treat climate change as the major global problem soon, but containment is no longer possible.
Australia’s leading climate scientist Dr Joëlle Gergis in a recent article admits to frequent rage but more poignantly:
Increasingly after my speaking events, I catch myself unexpectedly weeping in my hotel room or on flights home.
Rubber is extremely vulnerable. But as Jack Harlan, another renowned world authority, wrote not long before he died, all our grain crops are too. And, he was not even considering climate change.
I think that I am an optimist. But, human stupidity in all its variations has me worried.
This week as I am about to publish, the Amazon Basin is burning with hundreds of out of control fires, primarily initiated by illegal clearing operations. Brazil’s right wing President Jair Balsonaro has promoted destruction of the Amazon forests and is defiant despite protests. This environmental catastrophe has not been directly caused by climate change, but will impact on accelerating global warming. Schultes statement above made in 1988 about his concern for the future of the Amazon is pertinent. The contempt for the Amazonian environment and the lack of understanding about humanity’s dependence on Amazonian biodiversity is truly astonishing.
I first visited Indonesia in 1980. At the time Sumatra and Borneo were still mostly covered in virgin rainforest, though deforestation had been progressing since the 1950s. So much now has been given over to palm oil plantations and other development that recovery in the foreseeable future is no longer possible.
Australia, a wealthy country, is not immune from criticism on land clearing practices. We have also completely ruined our main river system in the agricultural heartland of of southeastern Australia through inattention, inadequate planning and corruption. The current status of the Murray Darling Basin is an environmental and economic crime that has progressed beyond the point where any solution appears possible.
Human stupidity seemingly has no limits.
Key Words: Richard Evans Schultes, rubber, ethnobotany, natural rubber, Amazon, South America, Colombia, Hevea, rubber plantations, synthetic rubber, tyres,Microcyclus ulei, USA, WWII, climate change, vulnerability of rubber, exploration, resistant trees, hallucinogens
The Yorkshire Philosophical Society has an excellent short biography.
Schultes Obituary and Legacy Articles
Jonathon Kandall Obituary New York Times 2001.
Karen Robin HerbalGram 52: 61, 2001.
Wikipedia on Richard Evans Schultes
Michael J. Balick Schultes Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E Schultes. Pamphlet published by the Missouri Botanical Garden 2012 (pdf).
Wade Davis Biography on Schultes
Wade Davis One River: explorations and discoveries in the Amazon Rainforest, 1996 (537 pp).
Wade Davis The Lost Amazon: the photographic journey of Richard Evans Schultes 2004.
I relied on Wade Davis exclusively for the story of Schultes and his rubber activities.
Wade Davis’ Website with great photographs, films & lectures.
Wikipedia on Wade Davis
Amazonian Travels of Schultes
The Colombians have great admiration and respect for Richard Evans Schultes.
The Video on the Amazonian Travels of Schultes is an introduction to an interactive map but it also shows a series of some of the best of the copyright photographs of Schultes.
The Amazon Conservation Team provide an expanded version of the information with more lovely photographs.
Wikipedia provides an explanation of why the Bank of the Republic of Colombia is involved in producing the above and other cultural endeavours in its BanRepCultural Program. You can also access BanRepCultural at their Colombian site.
Some Basic Information on Rubber
Anatomy of a Tyre
Encyclopaedia Brittanica on Rubber
Albert Hofmann, Schultes collaborator in The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers 1979, was a Swiss chemist famous for synthesising LSD in the Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland. It was always apocryphal amongst young people in the 1970s that someone one knew had a genuine sample of Sandoz LSD.
A much more dangerous chemical concoction that Schultes analysed and determined the plant components was yagé or Ayahuasca. As with arrow poison curare and other ritualistic hallucinogens, yagé is made from a large number of ingredients prepared in complex ways. Schultes ethnobotany showed that hunter gatherer peoples traditionally have an incredible knowledge of the plants and animals in their environment.
Schultes perhaps reluctantly was instrumental in William Burroughs trying yagé in the Putamayo region in the early 1950s (described by Wade Davis in The Lost Amazon 2004). Burroughs had a violent reaction to the drug but also experienced powerful hallucinations.
Yagé or Ayahuasca has had renewed popularity in recent years from perhaps serious multidisciplinary studies as evidenced by the Kahpi Ayahuasca Hub to drug tourism by young people in trips to Peru some of whom don’t survive the experience.
The Amazon rubber boom and atrocities
Wikipedia on the Amazon rubber boom
Wikipedia on the Peruvian Amazon Company
Warnings About the Vulnerability of Natural Rubber
An NGO Resilience concerned about global issues warns about the vulnerability of rubber.
National Geographic Article
Charles C Mann Why We (Still) Can’t Live without Rubber National Geographic December 2015
There are plenty of other sources.
Jack Harlan The Living Fields: Our agricultural heritage 1995 explains in detail why our seed crops are vulnerable.
Wikipedia on Jack Harlan
Dr Joëlle Gergis
Joëlle Gergis The Terrible Truth: The latest science is alarming, even for climate scientists The Monthly August, 2019.