Mathur explains how he and his company, Yulex, hope to break the Asian rubber monopoly using gene sequencing and an unassuming desert plant. ... what he’s trying to do here in the desert, with a plant called guayule. ... Mathur tears a stem from one shrub and peels back the bark, pointing to a thin layer of, well, softness. This is called parenchyma. You can use it to make rubber, and that means you can make wetsuits, condoms, gloves, catheters, angioplasty balloons, and so many other medical devices. But most importantly, you can make tires. Car tires. Truck tires. Aircraft tires. In fact, this sort of natural rubber is essential to making tires. Yes, we now have synthetic rubber, but that isn’t as strong as the natural stuff. Our automobile tires contain about 50 percent natural rubber, and you simply can’t make a truck or aircraft tire without it. ... Today, almost all natural rubber comes from hevea rubber trees grown in Southeast Asia, and that hangs a nightmare scenario over US tire makers and the wider US economy. In the event of war or natural disaster, our supply could vanish, and rather quickly. But guayule can provide an alternative. Since the early 20th century, American researchers, entrepreneurs, and statesmen have eyed the plant as a way of freeing the U.S. economy from this deep dependence on Asia. Rubber trees don’t do well in the US, but guayule does. It’s indigenous to Mexico and the American southwest.
Because rubber is so common, so unobtrusive, so dull, it may not seem worth a second glance. This would be a mistake. Rubber has played a largely hidden role in global political and environmental history for more than 150 years. You say you want an industrial revolution? If so, you need three raw materials: iron, to make steel for machinery; fossil fuels, to power that machinery; and rubber, to connect and protect all the moving parts. Try running an automobile without a fan belt or a radiator hose; very bad things will happen within a minute. Want to send coolant around an engine using a rigid metal tube instead of a flexible rubber hose? Good luck keeping it from vibrating to pieces. Having enough steel and coal to make and drive industrial machinery means nothing if the engines fry because you can’t cool them. ... To the extent that most people think about rubber at all, they likely picture a product made from synthetic chemicals. In fact, more than 40 percent of the world’s rubber comes from trees, almost all of them H. brasiliensis. Compared with natural rubber, synthetic rubber is usually cheaper to produce but is weaker, less flexible, and less able to withstand vibration. For things that absolutely cannot fail, from condoms to surgeon’s gloves to airplane tires, natural rubber has long been the top choice. ... Iron can be found around the globe; so can fossil fuels. But rubber today is grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, because the region has a unique combination of suitable climate and infrastructure. Despite all the ups and downs in the global economy, the demand for tires continues to grow, which has created something akin to a gold rush in Southeast Asia. For millions of people in this poor part of the world, the rubber boom has helped bring prosperity
For much of the twentieth century, Brazil defined the region’s approach to the aislados: its National Indian Foundation sent scouts to contact them, with the goal of assimilation. These efforts were mostly calamitous for the contacted people, who tended to die out from disease, or to wind up living in frontier shantytowns, where the men often succumbed to alcoholism and the women to prostitution. In barely fifty years, eighty-seven of Brazil’s two hundred and thirty known native groups died off, and the ones that remained lost as much as four-fifths of their population. In the nineteen-eighties, officials at the National Indian Foundation, horrified by the decline, began to enforce a “no contact” policy: when its agents spotted aislados, they designated their land Terras Indígenas—areas forbidden to outsiders. ... Most of the neighboring countries adopted Brazil’s no-contact policy, which anthropologists now see as the best way to insure the survival of the remaining aislados. But, for Peru, land in the Amazon was too rich to give up. In the past two decades, the country has experienced an economic boom, based on natural resources. Opening up the jungle has made Peru one of the world’s largest exporters of gold (as well as the second-largest producer of cocaine), and the Camisea natural-gas facility, north of Manú National Park, provides half of the country’s energy. ... But, even as Peru embraced the no-contact policy, a new idea was emerging. Last June, the journal Science published a paper in which two prominent anthropologists, Kim Hill and Robert Walker, argued that isolated indigenous groups were “not viable in the long term,” because their environments are too degraded or too vulnerable to incursions. Instead, they advocated a new policy, built around “well-organized contacts.”
Hardly a lost city, Fordlândia is home to about 2,000 people, some who live in the crumbling structures built nearly a century ago. ... Ford, the automobile manufacturer who is considered a founder of American industrial mass-production methods, hatched his plan for Fordlândia in a bid to produce his own source of the rubber needed for making tires and car parts like valves, hoses and gaskets. ... In doing so, he waded into an industry shaped by imperialism and claims of botanical subterfuge. Brazil was home to Hevea brasiliensis, the coveted rubber tree, and the Amazon Basin had boomed from 1879 to 1912 as industries in North America and Europe fed the demand for rubber.