White Wake: On the Trail of "Rubber Fever" in the South American AmazonFriday, November 29, 2019
Adrián Balseca (Quito, 1989) is an Ecuadorian artist based in Quito whose work deals with issues related to extractivism and its socio-environmental impact. Since 2016, the artist has undertaken several projects related to the exploitation of Hevea brasiliensis, popularly known as rubber.
The peak of Hevea brasiliensis exploitation in the Amazon region—also known as “rubber fever"—extended from the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Its height was a consequence of the strong demand for rubber for use in the production of a variety of products manufactured for mass distribution, above all tires for the automotive industry. By 1914, it had inarguably met its demise when Great Britain, using seeds smuggled out of Brazil as contraband, was able to create “artificial gardens” of rubber trees in Singapore, which was at the time a British colony.
The brief life of “rubber fever” in the Amazon region did not prevent extraction operations from expanding rapidly throughout Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, bringing about devastating consequences for indigenous peoples. Indeed, the exploitation of rubber not only marked the beginning of an epistemicide—which broke with the cosmological relationships between indigenous communities and the natural world—but also gave way to a regime of labor based on slavery.
By way of a series of projects that combine objects, installations and photographs, Adrián Balseca has sought to draw attention to the history of rubber extraction in the Amazon territory and life, as well as its relationship to the expansion into other regions of the world, such as Southeast Asia, which share the same tropical climatological conditions suitable for the rubber plant. In the following conversation, the artist reflects on a case which is at once emblematic and paradoxically absent from official accounts about extractivism in the Amazon region.
Florencia Portocarrero (FP): The list of natural resources in the Amazon region that have been subjected to indiscriminate exploitation in order to be made into products for global distribution is long (gold, wood and petroleum, as well as—today—certain biological resources and ancestral knowledges). Why did you decide to focus your research efforts on the case of rubber, whose peak was from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries?
Adrián Balseca (AB): In 2016, I started working with the idea of rubber, because I felt that it was necessary to have some historical distance in order to conceive of today’s economy, which runs through us and surrounds us as contemporary subjects. I felt it was necessary to comprehend the extractive process that took place prior to petroleum in order to comprehend how the extractivist paths of the present were originally traced.
The era of so-called “rubber fever” is a highly relevant piece of history for the region; and it’s surprising how little is known about this period in Ecuador. A number of testimonies about the trauma experienced by different indigenous communities that inhabited the Amazon region of Ecuador, in conditions of destitution and slavery, led me to search out more information. This research allowed me to perceive the traces of the past that the rubber economy left on this territory, and at the same time it helped me understand the way ancestral zones, with ecosystems high in biodiversity, are shrinking today due to transnational oil corporations.
Along similar lines, I was drawn to the role of substitute materials in the elaboration of certain manufactured goods, which were traditionally made with natural rubber, and which by the mid-20th century began to be mass-produced from petroleum derivatives. This fact transformed my production. My research prior to 2016 revolved around the petroleum extraction in Ecuador. Understanding that the exploitation of this substance remains the primary source of the national economy, I turned the steering wheel and I went in search of the origin of what we could think of as “petro-dependence.” My proposal has been to conceive this economic connection by going back to the extractive legacy that came before crude oil, in order to later verify how the creation of synthetic rubber had profound effects on these dynamics.
FP: Up to now, you’ve worked on three projects related to rubber extraction: The Skin of Labour (2016) at Galeria Madragoa in Lisbon; the research on rubber exploitation in Southeast Asia during your residency at NTU CCA Singapore; Phantom Recorder (Grabador Fantasma, 2018) for the 14th Cuenca Biennial; and finally White Wake (Estela Blanca, 2019) at Galería Ginsberg in Lima. Could you reflect on how your research on rubber has grown and become more complex with each of these projects and the geographical shifts they’ve involved?
AB: To me it seems fundamental to revisit the history of the “rubber boom” and to look at the specifics of each context where this boom took place, in order to broaden the debate about the place of the Amazon region in the world. It’s essential that we bring ourselves closer to the different extractive routes that were traced through the Amazon region, in order to understand the origin of the extractivist regimes under which we are living in the present day. Art functions here as a measure that offers us “footholds” for understanding the presence of new socio-economic agendas. In the case of Ecuador, I’ve been interested in analyzing challenges related to rapid urbanization, deforestation, the presence of oil companies, open-air metal mining and the exploration of biocapital on the part of corporations.
The Skin of Labour emerged as my first work to evidence the repercussions that the extraction of raw materials —specifically rubber— had on nature. The point of departure: the latex glove, as a manufactured object, created for the medical industry for surgical use and later incorporated for use in manufacturing contexts during the Second Industrial Revolution. I was interested in showing the deep difference between the processes of “improvement” and technification of labor in Europe and North America and the relationships of slavery that were woven together in the rubber-growing depths of the South American Amazon in an effort to obtain the raw material used to make those very gloves. This situation was depicted very well in The Putumayo Red Book, published by Thomson in 1913.
My investigation mutated over time, both in terms of its formal resolution upon being poured into a single piece, as well as the different strategies it took on, which for the most part have been associated with different places and their particularities. Portugal, Singapore, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil are some of the contexts it has traversed.
FP: I’d like to go back, for a moment, to the extractivist dynamic and the case of biocapital and ancestral knowledge. Since time immemorial, biological and genetic resources have been considered part of human heritage, available for the use of all individuals. This changed as indigenous communities living in areas of high biodiversity began to feel pressure from industries, primarily the food and pharmaceutical industries, who pushed to obtain the rights to innovations that they had developed using indigenous biological or genetic resources. As a consequence, biodiversity and ancestral knowledge were discussed for the first time at the Earth Summit organized by the UN in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Noteworthy agreements emerged from this summit, including the recognition that indigenous communities are important to the preservation of the planet’s biodiversity, as well as the right of these same people to enjoy the economic and commercial benefits derived from the use of their resources. In light of this current debate, how do you think we can understand the history of the “discovery,” exploitation and industrialization of rubber?
AB: I think rubber can be understood as a sort of proto-biocapital. For example, we could link the “discoveries” of the mathematician and geographer Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701–1774), who was not only the first European to witness firsthand the uses of latex by the indigenous communities of the Amazon region, but also the first —together with the botanist François Fresnau (1703–1770)— to write an academic botanical report on the rubber plant and its possible uses. Indeed, this report would constitute the very base of Western knowledge of Hevea, and almost 100 years later, it would lead to both the vulcanization of rubber and its subsequent industrialization. Today, the rampant search for new forms of biocapital, in which a number of private scientific investigations are undertaken in the region at the urging of universities, pharmaceutical laboratories and local governments, show the flexibility of extractivist agendas, which are constantly evolving, and of course adjusting to the logics of global cognitive capitalism.
On the other hand, it also seems pertinent to me to reflect on the smuggling of the seeds of the rubber tree, a plant endemic to the Amazon region, in order to establish the colonial and extractivist economy of Southeast Asia. As a result of that “theft,” the Amazonian rubber boom vanished —leaving the region impoverished— and it was transferred to Singapore, where extraction continued until World War II, which would finally bring about a “substitute material.” From that moment forward, objects that were previously manufactured using natural rubber (gloves, cables, tires, etc.) began to be produced with petroleum-derived polymers. Today, the rubber economy has decreased drastically. What’s incredible in this whole story, though, is that many of the territories where there used to be rubber forests in the Ecuadorian Amazon have now become dedicated to petroleum extraction. Thus, the layers of extractivist history accumulate.
FP: The fires in the Amazon that occurred in August and September (2019) make evident that the extent of the destruction of this region, as well as the indigenous worlds it contains, has no historical parallel. In what way does your work on rubber extraction connect to the contemporary problems the South American Amazon faces?
AB: The socio-economic history of rubber in the region is extremely complex, and undoubtedly one of the most rich and extensive ways to conceive of the environmental and political dimensions of the Amazon region today. While there may be a huge difference between the environmental and social impact of the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries and the diverse extractive processes that we are experiencing today, the history of rubber extraction seems exemplary to me in these crucial moments for the preservation of the rainforest.
I think we need to re-politicize the idea of the Amazon region. The Amazon represents a utopia of resistance in the face of a world made in the image and semblance of global capitalism. But we must remember that the Amazon is not only one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet; it is also home to indigenous communities who have a worldview very distinct from the Western perspective and who have consistently rejected the notion of being part of the “modern world.” Having said that, the demand for natural resources will increase in equal measure to the expansion of capitalism. The Amazon region is in danger, and this is clear not only in the political agendas of Brazil, but also those of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Connected to all of this is the growing number of assassinations of indigenous leaders and the criminalization of protests in their communities.
I would like to think that knowing and understanding the history of extractivism in the region may help us resist and fight against such deadly agendas for the Amazon region. We should recognize that Latin America has a history of extraction-based dependence and it will probably be difficult to come up with alternative models of development. However, we can no longer continue to operate under the logic of giving the land over to the “highest bidder.” I would like my work to invite the audience to lay out their own narratives, by offering them a historical notion of where the political and economic models of Ecuador and the region have had their sights set.
FP: A dossier of images accompanies this interview. Can you tell us more about the images you’ve utilized and the archives you’ve turned to in order to produce this visual essay?
AB: My research has been growing over time, accompanied by a visual archive of varied origins. The archive is made up of transnational tire ads from the early 20th century; photos by Venezuelan explorer, photographer and collector Edgardo González Niño; seals from agriculture and livestock events; photographs of the Jesuit and Salesian orders in the Ecuadorian jungle; expeditionary diaries; films; and botanical illustrations from the 17th century, among others. In this way, I have gone about assembling an intermittent historiography on the extraction and exploitation of rubber in the region and its staged analogs in manufactured objects. Starting to review this whole universe of images has become a fundamental methodology for my work, which in some way allows me to play with the creative processes behind my projects in an orderly fashion.
FP: Will you continue working around the rubber explotation? Tell us about the future of your research.
AB: I am currently working on new strategies and projects that continue to nurture the body of my work in relation to the history of rubber, but moving the investigation into new geographies. Undoubtedly, I’m interested in expanding the geo-political dimensions of extracted materials and the possibility of engaging in a discussion with other situated and territorial histories, which may not be limited to just one country. However, the open-air metal mining projects that started recently in Ecuador have made me turn my gaze back toward my own country; they make me wonder about the future of my own work, and about the future of these lands.
Banner Image: Adrián Balseca, The Skin of Labour, b/w photograph, 27 x 36 cm, Ecuador, 2019.