Saturday, 17 May 2014

10,000 Cups for the Indians

       As you are probably aware, the largest producers of commercial rubber are Malaysia and Indonesia, and they accounted for an even greater proportion during the Second World War. But the natural home of rubber is South America. So when the Japanese swept down and gobbled up southeast Asia into their empire, it wasn't long before the U.S. sent a team of experts to Ecuador to set up rubber production in the trans-Andean jungles of that country. But what most people don't know is that, although most commercial rubber comes from Hevea brasiliensis, which is generally known as "the" rubber tree, what they now had to investigate was a secondary source, the castila or Panamá rubber tree, Castila elastica. And thereby hangs a tale.
     Once they had got the business sorted out, a message arrived from Washington to the effect that a bomber would shortly be setting down in Quito with ten thousand aluminium cups for collecting the rubber - "cups" as big as good-sized bowls, this at a time when aluminium was in short supply, and every scrap counted! The team was dismayed.
     It was clear that the authorities were thinking in terms of Hevea rubber. The trees are tapped by means of long cuts leading into a central channel, which then feeds the latex into the collecting cup. But Castila is different. During the dry season - the only time when collection is possible - its latex flows slowly. Collection is made by wide, shallow cuts which allows the latex to ooze out and coagulate. After about a week the collectors return and pull off the equivalent of a long rubber band. They immediately sent off a cable to headquarters explaining the problem, but that meant implying that the top brass didn't know what they were doing, so it received the expected response.
     So there they were, with an enormous quantity of completely useless aluminium bowls. Fortunately, the resident Englishman who served as their interpreter and adviser came up with a solution. They handed them out to the Indians, several "cups" to every family. Large, lightweight, unbreakable, and unrustable, they were accepted with obvious delight. As a public relations exercise, it could not have gone better, and ensured that the Indians would be only too willing to work as rubber-tappers and general assistants at a later date. Even the wild Jívaros received some, and no doubt found a use for them in their production of arrow poison and hallucinatory drugs.

Reference: J. M. Sheppard, "The rubber-hunters", pp 243-5 of The Wide World, August 1953 (Australia and NZ, July 1953 in the UK)

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