The rubber boom in Colombia was a short-lived exploit lasting hardly more than a generation — from 1879 until 1912 — and again briefly towards the end of World War II. Despite its brief duration, the period proved to be one of the most significant in local history, forever shifting the social, economic and environmental course of the country.

Attracted by the fortunes to be made off the naturally growing rubber tree, waves of migrants poured into the previously uncolonized region of southern Colombia. Many were disappointed. The lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the era’s “rubber barons” contrasted sharply with the experiences of those responsible for the harvest, who languished in the difficult conditions and isolation of the Amazon.

The region’s diverse indigenous communities suffered most. The rubber boom in Colombia was also a period of ethnocide. Thousands of indigenous people across the region were enslaved, displaced or killed.

Accusations of gruesome torture, genocide, whipping, bodily mutilation, execution, the incineration of live victims, drowning, suffocation and rape were reported regularly throughout this region, often at the hands of Julio César Arana, the owner of the largest rubber company in the region, known as The Peruvian Amazon Rubber Industry in Europe and Casa Arana in South America.

As quickly as the rubber boom began, it came to a screeching halt.

As quickly as the rubber boom began, it came to a screeching halt. In 1912, reports of the heinous crimes committed against the region’s indigenous people reached European investors, prompting a shift to rubber produced in newly established plantations in Southeast Asia — purportedly with seeds smuggled out of Brazil.

To this day, the vast majority of the world’s natural latex is harvested in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Despite the collapse of the industry in South America, the trade was not completely extinguished. Today, hundreds of rubber-tapping families remain in southern Colombia.

Rubber trees in Southeast Asia
Rubber trees in Southeast Asia produce most of the world’s supply. (Ryan Woo/Creative Commons)

Though natural latex is far from a major part of the contemporary national economy, tappers are able to support themselves by banding together in regional rubber tapper associations, such as ASOHECA of the department of Caquetá.

Inside the sweltering ASOHECA office, director Pablo Pineda González explained that for many years after the collapse, rubber tappers were supported through INCORA, the now-defunct Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform. But the rise of the neoliberal economic model in the 1980s and 90s and the globalizing market led Colombia to abandon domestic rubber in favor of South Asian imports.

These global economic factors, in combination with the dissolution of INCORA, contributed to a “total rupture” of the small-scale rubber tapping industry remaining in the Colombian Amazon region.

“There wasn’t any political interest or support for the sector,” said González. “So it became crucial for families to organize themselves. In total, there were about 300 families with about 900 hectares of rubber plantations in Caquetá. That’s when ASOHECA began.”

Rubber farming bounces back

ASOHECA formed in 1996 with the intention of supporting the interests of the region’s rubber tappers, promoting business models that bear no resemblance to the rubber industry’s violent past.

“We exist to protect the well-being of the campesino,” said Zulma Díaz, ASOHECA’s administrator.

ASOHECA has managed to strengthen the viability of the industry in Caquetá, despite the challenges inherent to promoting a small-scale trade in the global economy. But González sees promise in the industry’s future because of the social and environmental benefits it contributes.

Caquetá’s rubber-tapping families represent a rich cultural tradition that incorporates the active participation of women, children, indigenous and afro-descendent populations.

“Who are the people behind the rubber trees?” asked González. “Rubber tappers are unique because they have a cultural heritage based around a love for the land. The crop is a long-term venture that requires a family to stay on the property.”

The rejuvenation of the rubber industry has the potential to revive important Amazonian ecosystems such as those in Caquetá, which face grave environmental threats from to widespread deforestation and clearing for pastureland.

By aiding in recuperation of soils, sequestration of carbon dioxide, beautification of the countryside and the recovery of biological corridors, rubber trees have proven capable of restoring exhausted pastures to the complex Amazonian ecosystems that once covered this region.

Despite its unsavory past, the trade seems poised to make a comeback, providing rural Colombians with sustainable long-term economic opportunities that are socially and environmentally beneficial.

“This is the philosophy that we need to preserve in order to protect our environment and our future generations,” believes González.