Wade Davis
[Simon and Schuster, NY, 1996. 0-684-80886-2]

While the book is not about Haiti, there are some interesting pages that deal with Haiti and rubber plants. I thought I'd share those sections with you and then, for those interested, make a few comments on the rest of this quite extraordinary book.

In the late 19th century a British resident of South America had collected a massive number of rubber seeds and plants and shipped them to England. There they were housed in a government run experimental garden and raised to health. Eventually they were shipped to Indonesia and the commercial rubber economy took on a new life as these rubber trees were raised in plantation style in East Asia.

This sort of cultivation was impossible in South America, which had been until this time the rubber center of the world. But, all South American rubber had been from wild plants. Plantation rubber cultivation was impossible in South America because there was (is) a leaf blight that is rampant among rubber trees, and if they are planted too close to one another, and without intervening vegetation, in other words if they are planted plantation style, then the blight will wipe them out in sort order.

By 1942 the Indonesia (British controlled) rubber plantations were providing 99% of the commercial rubber for the world. In the earliest stages of World War II, the U.S. realized the disastrous consequences if the rubber plantations fell to the Japanese. This would cut off the U.S. and its allies from rubber supplies, an absolutely critical commodity for both the economies of these nations, and, more importantly, critical to the war effort.

The U.S. made some preparations in 1940-41 by tripling its rubber stockpiles, but the long-term problem had to be addressed.

From Davis, p. 204...

"...the Japanese had launched their amphibious assaults on the Philippines and Malaya, (Jan/Feb 1942) the first move in a strategic offensive destined to secure the wealth of the Dutch East Indies by the end of February 1942. Within a week of Pearl Harbor,...British defenses in northern Malaya were overrun, and the rubber plantations on which the outcome of the war might depend were plucked from Allied control. It was an historic event that would transform Schultes's life (this book is mainly about the life of Richard Evans Schultes, Davis' mentor and professor at Harvard U.) in a way that he could never have imagined."

In short Schultes was an important figure in being assigned by the Defense Department to build a rubber industry of commercial proportions in lands controlled by the Allies. The solution leaned in two different directions, one would be to solve the leaf blight problem so that the plantation system could be used in South America, or to organize a very diffuse source system and tap the wild rubber of South America with much greater vigor than ever attempted before.

The issue that brings us closer to the part of this story that affects Haiti is the question of why didn't the leaf blight destroy the plantations in Malaysia? Well, it seems that the blight is native to South and Central America and doesn't travel well. By the time any plants could arrive in East Asia the blight was dead and it was not native to that region, thus the trees would be spared.

It occurred to the botanists in this project that Haiti might have some qualities that could make it a suitable place. Since it was on an island that did not have the leaf blight itself, and since they could hold the plants for a significant time that the blight would die out were it already on the rubber plants, then Haiti might be a hope for a future rubber center. This seems to have been especially true of the northern plains which, of course, had supported huge plantations of sugar in the past. Perhaps, thought these directors of the world, it would be the place for a western controlled rubber kingdom.

Davis mentions on p. 341 that "There was an important project in Haiti, an island nation free of the blight..." Earlier on he had mentioned that "In Haiti, thousands of acres were planted in Cryptostegia..." (p. 338). This was a particular plant that yielded rubber.

The Haiti rubber project was NOT a part of the war effort. By 1943 two things were clear: the war would be fought mainly with synthetic rubber. But, that the west would have to develop long-term natural rubber sources for the future. Never again could the U.S., particularly, be caught in the situation where it was so dependent on one geographic region so far from the U.S. for such a critical commodity. Thus Haiti was actually part of a long-term strategy to develop commercial level rubber resources close to the U.S.

At the end of the war the Allies were terrified that the Japanese might introduce the leaf blight to the rubber plantations of Malaysia as an act of terrorism, but that did not occur. Further, when radial tires were developed in the 1970s a new dependency on natural rubber was created since radial tires, evidently, according to Davis, the dominant nature of all modern tires, cannot be made with synthetic rubber, but demands natural rubber.

However, to end this rubber story, the irony is that despite incredible work by people like Schultes and others to build the base of this "local" rubber network, the U.S. State Department abandoned the entire project in the 1950s. This seems to have been for two dominant reasons:

This latter surmise came before the development of radial tires and their need of natural rubber, and before the 1973 oil crisis which drove the price of oil up dramatically. All synthetic rubber is petroleum based.

So, that's the story as it touches Haiti. I am curious if any of you know more about this rubber planting in Haiti and what ever happened to it. What is this plant Cryptosteia? I take it that it is not a rubber tree, but a smaller plant that nonetheless produces latex. Anyone can help with that?

For those interested a few non-Haiti related comments about this new book of Davis' which is simply a marvelous read........

The structure of this book is odd. Wade Davis and a slightly older student of Schultes, Timothy Plowman, are in the Amazon region of South America, particularly Columbia and Peru, studying coca plants in the 1970s and early 80s. But, the huge bulk of the book are flashbacks to the career of the extraordinary Richard Evans Schultes, who entered Harvard in 1933, went for a summer to live with U.S. Indians and eat and study peyote with them, and who, among other astonishing botanical achievements, was the made who made phenomenal discoveries of mind altering substances related to native American (South and Central America) religious practices.

The book is a science adventure story, extremely well told, without the Indiana Jones quality of The Serpent and the Rainbow. Perhaps it helps a lot that the hero is Schultes and not Davis, so he doesn't have to blow things out of realistic proportion as he does in that earlier work.

The book is, however, a romantic siren's song for hallucinogenic drugs. Schultes, Plowman and Davis are discovering every imaginable drug used in religious and medicinal practices and then taking and celebrating these drugs as though they had found a delicious new pasta recipe. I think I'm a fairly typical reader, and were I not so out of shape, and my left knee so shaky these days, I'd be ready to run off the to Amazon region with some plant book under my arm and start tuning out and turning on. Even in the massive literature of the 1960s and 70s I think I've never read anything that makes mind altering substances seems so attractive. What is less attractive are the myriad bouts with malaria, beriberi and many other strange and dangerous diseases that they are all coming down with constantly, to say nothing of the thousands of miles of walking, and the terrors of river traffic on treacherous rivers with death-defying rapids taken in dugout canoes, that one has to endure to get to these plants which promise connection to the spirit world.

If you're looking to be marvelously entertained, to enter a world so incredibly far from most of our lives and to stretch the credulity, yet to have it presented in a very believable and well-written manner, then I recommend you give ONE RIVER a look. It was a slow read and while I normally read at least one book a week, I spent nearly three weeks on this 500 page book of serious ethnobotanical study, I'd do it again. I was sad to see it come to an end. But, now back to work on other things!

Bob Corbett


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