Foreign Policy Blogs

Remembering Henry Wickham, the bio-pirate who ended Brazil’s rubber monopoly

Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil (61)

A recent piece in the Economist gushes over Embrapa, the public company whose ‘green revolution’ has helped turn Brazil into an agricultural powerhouse. Though it presents a one-sided view of GM crops, whose effect on health and livelihoods is a cause for deep concern, the article gives an excellent overview of Brazil’s rise as a leading exporter in a range of goods.

The piece also reveals the extent to which Embrapa has relied on non-native crops and seeds. For example, the company imported from Africa the brachiaria grass, from which it created a new variety of grass that has fueled the development of the Brazilian cerrado. Soyabeans, which Brazil exports more of than any country apart from the US, is native to north Asia, but was modified by Embrapa to make it suitable for tropical Brazil.

The extensive borrowing, and subsequent transforming, of crops and seeds from other countries evokes the case of Henry Wickham, a 19th century British explore who almost single-handedly caused the collapse of the Brazilian rubber industry. Brazil’s rubber boom led to the first period of development in the Amazon, and the wealth it generated financed the rise of Belem and Manaus, the region’s two great cities.

But in 1876, Wickham, who had failed to make it as entrepreneur in Latin America, took 70,000 rubber seeds out of Brazil to Kew Gardens in Britain. According to historian Greg Grandin, whose wonderful book Fordlandia recounts the rubber bust, the Wickham seeds “provided the genetic stock of all subsequent rubber plantations in the British, French, and Dutch colones.”

The conditions in Asia were more conducive to rubber production. By the early part of the 20th century, Malaysia, Sumatra and other southeast Asian countries dominated the rubber trade, leaving Brazil’s rubber economy unsalvageable, even for Henry Ford, whose attempts to build a rubber plantation near Santarém failed spectacularly.

The Wickham episode has had a lasting impact on Brazil, where he is considered a bio-pirate. Writing about Fordlandia in the New York Review of Books, Joshua Hammer traces the country’s strict controls on “bio-piracy” today to the British’s explorer’s role in torpedoing the industry.

Even though the rubber bust occurred over a century ago, the Wickham case is illustrative of the perils of the unregulated transfer of farming technologies. After all, though he bragged that he stole the seeds, at the time Wickham’s actions broke no existing laws. As Embrapa considers exporting back to Africa its own grass to help transform its agricultural methods, it’s worth keeping in mind the potential hazards that the unfettered trade in technologies can cause. And if Embrapa’s (and the Economist’s) vision for Africa includes monoculture farming and the widespread use of GM crops, the dangers posed to the continent will be great.