a book about the rubber tree: biopiracy in the amazon

thief at end of the world

the thief at the end of the world: rubber, power, and the seeds of empire (2008) by joe jackson is a fascinating story of henry alexander wickham who in 1876 under the order of the british empire smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds from the amazon to the kew gardens / these were used to seed the rubber plantations in asia & effectively ended the dominance of brazil & the amazon as the main source of rubber which was then a key resource for the military-industrial complex & the nascent automobile industry \ very interesting good read

the story of how henry wickham smuggled the rubber seeds is by itself compelling \ it turned out to be a game changer in world trade & economy <wild rubber production was 99.7% in 1905 and declined to 6.9% in 1922> / taking place during the glory days of the british empire, the act of usurping other nations’ natural resource & transplanting to its colonies underscored the political & economic significance of resource independence \ fastforward to the present when “energy independence” is in the united states’ political agenda

equally compelling is the story of the man himself \ wickham started off in his adventure in his mid-20s / not a very good planner & organizer but a good self-promoter & a staunch dreamer \ his obsession with propagating rubber <and other crops> in the amazon brought about hardships & tragedy not only for himself but his family / there is something to be admired about a man who would endure illness, disease & near death to fulfill his dream & persist against many odds, rejection, condescension & little reward \ wickham in his later years was knighted & spoken about as the “father of the rubber industry”

just as interesting is the question of a nation’s rights & sovereignty over its natural resources \ the transfer of indigenous knowledge of its flora & fauna without the source benefitting or compensated for the commercial use of this knowledge is biopiracy \ predating wickham’s rubber seed theft was the smuggling of cinchona seeds <cinchona being the source for quinine, the cure for malaria & yellow fever> by another british adventurer, clements markham / other cases of biopiracy: maya icbg controversy where the icbg was documenting the biodiversity of chiapas mexico with the intent of ascertaining their commercial medical possibilities; rose periwinkle, native to Madagascar and a cure for cancer; neem tree for controlling fungal infection in plants; a patent of enola bean that was revoked after causing economic damage to farmers in mexico; an attempt by a u.s. corporation to patent basmati rice

in 2001, india set up the traditional knowledge digital database containing translations of ancient manuscripts of old remedies \ the purpose is to protect its cultural heritage from exploitation by foreign companies / the philippines has done the same by establishing a national digital library containing local communities’ health practices that have been proven effective by modern medical societies

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