Published on Saturday, 07 September 2019 10:00
Written by Paul Christiansen. Illustrations by Hannah Hoang.
“Oh it’s easy to go to the rubber and hard to return, / Men leave their corpses, women depart as ghosts.”
Visitors to a colonial plantation might have heard this sorrowful song drifting above the soft, unceasing drops of latex dribbling from the ghastly, slashed flesh of trees. As 19th-century plantation employee and writer Tran Tu Binh explains, Vietnamese were forced to “become fertilizer for the capitalists’ rubber trees.”
As much as any other singular substance, rubber helps one explore the brutal exploitation of colonial rule, as well as a variety of political and economic developments in Vietnam during the 20th and 21st centuries. Rubber plantations provide evidence of some of the worst abuses of natives at the hands of the French, while later serving numerous purposes for a range of private and public actors. Investigating their complex history and ecological footprint helps articulate the complex interplay between commodities, exploitation and development, as well as man and nature.
White Blood of the Forest
From tires to sandals to medical instruments, rubber is a ubiquitous part of the modern experience, yet few people know much about its origins or the complex, exceedingly violent history that accompanied its ascension to one of the world’s most important commodities.
Various trees and plants evolved natural latex as a defense against insects. When the outer layer of bark is ruptured, the sticky, milky substance flows out to deter hungry invertebrates. The first recorded use of the material by humans dates back to the 1600 BCE Mesoamerican Olmecs, or “latex people,” who used it to make a ball for a game they played. They also applied the latex to capes to create crude rain jackets.
Intrigued by latex, European explorers quickly imported it from the Americas, but the long ocean voyage revealed a critical flaw in the raw good: when it becomes too cold it cracks; when too warm, it melts. In 1761, amateur American inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered vulcanization by adding pressure, heat and sulfur to natural rubber, which made the compound’s chemical bonds simultaneously stronger and more elastic. This, according to National Geographic Society explorer Wade Davis, transformed rubber “from a curiosity to a fundamental component of the industrial age.”
Bicycle and wagon tires, sock garters, shoe soles, toys and cable insulators: a variety of sectors saw the value of rubber. In response, Europe rushed to produce it in their colonies as the ideal tree; Hevea brasiliensis, colloquially known as the “rubber tree,” only grows in tropical climates. A rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in enormous colonial plantations and collection efforts in South and Central America, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Africa.
These rubber efforts brought about enormous wealth. In the Amazonian city of Manaus, for example, plantation owners were rumored to be so rich that they gave their horses champagne to drink and paid upwards of US$8,000 a night for imported prostitutes while filling the city with extravagant and absurdly impractical buildings, such as an ornate opera house. Horrific crimes against humanity accompanied the wealth. The slavery, murder and battles accompanying the collection and trade of rubber continued into recent times, as exemplified by its role in supporting Liberia’s murderous warlord Charles Taylor. The stories of great bloodshed and barbarism certainly warrant further discussions outside the scope of this article’s focus on rubber in Vietnam, while providing illuminating parallels.
Rubber Comes to Vietnam
To explore the role of rubber in Vietnam, we have to first look to Henry Ford, the namesake founder of Ford Motors. He attempted to satisfy America’s automobile-fueled rubber needs by creating his own latex-centric city in the Brazilian rainforest. Complete with housing, churches and community buildings, Fordlandia was a massive development. It was also a massive failure. When planted in neat rows, rubber trees in the area were susceptible to a devastating plague known as South American Leaf Blight. It quickly ravaged entire crops, dooming the project.
Ford’s folly didn’t immediately stop the western world from sourcing rubber from South America, however. Natives were forced to harvest latex from trees growing naturally in the forest. Such a setup not only left workers even more susceptible to malaria and the many other pathogens lurking in the wild, but also came at a great financial cost that ultimately left them unable to compete with Southeast Asian plantations where the blight was not found, and thus systematic planting could be implemented. Thus, by the turn of the 21st century, Asia was supplying more than 90% of the world’s rubber, with Vietnam serving as an important player.
Early on, France considered their Indochina colony a means to make money. They believed that extracting goods such as coffee, tea, rice and sugar, in addition to controlling local markets for items such as alcohol, could pay for their costly presence in the region. In some cases, such as rubber, independent foreign companies and individuals, rather than the government directly, controlled commodities, with the profits spilling over in the form of taxes and tariffs in return for financing and favorable land deals. In his expansive book, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam, historian Michitake Aso goes into great detail about that process and its particulars, of which this article provides a shallow overview.
In 1897, a French pharmacist on a mission to Java sent Hevea seeds to the Saigon Botanical Garden, which later became the Saigon Zoo. There, a number of colonial scientists experimented with it alongside other plants while the first plantations were being introduced. In line with the thinking of the time, colonial officials had little interest in researching or developing native plants such as fruit and rice that locals were proficient in harvesting, and instead looked to use land for foreign botanicals. An ambitious, disjointed and often inefficient scientific approach was taken to exploring the best ways to exploit rubber for profit in and around Saigon.
The climate in the highlands of southern Vietnam offered ideal conditions for rubber trees. Colonial officials knew it was in their best interest to present the region as uninhabited, and thus free for the taking. In truth, numerous quasi-nomadic ethnic minorities, such as the Stieng, lived on the land. The colonial government nevertheless made vast swaths of forest available to European companies to start plantations while also establishing necessary transportation infrastructure and providing financial support. The development allowed the colonial government to exert political and social influence in the region, which partly explains their preference for large foreign plantations as opposed to smaller-scale operations run by Vietnamese. In the first decades of the 20th century, plantations were established in the south and Central Highlands, and by the start of World War II, the industry produced more than 60,000 metric tons of rubber annually.
Conditions on Plantations
“Every day one was worn down a bit more, cheeks sunken, teeth gone crooked, eyes hollow with dark circles around them, clothes hanging from collarbones. Everyone appeared almost dead, and in fact in the end about all did die.” This was the reality for the Vietnamese who worked on the plantations, as observed by Tran Tu Binh.
Data from 11 of the 20 biggest plantations exceeding 700 workers reveals death rates between 12% and 47% in 1926 and 1927. This cruel reality seemed to matter little to the colonial overseers, who viewed the workers as expendable.
When establishing new plantation areas, workers were forced to labor from sunrise to sunset, chopping down gargantuan trees and clearing thorn-strewn brush beset by menacing sun and swarms of biting insects, tigers, elephants and poisonous snakes. Binh claims it was rare for a week to pass without someone being crushed by a tree, while broken limbs were commonplace.
Work was no easier once the rubber trees became seven years old and their latex could be harvested. An average tapper was expected to cut between 300 and 600 trees a day. Making matters worse, malaria and other illnesses ran rampant, with insufficient medical attention available. At Micheline’s Phu Rieng Du plantation, 90% of workers suffered from malaria. Rather than the wholly inadequate health services offered to people uprooted from their homelands, companies attributed the abysmal health to the “primitive lifestyle of Annam people when it comes to hygiene and their attitude to disease.”
In exchange for such physically devastating labor, workers faced violence and abuse from their overseers. Beatings and rapes accompanied lesser forms of torture, including meager wages and insufficient food. The cramped barracks consisting of little more than wood floors and sheet metal roofs made even leisure time insufferable.
To justify such mistreatment, owners depicted the Vietnamese in exceedingly degrading ways. At best they were spoken to like subservient children unable to care for themselves, and at worst, categorized as depraved sub-humans prone to a multitude of moral ills including gambling and dishonesty. According to famous rubber baroness Madame de la Souchère, “the natives of the region have the defect of being unstable.” The Micheline Plantation described them as “often depraved (opium addicts, public girls, lazy) having only an idea: desert to go to Cholon.”
This acknowledgment of a worker’s desire for escape once they’d experienced plantation conditions resulted in devious recruiting methods. As the plantations grew, companies increasingly looked to source labor from the Red River Delta, thus bringing workers south to the highlands. Separated from their families and communities, they were far less likely to flee. By 1928, more than half of all workers employed on the plantations were recruited from Tonkin.
Rebellion Takes Root
Considering the living and working conditions, it should be of no surprise that colonial plantations became places of radicalization and rebellion. Communist activists saw great potential among the workforce and actively infiltrated ranks to gain supporters, form unions and instigate strikes arguing for better wages and treatment. A letter intercepted at the Phu Ly post office exemplifies the type of rhetorical positioning the political agents used to gain support:
Fellow countrymen and women! Our country is ruined, we are wretched, we pay heavy taxes and duties, we are beaten and thrown in prison for the slightest offense. Now they are recruiting coolies, whom they first stupefy with drugs, then forcibly transport far away to their deaths.
And while ultimately quelled, on several occasions workers overwhelmed their overseers and occupied the fields and mansions, including famously at Michelin’s Phu Rieng Du plantation, as detailed in Binh’s memoir. The earlier murder of Alfred François Bazin, a Hanoi-based labor recruiter for the company, revealed both the resentment plantations had fomented and the lengths at which Vietnamese were willing to go to put an end to them.
These activities represented the first instances of native communist parties in Indochina taking an active role in mass labor struggles. Therefore, rubber plantations occupied a formidable role in the political structures, aims and experiences of indigenous resistance that would manifest itself in the nation’s subsequent wars with France and the United States.
Rubber During Wartime
Japan’s arrival in Vietnam in 1940 stymied rubber production. From over 60,000 tons produced annually to virtually none, the industry fell into disarray. Meticulously maintained fields returned to jungle, equipment was lost or destroyed, and the workforce scattered, taking with them with their valuable knowledge and experience.
The foreign companies and French colonial administration weren’t willing to abandon their lucrative latex dreams, however; upon the defeat of the Japanese, they set about re-establishing rubber production and bringing back or re-training as many workers as they could. Thanks to improved technology, partly developed to fuel the massive military machines involved in World War II, they were quickly able to surpass previous output, with plantations in Cambodia and Vietnam hitting a combined 75,0000 tons annually.
Despite this financial success, rubber plantations were becoming increasingly dangerous places, as political hostilities festered. Conflicts brewed as competing forces with opposing ideologies turned to them with different aims. The Viet Minh successfully used them as examples of colonial exploitation and placed them at the center of propaganda campaigns while recruiting among their workforce. More than mere symbols, they also aimed to destroy plantation trees, equipment and infrastructure to harm the French economy. As one Vietnamese journalist, Diep Lien Anh, noted: “One rubber tree equals one enemy. To destroy one rubber tree is to kill one invader.” All told, 10% of all high-value trees and 17,000 of a total 150,000 plantation hectares were ruined.
The plantation’s combination of orderly rows of plants adjacent to more rugged terrain played into the advantages and needs of Viet Minh forces. They could easily slip in and out to wreak havoc while also traveling into and through areas their more mechanized foes could not. So in addition to places of rebellion, the rubber plantations became sites of sabotage and death, as well as safe havens, way stations and valuable supply caches.
Not all revolutionaries, however, condoned the wanton destruction of the plantations. Vietnamese members of rubber unions in particular, argued that while they could serve important roles in resisting and overthrowing the French, their basic functionalities and infrastructure needed to remain intact so as to provide the future Vietnamese economy with necessary funds. They preferred a more restrained approach and condemned the devastation performed by their more aggressive peers.
Colonial opinions were not much more united. Companies and private individuals faced a back-and-forth with government officials. They requested protection to keep their interests safe. While the French did eventually station troops at some locations, often to meet their own means of launching military maneuvers, they also refused to guard others, which necessitated their abandonment. In their retreats, colonial forces would occasionally destroy the rubber trees so they wouldn’t offer economic or strategic value to their enemies.
Rubber as Fighting Intensifies
The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and subsequent national partitioning did little to stabilize conditions on the rubber plantations. Recognizing their economic importance, the government in the south sought to increase rubber output, and before American forces arrived in significant numbers, it had replaced rice as their most important export. Benefiting from improved methods and attention, the southern region produced more than one metric ton of rubber per hectare per year between 1957 and 1961.
The new government, however, chose to operate the industry in accordance with colonial structures that showed little concern for workers and gave preferences to the large foreign companies that remained. Starting in 1943, large estates began to occupy a much larger percentage of rubber-producing lands, peaking at 82% in 1970. Such realities ensured that plantations would continue to offer revolutionaries with opportunities for recruitment and sabotage.
For their part, the French corporations were accused of excessive tapping and unsustainable practices so as to exact as much short-term profit as possible in light of the uncertain political future. These French operators were often caught between adversaries and played one off another as it suited their interests. They paid bribes and ransoms to insurgent forces while requesting help and providing support to the southern government. With some exceptions, their preference for profits demanded they take a bet-hedging and pragmatic approach to politics, hoping to remain in good enough standing with whomever ultimately prevailed in the wars.
When America ramped up its presence, it mostly picked up were the departing French left off. A 1964 CIA memorandum that the US government only declassified in 2006 provides a remarkably straightforward and cynical assessment of the “gloomy” situation. It notes that Vietnam produced the fifth-most rubber in the world at the time, tallying US$33.5 million in profits, of which US$13.4 million went to the government, accounting for 57% of the nation’s foreign earnings.
But while the CIA recognized that rubber was of the utmost importance, they levied numerous criticisms and presented a pessimistic evaluation of the industry: under the southern government, the sector was unable to properly grow and adapt to the increased competition posed by synthetic alternatives; revolutionaries would continue to use plantations for recruitment and cover as well as economically devastating attacks; and French companies, which produced up to 90% of exported rubber, ultimately may pull out due to declining global prices, continued insurgent harassment and lack of support from the government. If high taxes, cumbersome regulations and lack of protection were to lead the French to divest, the Americans argued that the southern government would be unable to take over operations thanks to limited experience and knowledge, as well as military resources.
Such thinking perhaps contributed to the United States’ attempts to prop up the southern government, while ultimately doing little to safeguard rubber plantations. French companies controlled rubber plantations well into the 1960s, but production declined, hitting near zero by the 1970s. No longer seen as a source of income, American actions hastened rubber’s demise. Defoliants and Agent Orange laid waste to vast stretches of plantation land in an effort to expose and impede supply chains and troops seeking shelter and safe passage through the thick canopies.
It’s worth noting that whatever disregard the American military held for rubber holdings, it was worse for Vietnamese people. The National Coordinators of Vietnam Veterans Against the War once wrote: “We supposedly valued human life while our enemy did not. Yet we paid the owners of the Michelin plantations $600 for each rubber tree we damaged, while the family of a slain Vietnamese child got no more than $120 in payout for a life.”
By the time the Americans fled in defeat, the rubber fields had suffered great damage, and the people living in their proximity were filled with toxic chemicals whose effects would continue to be felt for decades to come. While reunification would usher in a period of peace and prosperity, nothing represents a greater what could have been than the rubber industry, which took years to rebound following decades of senseless devastation.
A Complicated Commodity for Modern Vietnam
Rubber production in Vietnam slowly recovered after reunification, with growth coinciding with the general economic boom the country has experienced in the decades following Doi Moi reforms. As of 2018, Vietnam is the world’s third-largest producer and exporter of rubber, boasting shipments of 1.58 million tons, worth over US$2.1 billion, a 14.5% increase in volume over the previous year. This makes the nation a key player in an industry that sources 97% of its raw rubber from Southeast Asia.
In addition to the general funds it brings to the country, the rubber industry is quick to point to the way in which a commodity positively impacts the lives of people, especially ethnic minorities and those in rural locations. It provides more than 5,000 jobs with annual salaries of VND7 million per month, compared to the national average of VND3.2 million a month, though figures vary greatly across region and occupation. Moreover, plantation development results in roads, schools and other key infrastructure projects in remote regions of the country, including northern areas where production has expanded with the advent of hybrid species and advanced cultivation methods.
Yet global rubber prices have fallen to a third of their peak in 2010–2011, and may not truly recover before 2030 due to a complicated set of international and cross-sector factors that determine its global price. This is cause for major concern in Vietnam, as the nation exports 80% of the latex it produces. So even with last year’s considerable increase in total volume, the industry netted 6.1% less money. This has a tangible effect on the number of jobs rubber can support, as well as the wages it pays.
And while French plantations vanished in favor of state-owned enterprises after 1975, the battle between large operations and smaller family- or community-run operations continues. Authorities point to the efficiencies of large plantations — owning only 38% of land, they produce 60% of total latex — and higher quality standards stemming from technological advantages to justify the continued support of them at the expense of small plantations. In doing so, however, individuals and small communities, often living on the margins of society, miss opportunities for economic independence and security, instead placing themselves at the mercy of large bureaucracies.
In some cases, people that sold land to large companies in exchange for promised jobs have been left waiting with nothing to support themselves while the large enterprises decide not to tap the rubber trees planted because of economic circumstances. Quang Van Dinh, head of Tham A Village in Son La Province, told Vietnam News: “Before, when they [the rubber corporation] called upon the people to contribute land, they said the yield would come in seven years and the money would help people escape poverty. After the villagers handed over all their land, they only had some 12ha fields of rice left. How could we produce enough to fill our bellies with those little fields?”
Moreover, in the near-term, the trade war between China and the US threatens to further depress Vietnam’s rubber profits. China is the world’s largest latex consumer, and any decrease in manufacturing or increased prices could destabilize the commodity, though some theorize India’s increased consumption could offset a drop in China’s.
Working conditions on Vietnamese rubber plantations demand consideration as well. While treatment at the hands of colonial exploiters sets an exceedingly low bar that is easily surpassed today, the work remains physically demanding and dangerous, with risks from snakes and insects, as well chemical poisoning during processing. Perhaps most troubling is the industry’s use of child labor. A chilling report issued by the Vietnamese government estimated that 10,224 children were involved in rubber production, 42.5% of whom were below the legal working age of 15, and 22% of the children were between five and eleven years old. Serious allegations of trafficking and slavery abound.
Another significant area of concern involves Vietnam’s apparent assumption of the role of colonizing force in respect to rubber plantations in neighboring nations. As Vietnam cultivates its own expertise and experience, companies have increasingly looked beyond the borders to Laos and Cambodia to establish plantations. Businesses and governments in these areas are less able to effectively make use of their land, which thus creates a vacuum that Vietnamese companies and workers have rushed in to fill. In a trend eerily reminiscent of colonial activities, these corporations are rarely snatching up unoccupied lands; instead forcing ethnic minorities to relocate, often through illegal or immoral means. When displaced to new land they are unfamiliar with, the people struggle to adapt their traditional ways of life and agriculture, as depicted in the short film, Rubber in a Rice Bowl and Rubber Barons:
Growing rubber on an industrial scale can devastate natural environments. The transition from diverse forests to monoculture plantations results in soil erosion, reduced soil quality and increased likelihood of landslides. Because rubber trees evolved in an ecosystem with constant rainfall, their natural growing cycle does not sync up with Southeast Asia’s monsoons, and thus they disrupt the complex balance of water systems, often burdening local streams and aquifers. In Vietnam, much of the damage has already been done, and people are left to lament what has already been lost. But as rubber expands to new areas in the region, little is being done differently, while modern machines and techniques make deforestation even easier.
Rubber also plays a role in carbon emissions, in regards to both the trees and the energy needed for latex processing and transport. While the trees do serve to collect and store atmospheric carbon, they do so at a lower rate than that of a more diverse ecosystem. This hasn’t stopped officials around the world from attempting to classify plantations as “forests,” as opposed to “agriculture,” for the sake of carbon credits under various programs.
In addition to the environmental impact of rubber production, the industry still faces the risk of the South American Leaf Blight arriving and devastating plantations. Rather than the previously offered idea that the parasite can’t take hold in Vietnam’s ecosystem, it is possible that the geographic distance that has so far kept it out, but experts are not quite sure why an outbreak hasn’t occurred here yet. Moreover, plantations have long relied on cloning trees, which means they all have the same susceptibility to infection. As global movement becomes faster and more frequent, the risks increase exponentially. The disease, which one pathologist observed to move “like a blowtorch through the plantings,” could strike at any moment, and destruction would result.
Synthetic rubber, meanwhile, has limitations that make it unsuitable for use in tires. The average pickup-truck tire consists of nearly 50% natural rubber, while larger industrial vehicle tires are 90% and airplane tires practically 100% rubber. Attempting to land a plane with synthetic tires would put all cargo and passengers at great risk every flight. A nose-dive in natural rubber production because of the blight would certainly have a calamitous effect on aviation, shipping and transportation, rippling across all aspects of modern-day life.
Without rubber, you could not enjoy the life you have now. From traveling in a car and typing on a computer to practicing safe sex and undergoing a medical operation, the commodity is essential for experiencing the world as you know it. If production conditions and environmental impacts have drastically improved since the 19th and 20th centuries, we could possibly justify the continued use of rubber, as long as we acknowledge those who suffered in the past to make that possible. That, sadly, is not reality.
The 2016 horror movie Co Hau Gai (The Housemaid) takes place on a Vietnamese rubber plantation during the colonial era’s waning years. At the end of the film, the ghosts of abused workers rise from the earth to enact their revenge on their villainous overseers. We should fear such a comeuppance. Our consumer-centric commodification of nature may soon lead to an inhospitable planet, to say nothing of the suffering of our fellow humans along the way. Who among us doesn’t have hands so stained with the white blood of the forest that they resemble the operating gloves of a sadistic scientist?