Thursday, December 3, 2009


Jordan Carter

Now all is changed great peace and quiet

The sharp-edged sword becomes the tapper’s knife.

The carved shield becomes a swing

Wherein is wrapped in clothes the babe whose future


In the price of rubber tapped in a ring.

(Anonymous, 1925)

This colonial poem addresses an obscure yet monumental history that is infused within the essential component of the modern day condom: latex. Indeed, as Michael Doug suggests in his 1994 article, published in Economic and Political Weekly, "Transition from Native Forest Rubbers to Hevea brasiliensis among Tribal Smallholders in Borneo,” in colonial South East Asia (primarily Malaysia and Indonesia), the transition from nomadic rubber collection to sedentary latex cultivation via the planting and tapping of the Hevea brasiliensis (the source of the latex used in the production of the modern day condom) represented a rise from inter-tribal warfare and the formation of tribal states more actively involved in world-trade (Dove, 392).

Prior to the sedentary cultivation of Heavea brasiliensis, forest products including other various natural-occurring rubbers comprised substantial portions of the economies of the Malay and Iban peoples of Southeast Asia between the mid-18th century and the early 20th century (Dove, 384). Tribes within Borneo and the Malay Peninsula were engaged in constant travel—giving primacy to areas with high density in latex-filled trees such as the indigenous gutta percha (Dove, 386). This nomadic lifestyle perpetuated tribal discordance via continuous territorial warfare and tribal displacement (Dove, 392).

Moreover, by felling the rubber trees in an expedient yet destructive slash-and-tap method of rubber collection, the Iban people elicited the conservationist-initiatives of the Dutch (Dove, 386):

Colonial Observation:

The native found a gutta tree, about ten inches in diameter, and after cutting it

down, he ringed it neatly all the way along the stem, at intervals of a yard of less.

underneath each ring he put a calabash to catch the milk-white sap which slowly

exuded (Hornaday, 18885:433).

Colonial Response:

[The natives] have not yet graduated in the science of forest conservation. Instead

of making incisions at regular intervals in the bark of a tree, and extracting a portion of the juice at different periods, by which its further growth would not be prevented, they usually adopt the radical expedient of cutting the whole tree down

(Bock, 18881:204).

Although the extermination of rubber resources was a looming possibility, mercantilist incentive surely skews the basis of Dutch intervention (Dove, 387). The misconception of the Dutch in this cacophonous moment of contact with the ‘Other,’ the non-persons who inhabit the “empty” and “wild” grey area of the forest (Tsing). Accordingly, Dutch colonial governments restricted tapping-rights, requiring a license to tap the trees. Such enactments were sanctioned in the name of conservation yet they were clearly tainted by capitalist self-interest. Indeed, they allowed for the Dutch to monitor and impede the exploitation of this natural resource by local smallholders who had benefited from its cultivation for centuries (Dove, 387). Conceptually, the entire colonial market structure is set up in a manner that forces the indigenous people to exploit their natural resources, in this case natural rubbers, in order to meet the demand of commercial booms such as the ‘latex boom’ of the early 20th century (Dove, 387). However, once the indigenous people comply in-line with economic pressures and exploit their resources, they become susceptible to colonial mandates that implement unwarranted restrictions on their native land. But is this “collaboration” between forest dwellers and Western merchants negative or positive, cooperative, or compromising? According to Tsing, it is both. In the immediacy of intervention, the Iban people felt the burn of friction through foreign restrictions on ‘natural’ property; however, the subsequent fire cleared a new path for the indigenous people that would have otherwise remained out of sight.

Indeed, although the Dutch implemented novel mandates, they allowed for the unlimited tapping of independently planted rubber trees (Dove, 391). As such, the Iban fell into a new niche – the planting and cultivation of Hevea brasiliensis. This new agricultural emphasis allowed for a transition to a more sedentary tribal state lifestyle, which somewhat involuntarily launched Borneo and Malaysia alike into the world market.

Nomadic rubber collection preceded the cultivation of Hevea brasiliensis. The primary concerns of this emphasis were of the “physical” nature whereas those of the latter were in regards to “fiscal” dangers (Dove, 391). Indeed, during the era of rubber collection, adult men from various tribes would go on gathering expeditions ready for warfare on the instance of crossing paths with a rival clan. As the natives incorporated this “physical” method into lore and idolatry, however, a certain sense of certainty and tradition was imbued in it. This is reflected in the “remarkable ¾ meter-high rubber statue representing a rhinoceros with a man on its back.” As the rhinoceros symbolized the “hazards of travel” in uncharted Borneo, the statue was offered to “the spirits in return for a successful rubber-gathering expedition” (Dove, 388).

Conversely, the “fiscal” oriented nature of the more modern plant/tap method was a response to colonial pressures and thus without cultural roots. It’s origin lies in the friction’s manifestation of dreams, of new national identities and imagined global commerce. But the air of change does not pass without ruffling a few feathers and thus many indigenous people did not feel comfortable relying so heavily “on factors over which they have no control” as “market prices for rubber are volatile and represent the greatest source of uncertainty in rubber cultivation” (Dove, 391). Uncertainty aside, the “tribesmen” responded to “broader political-economic structures exerting increasing control over commodity production” by introducing Hevea brasiliensis and subsequently capitalizing on the weak points of the global market and colonial rule (Dove, 393).

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