Course:CONS370/Projects/The impact of the rubber boom (1879-1912) on Indigenous Peoples and the forest landscape in the Putumayo River region of South America

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This page addresses the events of the Amazon Rubber Boom, which was the marked rise of global demand for rubber derived from the Hevea tree and consequent mass cultivation in the Amazon, specifically the valley of the Putumayo River during the period of 1879 to 1912. We provide an overview section explaining key events and describing the atrocities that took place. The section on tenure explains the competing conceptions of ownership that were at play. The section on stakeholders and the discussion of their relative power will shed light on the multitude of actors.

Rubber Boom (1879-1912)

Latex extraction


The Amazon rubber boom was a period of maximal exploitation of the gum extracted from the genus Hevea trees. Hevea trees come in a handful of species and are native to the Amazon Rainforest. Rubber cultivators, called tappers, extracted liquid latex by making an angled cut in the tree and removing a strip of bark. The runny latex liquid flowed along the tree gash into a spout made of bark, collecting in a basin that hung from the tree. During the boom period, tappers processed barrels of liquid latex into 100lb balls of solid rubber by spooning the liquid over a smokey fire. Exposure to hot air causes the rubber to coagulate and stiffen. Traditionally, the Indigenous Peoples of Amazonia poured the thickening gum into moulds to forge objects or spread it over clothing for waterproofing. Rubber processed in this way, however useful in the forest-living context, could not be used to improve industrial technologies. The rubber used by Indigenous Peoples was vulnerable to common solvents and susceptible to temperature change, softening in heat and hardening in cold. The discovery of vulcanization, a refinement process in which the rubber takes on stronger molecular bonds by being exposed to 150ºC heat represented a technological advance. Vulcanized rubber is substantially more elastic, resistant to solvents, viscous, hard, weather resistant, and tensile strong relative to rubber that has only been air treated in the traditional way. The discovery of vulcanization in confluence with the spreading popularity of bicycles (and their rubber tires) precipitated this period of heightened extraction.[1] In the Putumayo region, latex was extracted by draining the rubber tree completely to produce the greatest amount of product in a short amount of time. This extraction of all the latex of an individual tree destroyed high quality species of rubber trees quickly and forced rubber tappers to resort to extracting lesser quality latex from other species of rubber tree.[2]

Putumayo Region

The Putumayo region is defined as the watershed area surrounding the Putumayo river. The river starts in the Andes of Colombia and covers a vast region of some of the least known lands on earth. The Putumayo river is nearly a thousand miles long flowing through Colombia and Peru, bordering Ecuador. It enters the main waterway of the Amazon after crossing the border into Brazil, where the river is called Içá. The rubber boom relied on the Putumayo river to access remote regions of the Amazon and transport rubber along waterways with steam boats and canoes to export houses in urban centres. The main export houses in the Putumayo region were located in the urban center of Iquitos in Peru.[3]

The treatment of Indigenous Peoples in the Putumayo region represented some of the worst recorded cases during the rubber boom era in the Amazon. The region of the Putumayo where these documented atrocities occurred was considered a remote outlying region in Peru and was as a result especially difficult to access and govern. [3]

Indigenous Peoples

At the time when Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon first became involved in the global rubber trade, their communities generally lived nomadically or semi-nomadically, relying on seasonal hunting and gathering plus small scale agriculture. The Indigenous Amazonians resiliently practised their language, culture, and knowledge systems despite centuries of ethnocidal policies by the European settlers. Tappers entering the global rubber trade lived in a society and environment that had been radically transformed by colonization. As was the case everywhere in the Americas, deadly European diseases such as measles and smallpox killed 90+% of the Indigenous Peoples. Disease spread autonomously, but European traders also maliciously deployed infectious diseases on Indigenous communities by contaminating trade goods.  European settlement displaced many Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands and forced them to relocate in remote areas to avoid being brought into extraction industries as labour workers or slaves. [1] Even before the rubber boom caused a thorough incorporation of the Amazon into the European colonies, European businesses raided Indigenous communities, taking them as slaves and transporting them to plantations or forcing them to work. Once Amazonian rubber became a hot commodity, Europeans further invaded the jungle, building large estates and oppressing the Indigenous People into forced labour. [2]

Putumayo River

Rubber production in the Amazonian system was inherently limited, and ended concurrently with the mass popularization of the car in the early 1900s. The Amazon rubber system sorely lacked cash capital and relied on a sparse natural population of trees. The atrocities brought a lot of bad publicity, scaring foreign investment away. Many of the political and economic elites in Europe and the American colonies foresaw the impending doom of the Amazon rubber system and endeavoured to domesticate Hevea in mono-culture plantations in Southeast Asia. After decades of experimentation and failure those plantations became highly productive and supplanted the Amazonian market, becoming the primary supplier of rubber for car tires. [1]

Tenure arrangements

Before Peru declared independence in 1821, there was a recognition of Indigenous communal rights to land if they paid tribute to the crown. [4] After 1821, Peru and other republics no longer had a legal distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and therefore no longer protected Indigenous People’s unique rights to communal land. [4] New laws encouraged purchase of freehold property from all groups. The tenure system in the Putumayo region of the Amazon was a combination of formal and informal forms of tenure. Land rights were allocated by the state, mostly to European settlers, in the form of land concession in order to promote colonization. Most state-granted concessions were valid for 25 year periods or longer with minimal land taxes. Grantees were expected to maintain order and further colonize the area as well as provide transportation along the Putumayo river. Large freehold estates, owned by European companies or rubber barons, were the dominant form of tenure at the time. However, smaller plots of freehold property and more informal types of land possession and squatter rights were granted in more remote regions of the Putumayo and recognized by the state until the areas were taken over by freehold tenure. [5]

Waterways in the region were controlled by the Peruvian government but were open for free passage by domestic and international parties. Latex extracted from a rubber tree was considered property of that extractor and was distinct from rights to land or rubber trees. Tenure was poorly documented during the late 19th and early 20th century which created conflicts between landowners. Border disputes between Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil were also ongoing. Indigenous groups were displaced from their traditional and ancestral lands due to the Peruvian state expanding control over these poorly defined boundaries and granting tenure to landowners. [5] Indigenous nations were split apart by border treaties that prohibited nomadic Indigenous groups crossing national boundaries. [6]

Peru's first recognition of Indigenous land rights did not occur until the 1920 Peruvian constitution after the rubber boom. The constitution only granted land rights to communities of the Andes which might have benefitted some Indigenous groups involved in the rubber trade if they were successful in fleeing the Putumayo river region and avoid slavery, genocide and disease. However, that scenario was highly unlikely. In 1957, Supreme Decree 03 was the first law granting rights to Indigenous people of the Amazon which gave them use rights as forest-dwelling people. [7]

Administrative arrangements

Administrative arrangements of rubber extraction in the Putumayo region

The administrative arrangement of the rubber boom was characterized by contracting-out. The Peruvian Government owned vast amounts of public land and contracted extraction of its resources out to individuals, who either purchased land outright and held it as private freehold or received land as a grant. Landowners hired managerial henchmen called patrons who arranged for Indigenous Peoples to tap the landowner’s Hevea trees and enforced the labourers’ schedule. Wealthy Europeans owned the export houses and contracted river merchants to navigate the Amazon tributary system buying rubber from patrons. The larger rubber enterprises, such as the Peruvian Amazon Company, handled shipping internally rather than relying on river merchants hired by the export houses. The rubber tappers lived at the bottom of the pyramid, suffering abuses at the hands of cruel patrons that demanded strict order and productivity. [1]   

Affected Stakeholders

Table 1 Affected Stakeholders
Affected Stakeholder Description Relative power
Putumayo Indigenous Peoples Original Inhabitants of Putumayo River Region Low

Putumayo Indigenous Peoples

The Indigenous groups most affected by the rubber boom in the Putumayo Region were the Witoto, Bora and Andoke. They are distinct, based on linguistic origins and can be further broken down into seven ethnolinguistic groups. Although the groups are linguistically different, they do share some cultural traits and traditional practices. [8] The Indigenous Peoples were known to be highly capable as tappers (and providing for their own subsistence while at work) because of their knowledge of the forest landscape and ecology. [9]

Indigenous Peoples of the Putumayo region

Putumayo Atrocities

Putumayo was the region with the most documented cases of violence and abuse during the rubber boom. The Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) operated in Putumayo and exported rubber from the centre of Iquitos to Europe. The company hired Caribbean sugar plantation workers and mestizos (mixed European and Indigenous) to oversee the Indigenous workers and manage rubber stations. The labour force that worked for Casa Arana, the name of the estate of PAC president Julio C. Arana, were mainly from the Huitoto, Bora and Andoke Indigenous Nations. [2]

Walter Hardenburg brought the case of the Putumayo atrocities to the American consul but the consulate refused to take any action. The British government sent their consul Roger Casement to investigate the allegations of genocide. Casement discovered Hardenberg's claims to be true. Casement and his team conducted an investigation of the Peruvian Amazon Company's operations in Putumayo in 1910 and published a report, called the Blue Book, in 1912 containing testimonies and interviews about the atrocities. Over the span of 10 years and after 4000 tons of crude rubber had been extracted up to 40,000 Indigenous likely died in the Putumayo rubber lands. [3]

The Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon were affected stakeholders because of their deep connection to the geographic area. They achieved subsistence and prosperity through intimate relationships with the forest ecosystems. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples’ religions, languages, and customs were deeply rooted in their surrounding natural world.

Interested Outside Stakeholders

Table 2 Interested Stakeholders
Interested Stakeholder Description Relative Power
Rubber Landowners e.g. Peruvian Amazon Company PAC was a British owned company that employed, indentured, or enslaved rubber tappers. They received large land concessions from the colonial state to govern tracts of the rainforest and extract rubber. Their main objective was to maximize rubber extraction and the profits from it. High
Peruvian Government Government of the colonizing state wherein Europeans held all the major positions and power. Issued land concessions to rubber extraction enterprises. Sought to bolster economic growth and develop its territory. High
Foreign Owned Export Houses Owned by European-based companies; exchanged cash and industrial goods for Amazonian rubber with river merchants and landowners; handled international shipping and sale of rubber. Their primary goal was to maximize the profits from exporting. High
River Merchants As private entrepreneurs, employees of export houses, or part of a rubber company, river merchants navigated the Amazon tributary system to meet with their sub-contracted overseers to exchange industrial goods for rubber. Their main objective was to maximize profits. Medium
Rubber Patrons As employees of landowners and river merchants, patrons oversaw cultivation and managed the tappers, ensuring they delivered their debts on schedule. Low-medium
Migrant Rubber Tappers - Cearense drought refugees from NE Brazil

- Caboclos (peasants, mostly of mixed European-Indigenous descent), that lived in small communities on the river banks

- Migrants from other Andean countries

- Moroccan migrants

- Lebanese Migrants of Sephardi Jewish descent

- Japanese migrants

These groups sought employment in the Amazon. They represented a tiny proportion of the total population of rubber tappers.

Walter Hardenberg A white American traveller that witnessed the PAC’s cruelty in Putumayo and provided a report that signalled alarms in Europe. His presence in the bloodies rubber boom area was accidental. His main objective was to leave Arana's estate unharmed. Low
Roger Casement British politician who went to Arana's estate to inquire into allegations of genocide originally provided by Walter Hardenberg. His main objective was to determine the facts of this alleged genocide. He produced a report that affirmed Hardenbergs claims. Medium
Anti-Slavery & Aborigines Protection Society International human rights organization concerned with promoting the rights of Indigenous Peoples while endorsing their integration into colonial society. Had backing of some wealthy elites (such as Quakers) and the resources to publicly pressure and shame governments and companies for their transgressions.

Nworah, Kenneth D (1971). "The Aborigines' Protection Society, 1889-1909: A Pressure-Group in Colonial Policy". Canadian Journal of African Studies. 5 (1): 79–91. JSTOR 484052.

British Government Discussed atrocities in parliament and sponsored Roger Casement’s investigation of the Peruvian Amazon Company High

Assessment of Power of Stakeholders

Rubber Landowners

Many European settlers who possessed smaller tracts of freehold property operated rubber estates. They contracted out to patrons who managed operations and enforced the discipline on debt-peon tappers. These landowners sold rubber to the export houses via river merchants. The size of rubber operations varied tremendously, but their internal structure was usually very similar. [1]

Peruvian Amazon Company

The Peruvian Amazon Company was British-owned, had a British board of directors, and was headed by an ethnically Spanish, Peruvian born landholder by the name of Julio Cesar Arana. The company’s mandate was to use the Indigenous Peoples as debt-peon or slave labourers to extract rubber from the rainforest for maximum profit. [2] They strived to maximally exploit rubber rather than establish a sustainable extractive relationship with the forest ecosystems. [8] The Peruvian Amazon Company held title to 6 million hectares in the Putumayo region within the borders of Peru and invested nearly $5 million in their estates for villages, outposts, trails, and waterway stops. [5] The government of Peru granted the Peruvian Amazon Company extensive area and navigation rights in the Putumayo river region. The company received power from the colonial government because their occupation and use of land helped substantiate the colonial state’s territorial claims. In return for government granted land concessions, the Peruvian Amazon Company was required to provide transportation services, sponsor colonization, establish services, and maintain order. [10] State-Sanctioned jurisdiction over large land areas and economic wealth made companies like the PAC high power stakeholders.  

Peruvian Government

The Peruvian government supported rubber entrepreneurs and companies like the Peruvian Amazon Company by issuing navigation and concession rights, especially in the remote borderlands, to gain rubber revenue and assert territorial claims. The colonial government’s motive was to increase the population of settlers in the Amazon and create infrastructure there in order to bolster their claims to territory. The government also strived to allocate a greater proportion of the remote regions as freehold property. [5] They did this by granting private property to mostly Europeans and by encouraging Indigenous Peoples to purchase land. [4] Peru’s colonial government enacted policies of cultural assimilation, such as sponsoring the construction of Jesuit missionary settlements in the Amazon where Indigenous Peoples were recruited to stay and receive re-education in European religion and ideology. [4] [6] Missionaries sold the labour of the resident Indigenous students to rubber bosses. [1] The government also subsidized export houses, which were privately owned mostly by foreign Europeans. [10]

The Peruvian government also captured a lot of revenue from the rubber boom, and channeled this money primarily into developing a major urban centre at Iquitos. 90% of rubber boom revenue that the Peruvian state captured were import and export taxes collected from the export houses. The Peruvian state received 10% of the total revenue generated by the rubber boom. [10] The Peruvian government determined who could operate in Putumayo, what laws they must follow, and what taxes they must pay. It was the Peruvian government that ultimately forced the Peruvian Amazon Company to cease operations. [2] The colonial government was a high power stakeholder.

Foreign Export Houses

The majority of the rubber extracted during the boom was exported by a handful of foreign owned export houses. In the early 1900’s the largest exporters were located in the Brazilian cities of Belem (known then as Para) and Manaus. [5] Export houses in Iquitos were the exclusive handlers of Putumayo rubber, exporting relatively less rubber than the Brazilian houses. [2] Export houses had a high degree of power. Usually, one house  held monopolistic control over a large area and could thus set the price a price of rubber that extractors had no choice but to accept. The export houses were however still subject to the whims of the colonial government. The Peruvian government set tax rates on goods going in and out of the country. [5]

River Merchants

River merchants navigated the Amazon waterways, shuttling goods and rubber between collection sites and export houses. Sometimes they were merely employees of large operations like the Peruvian Amazon Company. In the less monopolistically controlled areas they were independent actors or employees of export houses. They had an edge over rubber tappers when cutting deals because they understood market economics and had financial information that the tappers did not. However, they were still price takers in relation to the export houses. The profession was not considered lucrative, and they dealt almost entirely in goods rather than cash capital. In a way, the rubber tappers had a similar relationship with river merchants as river merchants had with export houses: they exchanged rubber for goods at a small fraction of the rubber's worth. It was extremely rare for a river merchant to be any ethnicity other than white European. [1]

Rubber Patrons

Rubber patrons were contracted by river merchants and landowners to enforce discipline in collection areas. The henchmen monitored and enforced the rubber tappers' schedules and activities, arranging specific times for rubber to be collected. They dealt physical punishment to workers that violated rules. Again, it was extremely rare for a patron to be any ethnicity other than white European. Patrons manipulated a system of debt peonage, or credit based, control over Indigenous tappers. They were considerably more powerful than the Indigenous tappers and could transfer the debt of their tappers to another patron. [5] They were also powerful enough to force new generations of Indigenous rubber tappers into paying the debts of their parents. Patrons provided a strong motive for Indigenous rubber tappers to keep a stable relationship with them by acting as a form of insurance and providing goods like food, equipment and medicine. [2] Patrons were low-medium power holders, as they held coercive power over the rubber tappers but were also subordinate to bosses of their own.

Migrant Rubber Tappers

Migrant migrant tappers, whether they be escaped slaves, mixed-race, European, Japanese (a small number were coaxed by rubber business to immigrate), and/or drafted refugees from Northeast Brazil, either died from disease or a lack of ecological survival knowledge. Few lived long enough to face many of the forms of oppression that Indigenous rubber tappers suffered. Their extreme economic disenfranchisement makes these groups low power stakeholders.[1]

Walter E. Hardenburg

Walter Hardenburg was an American railway engineer and traveller working in Colombia. He was travelling down the Putumayo river when he entered into the concession of the Peruvian Company Casa Arana. Hardenburg witnessed the atrocities being committed on Arana’s property first hand and faced numerous near death encounters at the hands of Arana’s henchmen. He wrote several articles for the British magazine, Truth, elucidating the horrific situation in Putumayo, signalling an alarm in England and prompting the British government to sponsor Roger Casement’s inquiry. [2]

Roger Casement

Roger Casement, backed by the British government, led a troop of inquirers into the estate lands where the Peruvian Amazon Company operated. He recorded evidence of the atrocities and produced a report on the situation in Putumayo for the British government. Casement was a low power stakeholder, being grossly outnumbered by Julio Cesar Arana’s henchmen while auditing the Peruvian Amazon Company, though formal backing by the British crown provided him financial resources and protection. [3]

Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Society

The Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Society took action immediately after  becoming aware of the Truth articles provided by Hardenburg and brought the Putumayo atrocities to public attention, putting pressure on the the British Foreign Office to look into the the activities of British companies in the Amazon (Hvalkof, 2000). Being comprised of highly educated, progressive, and abolitionist elites (including many Quakers), the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Society had a relatively high degree of power. They had much less power than governments and extraction companies that directly administrated Amazonian territory, but they had the financial backing to be heard as a non-government actor. [11]

British Government

British citizens owned large companies, like the Peruvian Amazon Company, whose mandate was rubber extraction. British elites also owned many export houses in the Amazon. The British government sent the consul Roger Casement to investigate allegations against the Peruvian Amazon Company. Parliament condemned the atrocities perpetrated by the company but discovered the Peruvian Amazon Company’s president and board of directors to be not criminally liable under the Slave Trade Acts. [3]

The British government had a high degree of power in the context of the rubber boom because they held legal jurisdiction over several extraction companies and export houses, and because of their vast resources as an empire.


When reports of the exploitation and maltreatment of Indigenous Peoples in the Putumayo region reached London, the PAC and the Peruvian government denied all allegations. Since the Peruvian government was a shareholder and received commission from the rubber companies it was in their best economic interest to deny the violence and abuse committed by the estate managers. In letters to the Aborigine and Anti-Slavery Society and British newspapers the Peruvian government stated that rubber company owners such as Julio C. Arana of the PAC were not responsible for the acts that took place as they too were unaware of their managers’ horrible actions until the reports were released to the public. The Peruvian government did not take action in investigating the allegations. If it wasn’t for Hardenburg bringing the case back to London, the Aborigine and Anti-slavery Society lobbying the Peruvian and British government to respond or the one British newspaper, Truth, that was brave enough to reveal the story about the multi-million dollar British based PAC, the slavery and violence may have never been made known to world. [3] Many Indigenous Peoples traveled from deep in the Amazon to Peruvian government offices with letters of complaint and petitions outlining the Putumayo atrocities, but they were not taken seriously. [4]


After the rubber boom came to a close and the companies, patrons, landowners, and river merchants left the rainforest to seek other opportunities in the coastal plantation regions, the Indigenous Peoples receded deeper into the Amazon and avoided future contact. Some of the descendants of rubber tappers are now members of uncontacted tribes. Today, the borders of Peru, Brazil, and Boliva have the highest concentration of uncontacted tribes on Earth. These tribes are direct descendants of the Witoto, Bora and Andoke populations that were exploited in the Putumayo region during the rubber boom. [12] The remnant customary lands of these tribes are being encroached upon today by deforestation and other development. It is paramount that powerful modern stakeholders, such as Indigenous rights organizations and South American governments, prevent encroachment into the customary territory of these Peoples. Affected Indigenous groups from the rubber boom have gained support and recognition from international organizations in the present day and have been supported in large-scale Indigenous land titling that have afforded them slightly more political power and a greater influence in forest conservation. [2] [7] They should be allowed to llve life freely, in harmony with the forest ecosystems, as they have done for centuries, and not be subject to land grabs nor be assimilated as labour for forest concessions, cattle ranches, or soya plantations or other extractive enterprises.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Weinstein, B. (1983). The Amazon rubber boom, 1850-1920. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Hvalkof, S. (2000). Outrage in rubber and oil: Extractivism, indigenous Peoples, and justice in the upper Amazon. In C. Zerner (Ed), People, plants and justice: The politics of nature conservation (pp. 83-122). New York, NY: Columbia University Press
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Hardenburg, W.E. (1912). The Putumayo, the devil's paradise: Travels in the Peruvian Amazon region and an account of the atrocities committed upon the Indians therein. C. R. Enock (Ed). Available from:
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Castillo, V. A. (2009). Indigenous “messengers” petitioning for justice: Citizenship and Indigenous rights in Peru, 1900-1945 (unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Michigan. Retrieved from
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Barham, B. & Coomes, O. (1994). Wild rubber: Industrial organisation and the microeconomics of extraction during the Amazon rubber boom (1860-1920). Journal of Latin American Studies, 26(1), 37-72. doi:10.1017/S0022216X00018848
  6. 6.0 6.1 Greene, S. (2008). Tiwi's creek: Indigenous movements for, against, and across the contested Peruvian border. Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 3(3), 227-252. doi:10.1080/17442220802462303
  7. 7.0 7.1 Larson, A.M., Monterroso, I., & Cronkleton, P. (2018). Collective titling in the Peruvian Amazon: A history in three acts. Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research. Retrieved from
  8. 8.0 8.1 Echeverri, J. A. (2011). The Putumayo Indians and the rubber boom. Irish Journal of Anthropology, 14(2), 13-18. Retrieved from
  9. Muratorio, B. (1991). Liberalism and rubber: The early twentieth century in the Oriente. W. Roseberry, & H. Rebel (Eds). In The life and times of grandfather alonso, culture and history in the upper Amazon. (pp. 99-121). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Bradford, L. Barham, B., & Coomes, O. (1994). Reinterpreting the Amazon rubber boom: Investment, the state, and dutch disease. Latin American Research Review, 29(2), 73-109. Retrieved from
  11. Nworah, K. D. (1971). The Aborigines' protection society, 1889-1909: A pressure-group in colonial policy. Canadian Journal of African Studies. 5(1): 79–91.
  12. Survival International (n.d.). The uncontacted frontier. Retrieved from
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