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Biopiracy and Brazil

By Edited Nov 13, 2016 3 8

Empire Building

It took two British citizens, with brazen acts of biopiracy (the illegal or unethical removal of native wildlife), roughly fifty years to destroy the economy of Brazil in the mid to late 19th century. 

The British Empire during the Victorian Age was far-flung. British colonials dwelled on all continents, except Antarctica.  The Empire’s need for specific resources led to two very lucrative acts of biological theft from Brazil. 

Britain had many colonies in malarial zones throughout the world, and its subjects were susceptible to malaria and related diseases.  Globally, these two illnesses accounted for hundreds of thousands of deaths annually.

Cinchona (botanical watercolor)
The Empire's need for quinine, the only known remedy for both yellow fever and malaria, spurred the first notable case of plant smuggling.    The primary source for quinine at the time was the bark of the evergreen cinchona tree, which only grew in the Amazon rain forest.  Brazil parsed this product to the global market, but made no effort to cultivate the cinchona, simply harvesting the bark as it was found in the wild. 

In 1860, Clements Markham (later, Sir Clements Markham), a British adventurer and later president of the Royal Geographical Society, succeeded in smuggling

Sir Clements Markham(45599)
cinchona seeds from Amazonia.  The seeds were then planted in Britain’s tropical holdings in the West Indies, India, and the Malay Peninsula.  The resultant plantings led to British, and world, independence from Brazil’s monopoly on this life-saving medicine.

As with cinchona, the hevea brasiliensis tree (the source for the best-grade rubber globally) was merely tapped for latex and not cultivated in South America.  The Brazilians believed there was no need to cultivate the tree – the forest would provide, as it held millions of trees.  And, as with the cinchona tree, Brazil had a monopoly on

Samples of original rubber seeds procured by Wickham
 rubber production globally.  However, the Brazilians rightly remembered the lessons learned from the cinchona seed removal of recent years and attempted to maintain a tight control on the seeds and seedlings of hevea. 

In 1876, despite the Brazilians’ restrictions and oversight, Henry Wickham (later, Sir Henry

Sir Henry Wickham
Wickham), another British adventurer, sought and smuggled roughly 70,000 hevea seeds from the Amazon region.  These seeds were then transported and planted in both India and the Malay Peninsula.  Britain’s coffers, over the next three decades, would overflow with money from rubber.  By 1913, Brazil, once producing 100% of the world’s rubber, was producing only 55% of it.  That was further reduced to roughly 6% by 1922. 

These are but two instances wherein biopiracy resulted in financial disaster for the host country.  Other issues arise, albeit unintentionally at times, when  “nuisance” species are introduced to new areas (kudzu, Burmese pythons, and Asian carp, just to name a few).  Such indigenous-species transplanting,  overseen by an international counsel, could make sure that the “host” country also receives a fair share of profits resulting from global exploitation of its native flora.


Whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant

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May 15, 2014 1:08am
Fascinating topic! From the Age of Exploration right through even the 20th century, Britain was very much a nation that relied on plundering the riches of other nations. Whether it be the exploitation of cheap (or free) labour, the smuggling of native plants, or the grave robbing that passed for early archaeology, England was often busy helping itself to the resources of another culture. Civilized, isn't it?
May 15, 2014 8:19am
While the British weren't the only ones engaged in such shenanigans, they were probably the most successful at it.

Archaelogy--with a clearer conscience these days and a greater sense of "right"--is more careful about the artifacts uncovered. Also, many art museums are re-patriating many of their more obviously looted statuary or otherwise smuggled from their native countries' artifacts.

Henry Wickham's story is much greater and more amazing than what I covered here--thanks for reading!
May 15, 2014 8:22am
Also, in my other "reply"--since we no longer have an edit button--I meant to add that I had addressed the looting and repatriation of cultural artifacts in an article I did called "People I Wanna Smack Around". Further info about the issue can be found there.
May 15, 2014 2:53pm
Agreed that there were other countries who engaged in similar exploitation, but I do think the Brits took it to a level most others could only dream of - at least in terms of the duration and the commercial success they saw over that time.

And yes, archaeology has changed a lot in the intervening years! I have an interesting story or two that I might write up, from my college days studying classics. One young prof was most proud of her only dig ever, and told us a lot about the care taken these days. It's most encouraging.

Heading over to your "People I Wanna Smack Around" article later, and perhaps I'll dig a bit more into Wickham's story too. Thanks for giving me another of my beloved rabbit trails to follow, Vic :)
May 15, 2014 4:18pm
Any time--the rabbit holes can be fascinating!
May 15, 2014 4:22pm
I am so wishing I could just hit like to let you know I've seen a comment like that! What do folks generally do here for that?
May 15, 2014 4:24pm
We don't have a "like" feature for comments or forum posts. It was something that gets resurrected and/or kicked around from time to time, but hasn't gone anywhere.
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  1. Joe Jackson The Thief at the End of the World. New York City: Viking, 2008.
  2. "quinine; rubber." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.

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