Of Rubber and Blood in Brazilian Amazon
By LARRY ROHTER
RIO BRANCO, Brazil — Alcidino dos Santos was on his way to the market to buy vegetables for his mother one morning in 1942 when an army officer stopped him and told him he was being drafted as a “rubber soldier.” Men were needed in the Amazon, 3,000 miles away, to harvest rubber for the Allied war effort, he was told, and it was his patriotic duty to serve.
Mr. dos Santos, then a 19-year-old mason’s assistant, protested that his mother was a widow who depended on him for support, but to no avail. He would be paid a wage of 50 cents a day, he recalls being told, and receive free transportation home once the conflict was over, but he had to go, that day.
More than 60 years after the end of World War II, Mr. dos Santos and hundreds of other poor Brazilians who were dragooned into service as rubber soldiers are still in the Amazon, waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. Elderly and frail, they are fighting against time and indifference to gain the recognition and compensation they believe should be theirs.
“We were duped, and then abandoned and forgotten,” Mr. dos Santos, who never saw his mother again, said in an interview at his simple wood house here in Acre, a state in the far west of the Brazilian Amazon that has the largest concentration of former rubber soldiers.
“We were brought here against our will,” he said, “and thrown into the jungle, where we suffered terribly. I’m near the end of my life, but my country should do right by me.”
The program originated in an agreement between the United States and Brazil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had cut the United States off from its main source of rubber, in Malaya, and President Roosevelt persuaded Brazil’s dictator, Getúlio Vargas, to fill that strategic gap in return for millions of dollars in loans, credits and equipment.
According to Brazilian government records, more than 55,000 people, almost all of them from the drought-ridden and poverty-stricken northeast, were sent to the Amazon to harvest rubber for the war effort. There are no official figures on how many of them succumbed to disease or animal attacks, but historians estimate that nearly half perished before Japan surrendered in September 1945.
“Some of the guys died of malaria, yellow fever, beriberi and hepatitis, but others were killed by snakes, stingrays or even panthers,” recalled Lupércio Freire Maia, 86. “They didn’t have the proper medicines for diseases or snakebites there in the camps, so when someone died you buried him right there next to the hut and kept right on working.”
The work was exhausting, dangerous and unhealthy: rubber soldiers rose just after midnight, tramped through the jungle in the dark to cut grooves in the trees and returned later in the day to collect the latex that dripped into cups.
They would then toast the white liquid into solid balls weighing up to 130 pounds, a process that generated so much smoke that many were left blind or sight-impaired.
Though many of the rubber soldiers were forced into service, a few enlisted, hoping for adventure and riches. José Araújo Braga, 82, described himself as “a rebellious kid who wanted to see the world” and thus was easily swayed by government propaganda that spoke of the Amazon as an El Dorado where the “Rubber for Victory” effort could earn a hard worker a fortune.
“I could have joined the army and gone to Europe,” where Brazilian troops fought alongside American forces in Italy and are now honored as heroes, he said. “But I chose the Amazon because, foolish me, I thought that I could make a lot of money.”
Once the men reached the Amazon, though, their wages ceased and they were herded into cantonments, with no visitors allowed.
When the war and American interest ended, the people profiting from the arrangement were not about to let their free labor go. The rubber camp bosses “feared an exodus if the news got out, and so many rubber soldiers were still there in the jungle years later, unawares,” said Marcos Vinícius Neves, a historian who is director of a government historical preservation foundation here.
Mr. Maia said: “It wasn’t until 1946 that I learned that the war was over. We didn’t have any radios, and we were completely cut off from the outside world.”
But those who heard the news right away also encountered problems in leaving and collecting their wages. Many were told that they owed money to the rubber camp bosses for food, clothing or equipment, and would have to remain until their debts were paid off.
“Oh, I was so happy the day the war ended, because I thought, ‘Now I can finally go home,’ ” Mr. dos Santos recalled. “But when I went to talk to the boss about leaving, he said, ‘Who are you kidding?’ and told me to get back to work.”
With no money and no transportation, most of the rubber soldiers resigned themselves to remaining in the Amazon. They married, had families and continued to work in the rubber camps or became rural homesteaders, ignored and anonymous.
“How do you suppose Brasília was built?” said José Paulino da Costa, director of the Retirees’ and Rubber Soldiers’ Union of Acre. “The United States paid money to Brazil, but it went to other projects instead of the rubber soldiers, which was a terrible injustice.”
In 1988, though, Brazil ratified a new Constitution with an article that called for the rubber soldiers to receive a pension valued at twice the minimum wage, or $350 a month currently. But many who served here found themselves ineligible because they could not supply the required documents. Their original contracts had been lost, destroyed by rain or handed over to rubber plantation bosses and never returned.
Those who have qualified receive a pension that is barely one-tenth of the amount paid to Brazilian soldiers who fought in Europe during World War II. In 2002 a member of Congress from the state of Amazonas introduced a bill to pay rubber soldiers “who are living in misery” the same amount, but the bill remains stalled in committee.
“When I watch the Independence Day ceremonies on television and see the soldiers who fought in Europe parading in their uniforms I feel sadness and dismay,” Mr. Maia said. “We were combatants too. Everyone owes us a big favor, including the Americans, because that war couldn’t have been won without rubber and us rubber soldiers.”