The frail, forgotten army from the Amazon

by @jbarbassa March 29, 2015 5:00AM ET

Brazil finally compensates its ‘rubber soldiers’ from World War II, who died by the tens of thousands

From left, Augusto Evangelista de Moraes, João de Oliveira Botelho and José Romão Grande, all survivors of Brazil's “rubber soldiers” program.
Giorgio Palmera / Echo Photojournalism

PORTO VELHO, Brazil — After nearly seven decades, thousands of Brazilian men recruited during World War II to go into the Amazon and extract the rubber required for everything from airplanes to gun mounts are finally being compensated for their effort.

The Brazilian government is remitting 25,000 reals (roughly $7,800) to the survivors of the “rubber soldiers” program and their dependents throughout the month of March. But the 11,900 beneficiaries are a fraction of the more than 55,000 men and untold number of family members who participated in the program, which was partly sponsored by the U.S. government to fill a dangerous wartime rubber shortage.

The money is welcome, as the men are elderly and most are frail. But many of them say that this amount is a pittance meant to silence them and does not fulfill the promises made to them when they signed up.

“None of what they told us when we enlisted was delivered,” says José Romão Grande, 92, president of SINDSBOR, the Rubber Soldiers Union of the northern state of Rondônia. “We were used like animals and abandoned once the war was over.”

Politicians who sponsored the legislation defend the payment. It is an attempt to “balance what is fair and what is feasible,” said the amendment’s author, Congressman Arlindo Chinaglia, at a press conference. “This might seem late in coming, but is a way of honoring this segment [of the population],” he said.

The debt to Grande and other rubber soldiers has lingered since 1942, when the United States and Brazil struck a deal to avert a crisis and win the war.

At the start of World War II, the production of synthetic rubber was still in its infancy, and American factories relied on natural rubber to make battleships, life rafts, gas masks and other vital equipment. But when the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula in 1941, the United States lost access to more than 90 percent of its supply.

With a disastrous shortage looming, President Franklin Roosevelt turned to Brazil. It had once been the world’s largest producer of natural rubber — a position it held until seedlings of Hevea brasiliensis, the Brazilian rubber tree, were smuggled out of the Amazon by a fortune-hunting Englishman in 1876. After several failed efforts, rubber was grown with great success in vast Southeast Asian plantations

The Asian plantation rubber, processed into easy-to-use sheets, was cheaper and of better quality than Brazil’s, which came from trees that grew wild and at great intervals in remote stretches of forest and needed to be cured over sooty fires, producing blackened lumps that were studded with detritus. 

Faced with this competition, the Amazon’s rubber industry collapsed. But the trees were still there. All that was needed were men to tap them.


Francisco Pinheiro, one of the rubber soldiers.
Giorgio Palmera / Echo Photojournalism

So in 1942, Brazil and the U.S. signed the most comprehensive economic and military assistance package attempted in the region up to that time. The United States provided hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, military equipment and development aid. Brazil in turn launched a five-year program to put men in the jungle, boost rubber production and sell the material to the Americans at a fixed price.

In its eagerness to get men into the forest quickly, the U.S. government even agreed to pay Brazil $100 per tapper. The resulting recruiting campaign targeted the northeast of the country, where much of the population was poor and made desperate by a prolonged drought. 

The posters appealed to the men’s patriotism: “More Rubber for Victory!” said one. Another showed Hitler cowering before a massive, bouncing tire, ostensibly made of Brazilian rubber. Some suggested a chance to make a decent living: “New Life in the Amazon!” and “Head to the Amazon, Land of Plenty!”

The government offered terms the men could not hope to find at home, promising to “enlist, transport, host, dress, feed, support and defend, by all means, the men who give themselves over to its care, in order to leave him healthy, strong and productive for work,” according to one propaganda booklet from the time

The appeal was irresistible to those trying to eke a living out of a parched landscape. Grande signed up on March 3, 1943, along with 200 other men from his hometown of Parnaíba, Piauí. He boarded a freight train, an oceangoing vessel and then other, smaller boats, each drawing him deeper into the arteries of Brazil’s hinterland. It took him months to reach the seringal, or rubber-extraction site, on the banks of the Caurés River in northeastern Amazonia.

It was about 1,500 miles, as the crow flies, from Parnaíba. He never saw his family again.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but still, at this age, I hear my mother calling me in my dreams,” he says now, leaning into his cane.

Upon arriving at the site, he was given a straw hat, sandals, a change of clothes and the curved knife he would need to slice into the tree trunks and draw out their milky white sap. Two men showed him how to recognize the Hevea tree by its height and its large, glossy leaves. And then he was on his own.

“The men were left to fend for themselves,” says Seth Garfield, a University of Texas at Austin professor who wrote a book on the U.S.-Brazil collaboration behind the rubber soldiers program.

The rubber industry had always been rife with abuse. When the men arrived, they found little had changed since the 19th century. Most tappers lived with their families in open-sided shacks they built from palm fronds. They ate what they could hunt and manioc that they grew themselves. 

Men who controlled swaths of forest where the rubber trees grew — the seringalistas — bought their rubber and sold them the few items they might need. These “rubber bosses” also administered wages and prices. 

Deep in the jungle the rubber soldiers soon realized the government was unable, or unwilling, to fulfill its promises. How they fared, whether they lived or they died, depended on their own abilities and their luck, the men say. 

“No one ever saw money in a seringal,” says Augusto Evangelista de Moraes, 85, who began tapping rubber as a child. (Many of the men brought their families, and the children worked alongside the adults.) “Our rubber was tallied as credit in the seringal store. At the end of the year we’d get some clothes, shoes, salt. Sometimes we’d go home already owing next year’s rubber.”

These debts chained the rubber tappers to the seringal long after the war was over. Without the means to go back home — free transportation back to the northeast was another failed promise — the men and their families had little choice but to remain. 

Not even death provided a way out, says Gabriel de Jesus, 80. His family reached the Seringal Bom Futuro, or Good Future, in April 1943. The drought had pushed the family off their subsistence farm in Aracati, in the interior of Ceará state, to the state capital of Fortaleza and then into the rubber soldiers program. De Jesus was 9 years old when they stepped off the boat and onto the banks of the Jaru River, where the seringal was located.


Gabriel de Jesus
Giorgio Palmera / Echo Photojournalism

There was no help from the federal government or from anywhere else, he remembers. They survived by eating monkeys, peccaries, tapirs and other wild animals and went without schooling or medical care. No one knew how to read, not even the rubber boss, he remembers. His mother delivered 14 children in their shack. 

When his father died of typhus, the debt that accrued during his long illness fell to the children. “The boss would not forgive debt,” he says. “If you couldn’t pay, your children would have to or your wife. Debt lived longer than any of us.”

He stayed in the seringal, tapping rubber, until 1966. 

João de Oliveira Botelho, 82, was a lad of 12 when he started walking the forest trails in the predawn darkness to slice into the tree bark and place the small collecting cups under the suppurating wound. In the afternoon he would walk the trail again, collecting the sap. The evenings were reserved for curing the rubber on a rotating paddle over a smoky fire.

“We started working in the dark and we stopped in the dark,” he says. “We carried a kerosene lamp on our forehead to see, a rifle if we had one for the animals and a machete to cut trail. Rubber was my school and my life.”

Government presence in the region was so tenuous that official records of what happened to these workers are poor or nonexistent, Garfield says. “There were constant allegations of abuse being made by the workers, but these abuses could not even be registered in a systematic way.” 

A combination of the unfamiliar environment; attacks by indigenous tribespeople; poisonous insects and snakes; and diseases like malaria, yellow fever and typhus killed the rubber soldiers in droves. Garfield estimates one-third of the enlisted may have died within the first year. Other sources, such as SINDSBOR, say up to half the men may have died before the war ended.

José Romão Grande, president of SINDSBOR, the Rubber Soldiers Union of the northern Brazilian state of Rondônia.
Giorgio Palmera / Echo Photojournalism

But even such imprecise numbers indicate that the toll of World War II on Brazil was many times higher in the Amazon than in the battlefields of Europe, where 457 Brazilian troops out of 25,000 died.

The rubber program was a fiasco from the U.S. perspective, and not because of the possible loss of tens of thousands of lives. Despite all the millions of dollars the Americans invested, Brazil’s rubber production went from 16,135 tons in 1940 to only 22,350 four years later — a smidge, considering it took one ton of rubber to produce a tank and 75 for a battleship. 

What kept the Americans in fighting shape was synthetic rubber, developed during the same time in the United States with government support. By the time the war ended, the U.S. was a rubber exporter, producing nearly 840,000 tons a year. 

American involvement in the Amazon was “a slapdash rush in the forest, very contingent and opportunistic,” Garfield says. “Once synthetic rubber made up the gap and saved the U.S., they covered their contractual obligations and were gone.”

The Brazilian government also forgot the tappers. It wasn’t until 1988, under a new constitution, that the survivors were awarded a pension — $485 a month, less than one-third of the pension awarded the country’s World War II soldiers.

In 2011, President Dilma Rousseff signed a bill entering their names into an official roster of national heroes. But an earlier proposal, from 2002, that would have raised their pensions and given them benefits such as priority access to medical care, continued to languish in the Brazilian Congress. It was eventually scrapped in favor of the weaker amendment that awarded them the one-time payment now being distributed.

The youngest of the men are now in their 80s, but they are not done fighting. A suit by SINDSBOR is pending in federal court, demanding soldiers’ pensions and benefits.

“We are … heroes of this nation,” says Grande. “God willing, we will see justice done before the last of us dies.”