I still can’t get to the text version of the articles on the website despite, again, being logged in.
Riding the Rubber Boom, by Charles C. Mann, photographs by Richard Barnes
So, earlier today, I was reading an Atlas Obscura article on the American Geographical Society library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. One of the maps that they have is of Fordlândia, a town that was set up by Henry Ford to grow rubber for his automobile manufacturing operations. The article describes it as a “lost jungle utopian city,” so I had to check it out. The Wikipedia article on Fordlândia said that the town failed in part because of the development of synthetic rubber. So, armed with that little bit of knowledge, I began reading Riding the Rubber Boom, which is about farming natural latex rubber in Southern Asia. If synthetic rubber caused the failure of Fordlândia in the early 20th century, then wouldn’t there be even more difficulty making a living from farming rubber today?
Well, as the saying goes, it’s more complicated than that. Latex is as big as it ever was. We still need it for things like car tires and, even more crucially, for airplane tires. We also need it for latex gloves and condoms.
As for Fordlândia, the site chosen was too far north and too dry for growing rubber trees, for one. They also had a nice monoculture going, where all there was was rubber trees. And, as I’ve mentioned before, monocultures of trees are vulnerable to pests and diseases because they can easily move from tree to tree. If there are other species of tree in between, though, it becomes more difficult for the pest or disease to travel across the space between the trees. The pest or disease in question here is a fungus called Microcyclus ulei, which damages the leaves of the tree, killing it. Fordlândia got infected by M. ulei, so it was just a matter of time.
The rubber farms in this article have a relatively new variety of rubber tree that are more cold-tolerant, so at least they will avoid that failure on the part of the developers of Fordlândia. However, the farms are also monocultures, but since M. ulei is native to South America, the trees are, so far, safe from it. However, it will only take one spore being introduced at the wrong time to doom entire farms. The UN has recommended that anyone who has been in the area where M. ulei is present for the previous three weeks and who has arrived in Southeast Asia be inspected, but, at least as of press time, none of the countries in question have followed through on the suggestion.
Kingdom of Girls, by Jeremy Berlin, photographs by Karolin Klüppel
Kingdom of Girls focuses on Klüppel’s photographs of the girls of Mawlynnong, India. For some reason (no one is apparently sure what), Mawylnnong has a female-dominated culture. Property passes from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son.