Dewe Mathews’ work looks at how contemporary and historical instances of community have met with drives of infrastructure and capitalist development; from historic villages submerged at the will of Birmingham industrialists in the1890s to the contested terrain of natural resources extraction in modern day Peru. Dewe Mathews is intrigued by the idea of progress, how we define it and what is deemed necessary to provide for it. His works investigates how, as we compete for property and the means to survive, sacrifices are made and become tangible, whether as a mark in the landscape or in the emotional life of an individual or community.
During his time in Bolivia Dewe Matthews examined two features of Bolivia’s post-colonial landscape; the dissemination and eventual appropriation of Baroque music amongst the Chiquitanios and the legacy of the Amazonian Rubber Boom.
Below is an edited extract from his diary, which describes his journey to Huanchaca, discovering the history of the rubber industry:
"I was told in Santa Cruz, by a man from an NGO that there still existed some remnants of the rubber industry in an area called Huanchaca to the east of Bolivia near the border with Brazil. It was the most southern point that this particular exploitation of the rainforest had reached in Bolivia but serious production had died out around the 1960's. But what remained, he said, was a small operation of local people who extracted the rubber for production of arts and crafts.
The rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis) is indigenous to the Amazon and has existed wild in the jungle for longer than we have record. In the early 1800's, after its "discovery" and implementation in western industry, a network of barónes began to employ seringueiros to extract rubber in very inaccessible areas of the Amazon. These seringueiros were, in the vast majority, local tribes people picked for their knowledge of the areas and ability to survive in harsh conditions. Paid very little and most often forced into labour their life was dour.
The rubber or latex is obtained by scraping a fine layer of bark from the tree - just enough so a milky fluid comes to the surface - as this accumulates, the fluid drips down the tree and if not harvested dries into an opaque and sticky glob. The cuts are made in an arrow, 30 degrees from vertical, up either side of the tree with a central vertical cut leading down the trunk to a small cup that collects the material. Seringueiros beat a track that they claim as their own in very remote parts of the jungle. Starting before dawn they would re-open the cuts, shaving a line fractionally below the previous days - visiting each one of their trees within their circuit - it was a task that lasted until midday. Then, after resting, they would repeat this route before the days end stopping at each tree to collect its day’s harvest. The skill of the seringuero is to keep the tree alive by not cutting it too deeply, trees yield more latex the more frequently they are tapped and productivity varies at different times of the year but if a tree is cut too deep the wood begins to rot and the heart of the tree collapses rendering it useless.
At the end of the day having collected his fruit, the seringueiro would return to his barraca (a seringueiros' lonely dwelling, roughly constructed and deep in the jungle) and over the smoke of a small fire, pour on to a turning stick their latex - to form a bolacha (semi-celindrical ball of rubber weighing 50 to 100 kilos).
The industry grew in response to the increasing desire for rubber in the west and it brought great riches but only to a few and for a relatively short time. Its legacy is perhaps felt more in the cruelty it caused to the indigenous population who were tortured in order to submit to the ideals and pay structure of the barónes. Paid with money they had no use for and indoctrinated into a system of commerce they had no desire for or relationship to.
Eventually the industry in the Amazon was superseded; first when seeds were taken under a certain amount of controversy to South Asia, via Kew, London and then the discovery of synthetic rubber in the twentieth century. While there is still a niche market for natural rubber this is mainly provided by the produce of south Asia; where trees can be planted in plantations, which is far more manageable than in the wild. Small production does still exist, scattered over the Amazon, either for small-scale production for industry or for the local use in artesanias (craft and clothing).
It took two weeks to make what I was told would be a simple journey. Stranded in a town that had run out of petrol for two days, then sleeping on the floor of a restaurant while I watched all traffic pass in the opposite direction and being warned not to set out on foot as I wasn’t armed to fight the tigers that prey on the local cattle. Every small trial that was part of the journey would be bettered a following hardship.
When I eventually made it to Florída, a small town on the Paraguay River, very close to Huanchaca, it was clear that no work remained with the trees and in reality I could see more trees being felled than saved. After some discussion with the people there I found a man called Lucho whose uncle was a seringueiro and still had his chucillo (knife). We spent 3 days walking in the jungle, re-tracing routes unused for decades. Finding dotted amongst the thick woodland; trees with arrow scars in their bark, now over-grown. We re-opened the wounds of some but there was very little latex to be found, not because they had been bled dry but prehaps more through neglect."