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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2015

9 - Africa's “Battle for Rubber” in the Second World War



Introduction: A Revolution in Africa's Production of Rubber

Africa accounted for only a little over 1 percent of the global output natural rubber when the Second World War broke out. Production had fallen drastically from the early 1910s, when Africa produced about 13 percent of the world's rubber. Most of this came from wild plants, but Africans had planted rubber during the great boom that ended in 1913, often “encouraged” by officials. In wetter areas, they usually grew indigenous Funtumia elastica, or American Hevea brasiliensis and Castilla elastica, sometimes called the Panama rubber tree. In drier areas, they planted Brazilian Manihot glaziovii, also known as the Ceará rubber tree.

These African rubber resources proved unable to compete with Hevea brasiliensis planted in Asia, initially on estates and later on smallholdings. Attempts to replicate the success of large Asian rubber plantations were most successful in Liberia, where the American Firestone tire company doggedly pursued a dream of freeing itself from European colonial suppliers in Asia; however, large planters everywhere in Africa complained about the scarcity, the high cost and low productivity of workers, and the difficulties involved in securing concessions of suitable land.

For African smallholders, rubber recalled unpleasant memories, as collection from the wild had been tainted by scandals in the Congo Basin, associated with King Leopold of the Belgians. Smallholder rubber maintained itself most successfully in midwestern Nigeria, where communal plantings of Funtumia elastica had existed since the late 1890s. The colonial authorities distributed Hevea brasiliensis seedlings from 1911, and plots were gradually privatized. Cocoa did not grow well in this area, and rubber yielded incomes not too different from those obtained from palm oil.

Nigeria and Liberia were thus the main beneficiaries of Africa's gently rising exports from 1934, as an international cartel gradually pushed up the world price by restricting both supplies and new planting.