South America: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

We Visit a Seringal

We want to see for ourselves the way the rubber-gatherers in Brazil do their work and the kind of life they lead. So we have made a long journey by launch up one of the tributaries of the River Amazon, to the landing-stage for a typical rubber-gatherers' village.

We step ashore into the forest and set out to walk along a rough road that threads its way through the jungle to a "seringal"—that is to say, a village which serves as the headquarters of a number of rubber-gatherers, who work a big area of neighbouring forest-lands.

The seringal we have come to visit is typical of the many widely scattered villages which the rubber industry has called into existence in the Brazilian forests—typical in its isolation, and as regards the style of its buildings, the kind of people who make up the population, and the everyday life of the little community, who are cut off from the rest of the world. The outstanding buildings are the manager's house, which boasts a tiled roof, office, and store. Round about these headquarters are some thatched shanties, which provide accommodation for part of the community. But some of the labourers have to make their daily round from tree to tree in far-distant parts of the forest; where their work is, there must they make their home in a solitary hut. The merriest day of the week for everybody is Saturday, when all the rubber-gatherers have to wend their way to the manager's quarters, to hand over the rubber they have collected and lay in stores for the coming week. This general meeting, called together by business, is taken full advantage of as an opportunity for gossip, hospitality, and various little jollifications, such as a "sing-song."

The working-class population of a seringal consists of Brazilians who are of Portuguese, mixed Portuguese and Indian, or mixed Portuguese and negro descent. Certainly they look a rough lot, but that is not surprising, seeing what a hard life they lead—and there are many rough diamonds among them. You will feel more in sympathy with them when you have lived in their midst and been with one of them on his round. But already you must have been thinking that they have not much comfort to look forward to when their work is done, for you can see at a glance that their houses are mere shelters.

Here is the picture you will take away in your mind's eye of a rubber-gatherer's home on the shores of the Amazon: A framework of rough-hewn poles supports a thatched roof. The building is open on all sides—indeed, the only other detail which entitles it to the name of building is one floor, raised well above the ground so that the inmates can keep a little distance out of damp's way. The space between floor and roof serves as common day-room and night-room. Hammocks provide sleeping accommodation; old boxes take the place of tables and chairs; pots and pans pretend to be ornaments; every corner is a makeshift cupboard for tinned foods, bottles, oil-cans, tools and suchlike oddments; and the framework of poles does duty as wardrobe on weekdays and as linen-line for the washing on Sundays.

In seringal life a married man and his family generally occupy a private hut. The unmarried men, and their married comrades who have not brought wife and children into the forest, live together in batches, several of them sharing one hut on the "chummery" system.

The rubber-gatherer is called a "seringueiro." On his daily round he has to follow a narrow path, called an "estrada," which has been cut through the dense undergrowth of the forest as a means of communication with the Hevea rubber-trees. An estrada is roughly elliptical in plan, but as the Heveas are widely scattered among the many kinds of trees that crowd the forest, the line of communication makes many long twists and turns.

At the seringal we have come to visit we are the very honoured guests of the manager. On the morning after our arrival we rise at four o'clock, get into light but businesslike summer clothes and very strong, high boots, and go out into the gallery to have coffee with our kind host. Presently we are joined by the seringueiro who is going to take us with him on his round. He is wearing a battered felt wideawake, a cotton shirt open at the neck, and an old pair of trousers that are tied round his ankles with string; his feet are bare. He carries a small axe, called a "machadinha," and a big collection of small tin cups.

After we have been walking single file for some considerable distance along a narrow clearing, whose passage-way consists of knee-deep muddy swamps, snaresome creepers and slippery roots, the seringueiro calls a halt. Having reached the first rubber-tree on his beat, he deals it several blows with his axe, making a girdle of cuts at a height which is conveniently within his reach. This operation is known as tapping." White sap, technically known as "latex" and commonly called "milk," begins to trickle from the wounds he has made. Under each cut he hangs one of his collecting cups, fastening it to the tree by means of a bit of tin on the rim, which he bends over into the bark.

Whilst we are actually following the seringueiro along the estrada we have to give all our attention to picking our way. But when, at varying intervals, he comes to the next rubber-tree on his round and stops to perform exactly the same kind of operation on it as we have already watched, our eyes are drawn to our forest surroundings—we become spellbound, and awake reluctantly as from a beautiful dream when a voice calls to us to "come along."

The seringueiro has tapped about a hundred trees by the time we have circled back to his hut. He now puts away his axe and picks up an old tin can. Again he takes us along the same estrada; on this second round he unhooks the cups from the trees previously visited and pours their contents into the large collecting vessel. The milk has stopped running, but the trees have yielded well this morning, and by the time the "milkman" is nearing home again he has to carry the can very steadily so as not to spill any of the morning's supply.

It is nearly ten o'clock when we follow our leader into his hut once more, and as we have had nothing to eat since we started out at four, no wonder we do full justice to the meal of dried beef and beans he invites us to share with him.

After breakfast the seringueiro sets about transforming the morning's milk into solid rubber—in technical language, he submits the liquid to a treatment whereby it is coagulated.

He makes up a big fire with palm-nuts, which, being very rich in oil, burn splendidly and give off a thick smoke. It is with this smoke that he is going to dry and cure the rubber-milk, and as he wants the smoke to be very dense and heavily laden with the essence of the fuel, he puts a funnel over the fire to do duty as a chimney.

He now takes a paddle-shaped piece of wood and dips it in the sticky milk. Next, he holds the paddle over the funnel, revolving the blade in the smoke until the covering of rubber is thoroughly dry. Again and again he plunges the paddle into the milk and holds it in the smoke, until he has a large ball of rubber made up of layer upon layer of the material. The ball is cut through and the paddle removed. The rubber is now ready to go to market, and will perform the first stage of its journey thither on Saturday, when it is taken by the seringueiro to the manager's store.

Extra large balls of rubber, or "pelles," are made in a very similar way on poles; but instead of the poles being held by hand over the smoke, they are balanced on a roughly-made rest of pronged sticks.

You are wondering, I expect, how the seringueiros get paid. They are all run by men of capital called "aviadores." The aviador, who is frequently a rubber exporter, lives at one of the commercial centres of the rubber industry, such as Para or Mangos. His business is to arrange for labourers to go up into the rubber districts, to supply them with all they require in the way of stores and outfit, and to advance them the money for their journey. His busiest time is in the early part of the year, because all new hands start off for the forests about March or April. They can then reach the scene of their labours towards the middle of May, when the rubber-gathering season begins.

Every seringueiro starts off in debt to some aviador, and henceforth runs an account with him. The seringueiro delivers his week's collection of rubber to his manager to be forwarded to the aviador who has sent him up to the seringal. The aviador sells the rubber and sends the seringueiro stores to the value of the selling price, less commission and something on account of his debt.