Balata (FAO, NWFP 6)

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Gutta percha
Coppen, Gums, resins and latexes of plant origin, 1995

  • Extract from : NWFP 6. Coppen J.J.W., 1995. Gums, resins and latexes of plant origin. FAO, Rome. 142 p. (Non-Wood Forest Products, 6). on line





Genuine balata is obtained as a latex from trees of certain South American Manilkara species, in particular Manilkara bidentata. Like sorva, balata latex is coagulated by boiling and turned into blocks, the form in which it is traded.

Balata is sometimes described as the South American gutta percha. Its non-elastic, insulating properties made it, in the past, a valuable export commodity, used for covering submarine and telephone cables, and in the manufacture of machine belting. Its most well-known use was in providing the outer covering for golf balls. Today, its use in Brazil, once the major world source of balata, is limited to a number of small applications such as the manufacture of souvenir figures and surgical implants.



An international market for balata no longer exists. During the 1960s, when Brazil was the main supplier, the United States was the dominant importer. During this period, Brazil exported around 500 tonnes/year to a world market of approximately 800 tonnes. In the 1970s, synthetic substitutes were developed which immediately displaced balata's role in world markets, and this remains the case today. Table 36 indicates that only small or nil amounts of balata have been exported from Brazil in recent years.

The Brazilian domestic market remains a very small one. Balata finds some use in dentistry and for surgical implants. Its most visible application is its use in the cottage crafts industry for making model animals and other figures, mostly for sale to tourists.

Neither domestic nor international markets offer any prospect for substantially increased use of balata.

Supply sources

The extent of balata production today in countries other than Brazil is not known, but it is unlikely to be substantial given the collapse in world markets. Peru, like Brazil, was a significant producer in the 1950s, and in the 1960s and early 1970s Venezuela and Suriname appeared in United States' import statistics as exporting countries for balata.

Brazilian data indicate a steady and severe decline in production over the last 30 years, consistent with world market trends. Production in Pará state, the main source of balata, was almost 1 500 tonnes in 1961. By 1978 (Table 36), total Brazilian production was down to 400 tonnes and by the latter half of the 1980s recorded production was only around 20 tonnes annually; it was 18 tonnes in 1990.


Quality and prices

When balata was a significant item of international trade, its quality depended on its "gutta" (trans polyisoprene) content. Commercial balata was said, typically, to contain about 40-50% gutta, most of the balance being resinous material. Genuine balata of Brazilian origin (from Manilkara bidentata) was claimed to be of superior quality, with a gutta content of up to 80%.

No price information is available on balata.


Botanical/common names

Family Sapotaceae:

  • Manilkara bidentata (DC.) A. Chev. (syn. Mimusops bidentata DC., Mimusops balata Gaertn.) - Balata, balata verdadeira, bulletwood tree

Genuine balata comes from Manilkara bidentata although the term balata is sometimes used in a wider sense to include other non-elastic gums such as maçaranduba (from Manilkara huberi) and coquirana (from Ecclinusa balata) (Accepted name : Chrysophyllum sanguinolentum).

Description and distribution

Manilkara bidentata is a tall tree, reaching 30 m or more, and is found mostly in northern Amazonia and the Guianas.


Traditional methods of collecting the latex have entailed felling the tree and girdling the entire trunk so as to recover as much latex as possible at one time. Such methods are still claimed to be favoured by many balateiros today.

Tapping methods that are now used for balata involve making a series of circular incisions round the trunk of the tree, eventually extending to the lower branches, which the balateiro reaches by climbing. Each circular incision meets a vertical channel, down which the latex flows to a receiver fixed to the tree.

The frequency with which trees can be tapped appears to be very low and dependent on renewal of the bark which has been removed during the first tapping; different sources state this to be only about once every 3-5 years or every 8-10 years. LOPES (1970), citing views expressed by the "patrons" of several commercial operations in Brazil, says that a 15-20 year rest period is necessary. Furthermore, this is only possible for those trees that survive the first tapping - survival rates were reported to be anything between 80% and 25%.

In a similar manner to sorva, the collected latex is boiled in a large galvanized vessel and the resulting coagulated material then removed, washed with cold water and placed in wooden boxes to foim blocks. After removal from the boxes, the gum is left for 2-3 days to harden.



As might be expected, latex yields per tree are very variable and not easily predicted, although there appears to be some correlation with bark thickness. Felled trees have been claimed to yield up to 40 litres of latex or 5-8 times as much as a standing tree. Trees which are tapped a second time have been found to produce only a third the quantity of latex obtained from the first tapping.

Average yields of 18-20 litres of latex per tree have been reported for tapped trees, and in Brazil, in a 6-month period, one person is said to be able to tap 200-300 trees, producing a total of 800-2000 kg of balata (i.e., of the order of 4-7 kg of balata per tree). Reports of balata production in Guyana in the 1930s describe yields of 5 litres of latex (producing 2.5 kg of balata) per tree as being good, although up to five times these yields can be obtained in exceptional cases.


Separation of the gutta and resinous fractions of balata is, as far as is known, always carried out in the end-user country and there are few opportunities for value-added processing at source.


Apart from occasional timber use, there has been no other significant exploitation of the balata tree.


The practical difficulties in cultivating and tapping Manilkara bidentata are, if anything, even greater than for Couma spp., the source of sorva. In the absence of any significant market for balata, and the fact that there appear to be no problems in meeting local demand from existing supply sources, at least in Brazil, there is little incentive to undertake research on silvicultural aspects or improved tapping methodologies, and the developmental prospects must be considered negligible.


  • BRULEAUX, A.M. (1989) [Two former products of the Guianese forest: rosewood essence and balata gum] (in French). Bois et Forêts des Tropiques, (219), 99-113.
  • COPPEN, J.J.W., GORDON, A. and GREEN, C.L. (1994) The developmental potential of selected Amazonian non-wood forest products: an appraisal of opportunities and constraints. Paper presented at the FAO Expert Consultation Meeting on Non-Wood Forest Products, Santiago, Chile, 4-8 July.
  • FANSHAWE, D.B. (1948) Forest Products of British Guiana. Part II. Balata. pp 16-21. In British Guiana Forestry Bulletin No. 2.
  • LESCURE, J.P. (1995) [Extractivism in Amazonia. Viability and Development] (in French). Final Project Report. ORSTOM/INPA/Aarhus University.
  • LESCURE, J.P. and CASTRO, A. (1990) [Extractivism in central Amazonia. An outline of economic and botanical aspects] (in French). Paper presented at UNESCO-IUFRO-FAO Workshop


"L'Aménagement et la Conservation de l'Ecosystème Forestier Tropical Humide", Cayenne, 10-19 May.
  • LOPES, J.R. (1970) [Contribution to the Study of the Exploitation of Balata in Amazonia Region] (in Portuguese). 8pp. Ministry of Agriculture, Pará, Brazil.
  • MORS, W.B. and RIZZINI, C.T. (1966) Latex-yielding plants. pp 1-12. In Useful Plants of Brazil. San Francisco/London: Holden-Day.
  • OLIVEIRA, F.A., MARQUES, L.C.T. and FERREIRA, C.A.P. (1992) [Non-Wood Products of the National Forest of Tapajos, Santarem, Para, Brazil] (in Portuguese). Preliminary report TCP/BRA/0154/FAO for IBAMA. 20 pp.
  • SERIER, J.B. (1986) [Tree secretions] [includes balata and gutta percha] (in French). Bois et Forêts des Tropiques, (213), 33-39.
  • STERN, H.J. (1939) Gutta percha and balata: purification in the factory. The Rubber Age, (Oct.), 245-249 and 258.
  • WILLIAMS, L. (1962) Laticiferous plants of economic importance. I. Sources of balata, chicle, guttapercha and allied guttas. Economic Botany, 16, 17-24.


Table 36. Balata: production and exports from Brazil, 1978 and 1986-92 (tonnes)
1978 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992
Production 407 22 19 21 21 18 na na
Exports na 5 - - 15 - - na

Source: National statistics (taken from COPPEN et al., 1994, and LESCURE, 1995)