As we look around us, we find a never ending list of household items which use rubber such as bath tub plugs, slippers, door stops, hot water bottles, mattresses, rug backs and others… so much so that its presence is ubiquitous in our life!
Where does rubber originate from?
A question that seldom crosses our minds before procuring any of the items made from rubber. Natural Rubber (NR) is a tree derived, eco-friendly resource. Given its unique properties of elasticity, it plays an influential role in the industry – with a 5% increase in its demand annually. The shortage of NR supply led to the discovery of Synthetic rubber in 1900’s, derived from the fossil fuel, spawned to plug the gap however it didn’t succeed. Even if we add synthetic rubber to the overall rubber pool, the demand for NR will far outstrip the supply. Importantly, it is still not possible to substitute NR by synthetic rubber. A good example- aircraft tyres still require a significant percentage of NR in its composition as it has high mechanical resistance properties that is an essential feature.
In order to match up with the surge in demand, various other alternatives are explored such as latex extracted from the roots of dandelions to shrubs of Guayule plant. It is inevitable that these new sources of production would still not be able to match up to the burgeoning demand.
The Automobile industry is the single largest consumer of NR accounting to over 70% of the total demand. Currently, South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, China and India are the main producers of NR accounting to over 85% of the total production. To ensure a steady supply to match the ever growing demand, a Study estimates 8.5 million hectares of new rubber plantations will be needed by 2024. Conversely, fewer farmers are willing to continue tapping rubber trees given meagre incomes in the profession. Even if the additional rubber plantations are created, there will be environmental problems. Certainly testing time for the Rubber industry and its consumer industries!
Let’s look at the repercussions of the increasing NR production. The first consequence is the tropical forests being lost at an expediting rate as we make place for the rubber plantations. It is a grave concern as it would exacerbate the ill effects of climate change and would also be a huge loss to our biodiversity and a catastrophic outcome for the endangered species in such environment. One such instance is in Cambodia, forest areas earmarked for further rubber plantations that contain critically endangered water birds like the White Shouldered Ibis, and many other important primates and carnivores.
The loss of native forests and biodiversity is likely to cause a spiral effect by triggering and pushing the button towards climate disaster, temperature rising, unpredictable weather conditions, drought or heavy rains. NR plantation grows best where the mean temperature is between 26 and 28 degree Celsius. The shifts in weather patterns adversely impact the yield. Excessive rain causes high humidity leading to growth of harmful fungal pathogens and is a host to various diseases. One such disease is phytophthora which has insidious effects causing low yields of latex. Phytophthora disease in known to occur in India, annually during South West Monsoon months from June to August, causing loss of crop.
On the flip side of this coin is the plight of the small holder farmers, who constitute 85% of the natural rubber grown globally. Farmers are not keen to pursue this livelihood and are also dissuading their future generations to take up this profession. They feel that the value generated is not commiserate with the efforts put in. To increase revenue, farmers resort to over tapping their trees for more rubber, which eventually weakens the trees and makes it more susceptible to diseases. Further in the event of lower wages, farmers often seek for other livelihood opportunities on the side causing them to put in extended hours of work. The story of drug abuse by farmers in Thailand to work longer hours and increase their speed was one citation of deep concern. The laborious efforts required to manage rubber plantation is another reason for waning interest in tapping. In fact the cultivation of oil palm is considered as a lucrative option by many.
Significant environment and Social impact has sparked pressure to farm sustainable natural rubber, with conscientious consumers and organisations demanding transparency and traceability of the supply chain. Other industries such as palm oil, timber, and coffee have been in the crosshairs and under a lot of external pressure – unlike Natural Rubber which is still in the nascent stages of its sustainability journey and still trying to find a foothold.
It is against this backdrop of overwhelming demand for NR that we ask what rubber growers can do to boost their resilience? The sustainability of an industry accentuating deforestation, human rights or climate change vests with thousands of individual farmers who may themselves be oblivious to this term. Hence, it is imperative to understand the mindset of small holder farmers. The investments required to utilise the technology and turn crops to be sustainable are huge in comparison to the overall returns. In other words, the price of sustainable rubber must cover their costs and aim to pay fair wages. Only then will this whole brouhaha of sustainable NR would hold some merit as it’s not right to care for the environment and not care for the farmers!
The transition to sustainable NR cultivation requires a multipronged approach from mechanisms to ensure a fair pay to tappers for quality of life, to impart technical training on the merits of polyculture and promote agroforestry, to unequivocal emphasis on the role of Government in enforcing policies to support the move. In India, the second largest consumer and fifth biggest producer of this commodity, NR is mostly sold as sheets rather than blocks given the latter adds to a higher cost of production with more power consumption and effluent treatment. A more sustainable way !
In 2017, some of the majors players in the natural rubber trade came together to work towards a stronger sustainability commitment that would obviate deforestation and human rights abuses from their supply chains. The establishment of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR), an international and multi-stakeholder organisation, with a mission to lead improvements in the socioeconomic and environmental performance of the NR value chain is definitely a step in the right direction.
Though a long one and fraught with pitfalls, the journey to sustainable NR has begun. While the role of GPSNR is critical, it can’t operate in a silo. It’s imperative that all stakeholders in this ecosystem foster ethical practices for procurement of sustainable NR.
Let us go the distance…to restore our earth!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of India CSR and India CSR does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.