How do you like your rubber?

By Meine van Noordwijk, Hesti L. Tata, Sonya Dewi and Peter Minang

Rubber’s history in China and Indonesia points to a monocultural future. Is it too late to promote ‘green’ rubber?


In China, rubber was introduced as a top–down, state-driven policy of monoculture plantations, the effects of which have been studied by our colleagues at the World Agroforestry Centre’s East Asia Node, amongst others.

In stark contrast to the situation in China, in Sumatra in Indonesia, rubber was positively integrated into smallholdings at the start of the 20th century.

Rubber agroforests in Indonesia over time became an icon of environmentally friendly integration, while in China the tree has become associated with destruction of ecosystem services and reduction of biodiversity.

The situation in Xishuangbanna, China, has triggered public debate and a rethinking of the monocultural model of intensification that dramatically segregates various types of land uses within a landscape. Meanwhile, the old Indonesian agroforests are giving way to monocultural tree crop plantations after almost a century.

The efforts to keep appreciable amounts of the old rubber agroforests in the Sumatran landscape are ‘rowing against the tide’ and the growth of local and foreign appreciation for the biodiversity contained in these agroforests may well come too late to retain more than a small fraction in the least accessible places.

By the time the overall economic level and wage rates of Sumatra catch up with the current levels in peninsular Malaysia, smallholding rubber farms will have a lower return to labour than urban and service sector jobs and there may still be a small basis for recovery of diverse agroforests.

However, in China, the monoculture rubber plantations may have lower opportunity for ecological recovery because they don’t contain saplings or young trees of natural forest species and seed dispersal agents such as bats and birds may have disappeared.

Integrate or segregate?

In both countries a mixed model that sees landscapes of segregation (fully protected areas and areas of intensive agriculture) and landscapes of integration (pursuing ecologically more friendly intensification models using agroforestry) may be the best way to support local livelihoods as well as conserving the environment and ensuring it continues to provide the services we need.

But at the moment, neither Indonesia nor China give sufficient support to the ‘integration’ part of this mixed solution.

Government programs are biased towards specific models of intensification and ‘the market’—particularly consumers in Europe, the United States, Australia and other developed countries— does not demand a clear differentiation between ‘light green’ natural rubber (as distinct from synthetic rubber) grown in monocultural plantations, and ‘dark green’ rubber that is produced in biodiversity-friendly, agroforestry systems.

Research, too, has so far been mostly focused on the monocultural systems but there are many unexplored options for preserving forest resources in diversified agroforests. For example, native plant species could help to balance the seemingly conflicted needs of profitability and biodiversity conservation.

But without external attention and incentives, however, the route of least resistance leads to a planted monoculture.


Read the research article

van Noordwijk M, Tata MH, Xu JC , Dewi S, Minang PA. 2012. Segregate or integrate for multifunctionality and sustained change through landscape agroforestry involving rubber in Indonesia and China. In: Agroforestry: the future of global land use. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Science and Business Media. p. 69–104.


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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