Rubber villages respond to price slump

Villages in the tropical south of Yunnan province in China are responding to the drop in the global rubber latex price by replacing plantations with other crops. However, this does not address the root of the problem caused by monocultures, say scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre.

Farmers returning from clearing their rubber plantations.

Farmers returning from clearing their rubber plantations. Photo © Zhang Qian

From a dip in early 2009, the global price for rubber latex skyrocketed, propelling prices to over US$ 280 per pound by February 2011, an increase of 500% in two years. This inspired many villagers and companies in Xishuangbanna, the tropical and southernmost prefecture of China’s southwest Yunnan province, to take a gamble. Large swathes of forest were cleared and paddy rice or upland crops abandoned to make space for rubber plantations. Farmers invested heavily in labour, pesticides, fertilizers and enhanced seedlings and then sat back expectantly as the trees began to grow. Rubber trees take seven years to mature before tapping can start.

But many trees never reached maturity. With bearish rubber markets and latex commodity prices back at their mid-2009 point, locals saw their profits and livelihoods vanish into thin air. Researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kunming, Yunnan now report that while responses are variable, some locals are taking drastic measures. While some continue to hope for a price rise, many have started to chop down their rubber trees, hoping to recover some of the costs through the sale of timber while leasing out their empty plots to other industries.

Monoculture banana is supplanting many of the rubber plantations. ‘While it may certainly help generate new income for the farmers, monoculture always exposes farmers to the risk of economic slumps’, says Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, professor in landscape ecology at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences and researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre. ‘Moreover, monoculture plantations require farmers to invest in fertilizers and pesticides. These are not only expensive but also can have disastrous effects on human and environmental health’.

The World Agroforestry Centre, which specializes in research on the inclusion of trees in agriculture and the delivery of ecosystem services from production landscapes, proposes another approach where rubber is planted in smaller plots and mixed with other trees.

‘These trees not only provide different income sources, they also deliver important ecological services which can significantly increase the yields of all the trees in the plot’, says Rhett Harrison, professor in restoration and natural resource management at the World Agroforestry Centre. ‘At current prices, our research has shown that, if done right, integrated rubber gardens can boost individual farmers’ incomes significantly while keeping the environmental and social costs of pollution and disease low’.

Rubber farmers in Thailand are already growing rubber agroforests, and with success. ‘If the rubber plantations are turned into agroforests it does not affect the rubber trees negatively,’ says Mr Witoon Noosen in Phattalung province. ‘If you look at my orchard you will see rubber and other trees and plants together, every one of which is valuable. And they are all medicinal plants in one way or another. My trees are 40 years-old and still provide high yields.’

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Sander Van de Moortel

Sander Van de Moortel

After obtaining his master’s degree in linguistics and, later, journalism, Sander Van de Moortel chose to  leave his native Belgium for more adventurous lands. After a stint as a product manager for a German IT firm, he landed in China in 2011 after taking a wrong turn on a bike trip through Viet Nam.

Comfortably trapped in Yunnan by his linguistic ambitions and his somewhat complicated relationship with China, Van de Moortel has been responsible for communications at the World Agroforestry Centre’s East and Central Asia office, and is now assisting the communications unit in the Southeast Asia office. His research is almost exclusively focussed on exploring Southeast Asia’s colourful patchwork by bicycle.

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