Xishuangbanna, China would benefit from sustainable rubber management

Xishuangbanna, the tropical south of China’s Yunnan province, has lost a great deal of its original cultural and biological diversity to monoculture rubber and banana, and while quality of life has generally gone up, income and education gaps have also increased. This is the verdict of a report recently released by researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre. The report sees potential for better knowledge transfer mechanisms, and more sustainable plantation management.

Fishermen crossing the Mekong river in Xishuangbanna. Photo  by Ben Custer

Fishermen crossing the Mekong River in Xishuangbanna. Photo: Ben Custer

The Humidtropics Situational Analysis Report: Xishuangbanna Autonomous Dai Prefecture, Yunnan, China is the second Situational Analysis to be completed in the Central Mekong Action Area of Humidtropics, a CGIAR research programme seeking to transform the lives of the rural poor through integrated systems research and partnership platforms.

Since the Research for Development Platform inauguration meeting in September 2014, the topic which has attracted the most interest is improving the management of monoculture crops, particularly rubber. Two one-day discussion Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems (RAAIS)* workshops have been held on this topic since, and a number of informal collaboration and planning meetings have been held. At present, all partners are looking for funding opportunities in order to carry out the work which has been identified through this Humidtropics process.

Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, Southwest China, is a small area of land (20 000 km2) which historically had extremely high cultural and biological diversity, and it is one of only two places in China considered tropical. The region is renowned for producing high quality tea, but rubber has had a far greater impact on the region’s landscape and economy. While rubber had been planted since 1955, it was the rubber price boom in the 1990s that caused smallholder farmers to rapidly plant increasing amounts of rubber. Now the natural forests of the lowlands (500—700 m) and more than half of the mid-elevation land (700—900 m) have been almost completely replaced by rubber plantations. Land at higher elevations still supports mostly forest cover, tea and other farming systems, but rubber has encroached in recent years, despite expert doubts about the yield potential at such altitudes.

Ethnic Dai lady showing her hand-woven clothes

Ethnic Dai lady showing her hand-woven clothes. Photo: Ben Custer

The environmental impacts have been high, although not well quantified by academic literature. Habitat loss and biodiversity loss are obvious, and there are numerous reports of reduced water availability, increased water pollution, soil hardening in some of the older plantations, and generally declining soil fertility (probably due to erosion and excessive agrochemical use). The economic impacts have also been great, with those farmers who manage successful rubber plantations making unprecedented profits for this region.

However, since 2012, the price of rubber has crashed to about 50% of its peak value. This has led many farmers to question whether or not they should continue with rubber as their main crop. Although for now most farmers have chosen to wait and see if prices rise again, some have started to chop down their monoculture plantations, trying to salvage what timber they can sell and renting out the land to agricultural developers. The other major popular cash crop is banana, which requires greater upfront investment, offers greater profits and causes even greater environmental impacts.

The institutional context is in some ways very strong, but there are some crucial gaps which hamper progress. There are some excellent agricultural research facilities and groups operating in the region, and the government departments are well funded. There is also a well-functioning market system for major crops and companies can access most areas. The governmental style of leadership has moved on from ‘command and control’ towards decision-making by individual smallholders. However, the communication between smallholders and ‘experts’ is still unidirectional and sporadic. There is a vital disconnect between those with the knowledge and power to implement changes and those who manage the land through their small holdings.

Generally, the living conditions and quality of life are better than average for rural people of the Mekong region. The average income for a rural person in Xishuangbanna is approximately US$ 1100 per year. However, there is great variation between the wealthiest areas (US$ 3000 per person per year) and the poorest areas (US$ 600 per person per year). The people living at the high elevations tend to be poorer and less educated, and in some cases practice more mixed and traditional farming systems.

The main challenges faced in Xishuangbanna at present are how to convince the large number of smallholders to manage their rubber plantations for reduced environmental impact; how to cope with the rubber price crash; and how to aid the development of those peoples living in the higher elevations without further compromising ecosystem services.

Situational Analysis cover

Download the Situational Analysis report (PDF) in English. A Chinese language version will be available shortly.

* Download the RAAIS workshop report in Chinese.

Original post by James Hammond, Agro-Ecosystem Researcher, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) East and Central Asia.


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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