WHAT IS NATURAL RUBBER?
Natural rubber in form of a sticky, milky substance called latex is extracted from the trunks of a specific tree – Hevea brasiliensis, more commonly known as the rubber tree. This raw material is then quickly sent to a processing plant before it begins to clump and glob.
WHERE DOES RUBBER COME FROM?
Latex is mainly harvested in Southeast Asia with Thailand being the biggest producing country. Malaysia and Indonesia also cultivate rubber on a large scale. What do these countries have in common? They’re all situated around the Equator. And these regions are the biodiversity hot spots of our planet, meaning they have the highest density of plant and animal species in the world. The perennial warm, humid climate is favorable for all kinds of flora and fauna, including rubber trees.
TAPPING RUBBER AT NIGHT
It is mostly done at night like you can see Mr. Natasrest "Plung" doing here. A section of the bark is carved and peeled back in diagonal stripes, allowing the gooey latex to drip and be funneled into a bowl or cup. Lower temperatures make the latex flow faster and keeps it from clumping too quickly.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM WITH RUBBER?
Rubber grows on around 14 million hectares worldwide. Similar to palmoil, the production of natural rubber has been associated with deforestation. Also loss of biodiversity and soil erosion due to monoculture cultivation are major ecological problems of rubber cultivation. Furthermore social problems like land grabbing and human and labour rights violations are closely connected to rubber. Around 6 million smallholder farmers are producing around 85% of the world's natural rubber. Thus, ensuring fairness, transparency and traceability for rubber cultivation and rubber processing is difficult.
In the past 30 years, one-sixth, or 376,000 km² of the jungles in Southeast Asia have been deforested. This is more than the landmass of Germany.
Why have they been cut and cleared?
80% of deforestation worldwide is to make room for agriculture. Forests have to give way to fields and plantations.
So what? Can’t we just live with fewer forests around?
No! Forests provide habitats to many species of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Many of them are doing important jobs for our own survival. Just look! For instance, nearly 75% of our food crops depend on insect pollination. With their help, the monetary crop yield is between 235 to 577 billion USD.
Thanks to forests, with their plants and different living organisms, we have fresh air to breathe and a habitable climate on this planet. Forests are very important for preventing devastating climate change by storing and capturing CO2 - something that is called carbon sequestration.
Besides that, can we really be ok with destroying the habitat of so many wild animals and upsetting natural cycles?
LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY
This accelerating loss of biodiversity has been termed the “Biodiversity Crisis” and is one of the leading environmental and social issues of the 21st century. Through planting rubber trees in monocultures, there are severe longterm consequences on different levels.
Natural Habitat for plants and animals is lost.
Artificial fertilizers have to be added to have enough nutrients for the trees to grow.
The lack of biomass through other plants and direct input of sunlight causes soil erosion.
Monocultures are more susceptible to climate change resulting in loss of harvests and long term soil degradation - making the ground less fertile and more susceptible to having to put huge amounts of fertilizer to be able to grow something at all.
The conditions for people working on plantations are often hard and precarious - also as rubber tapping is mainly done at night. Many of the big plantations are tended by migrant workers whose reality consists of long working hours, poor wages, no benefits, and no job security.
In some areas rubber farmers also have a problem of passing their skills on, as younger generations don't want to take up that job anymore, rather looking for new opportunities in cities.
The world market price for rubber teeters between highs and lows. That results in economic insecurity. Additionally when farmers only rely on one crop, bad harvests can be devastating for their livelihood. Overall, farmers growing monocultures carry an even greater risk since their plantations are less resilient to extreme weather events or to pests and plagues.
Rubber being grown by over 6 million smallholder farmers worldwide is difficult to be traced back to its origin. Many middlemen are involved to sell the rubber from farms to processing facilities. Thus having 100% transparent and traceable rubber from farm to end product and making sure that social and environmental standards are met on its way is difficult.