Topic of the Month: April 2015

Natural rubber: the consequences of uncontrolled plantations

According to a study [1] compiled by the University of East Anglia in Norfolk / England, the widespread expansion of rubber plantations is endangering both jungles and biodiversity in South-East Asia. To stop this trend, the industry – particularly tyre manufacturers, which are the main customers that buy 70 per cent of natural rubber – is being challenged to make sustainable production of the natural rubber component a higher priority in its purchasing operations. In order to guarantee sustainable farming, the introduction of certification systems is being discussed – of the kind that already exist for palm oil plantations, for example.

Following the reports we have published on several occasions in the past about the impact of polymer materials and residue on water, we are now taking a look at events that are happening on land. Rather than focussing on the impact of polymer materials and end products, we are highlighting the production of natural rubber, the most important natural component used in the production of tyres and other rubber products.

For several years, from the chemical industry almost repressed plant wins as supplier of raw materials for the production of rubber in importance. Image: Wikipedia

Natural rubber is in demand again

They urge manufacturers such as Goodyear and Michelin to support and strengthen sustainability initiatives and drive change in the industry.

Lead researcher Eleanor Warren-Thomas, from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, said: "The tyre industry consumes 70 per cent of all natural rubber grown, and rising demand for vehicle and aeroplane tyres is behind the recent expansion of plantations. But the impact of this is a loss of tropical biodiversity.

"We predict that between 4.3 and 8.5 million hectares of new plantations will be required to meet projected demand by 2024. This will threaten significant areas of Asian forest, including many protected areas.

"There has been growing concern that switching land use to rubber cultivation can negatively impact the soil, water availability, biodiversity, and even people's livelihoods.

"But this is the first review of the effects on biodiversity and endangered species, and to estimate the future scale of the problem in terms of land area."

Tyres

The tyre industry consumes 70 per cent of all natural rubber grown, and rising demand for vehicle and aeroplane tyres is behind the recent expansion of plantations. © istockphoto

The study focuses on four biodiversity hotspots in which rubber plantations are expanding - Sundaland (Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali), Indo-Burma (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, most of Myanmar and Thailand, and parts of Southwest China, including Xishuangbanna and Hainan Island), Wallacea (Indonesian islands east of Bali and Borneo but west of New Guinea, plus Timor Leste) and the Philippines.

"Rubber can thrive across a wide range of climate and soil conditions across Southeast Asia, and could replace a whole range of forest types containing large numbers of globally threatened and unique species."

"Protected areas have already been lost to rubber plantations. For example, more than 70 per cent of the 75,000 hectare Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia was cleared for rubber between 2009 and 2013."

The three largest producing countries, Thailand, Indonesia (2.4 million tons)[16] and Malaysia, together account for around 72% of all natural rubber production. Source: wikipedia/Eleanor Waren Thomas et al., Conservation Letters (2015)

Close to 28 million tons of rubber were produced in 2013, of which approximately 44% was natural. Since the bulk of the rubber produced is of the synthetic variety, which is derived from petroleum, the price of natural rubber is determined, to a large extent, by the prevailing global price of crude oil. Today, Asia is the main source of natural rubber, accounting for about 94% of output in 2005. The three largest producing countries, Thailand, Indonesia (2.4 million tons)[16] and Malaysia, together account for around 72% of all natural rubber production. Natural rubber is not cultivated widely in its native continent of South America due to the existence of South American leaf blight, and other natural predators of the rubber tree.

"In Cambodia, forest areas earmarked for further rubber plantations contain critically endangered water birds like the White Shouldered Ibis, globally threatened mammals like Eld's deer and Banteng, and many important primates and carnivores."

"Macaques and gibbons are known to disappear completely from forests which have been converted to rubber, and our review shows that numbers of bird, bat and beetle species can decline by up to 75 per cent. "

"Conversion to rubber monoculture also has a knock on effect for freshwater species because fertilisers and pesticides run off into rivers and streams. In Laos, local people have reported dramatic declines in fish, crabs, shrimps, shellfish, turtles and stream bank vegetation. In Xishuangbanna, China, well water was found to be contaminated."

Ibis

In Cambodia, forest areas earmarked for further rubber plantations contain critically endangered water birds like the White Shouldered Ibis, globally threatened mammals like Eld's deer and Banteng, and many important primates and carnivores. Source: Archiv

These findings show that rubber expansion could substantially exacerbate the extinction crisis in Southeast Asia.

There has been huge pressure on companies to clean up their act when it comes to oil palm - with certification schemes and commitments from major players like Unilever to source sustainably grown products. But right now, there is almost no attention at the consumer level to the negative impacts rubber plantations can have.

Rubber grown on deforested land is not treated any differently in the market to rubber grown in a more sustainable way. This is misleading, especially when some products made from natural rubber are labelled as an 'eco-friendly' alternative to petrochemicals.

We also found that because oil palm growers cannot get sustainability certification and access to major markets if they plant on deforested land, they are replacing rubber plantations with oil palm, displacing the rubber elsewhere, and adding to the total demand for land.

A Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i) was launched in January 2015 - this now needs support from large tyre manufacturers, and attention from sustainability researchers to ensure it gains traction.

There may be ways to integrate biodiversity into rubber plantation landscapes that should be researched and put into practice, and at the very least, companies that convert legally protected forests and protected species habitats to rubber should face restrictions to market access through a sustainability certification.

"Indo-Burma's dry forests used to be called 'The Serengeti of Asia' - full of thousands of wild cattle, deer, tigers and leopards. The animal populations are low these days after overhunting, but the habitat remains and there's the potential to restore these landscapes to their former glory - rubber is a key threat to this ever being a possibility."

Image: istockphoto
By the way: How is the rubber contained in a dandelion’s milky white fluid formed? A team led by scientists from Münster University and from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology has now identified proteins which play a key role in the production of rubber in the plant. Read more...

Source

[1] Eleanor Warren-Thomas, Paul M. Dolman, David P. Edwards, Increasing demand for natural rubber necessitates a robust sustainability initiative to mitigate impacts on tropical bioversity, Conservation Letter (2015), (open access)
[2] Atlas der Globalisierung (2011) 18
[3] Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i), http://snr-i.org/FAQ_19_1.htm
Guido Deußing