VIETNAM: Rubber poses risk to forest areas

However, few of these rubber plantations have been harvested and the quality of latex obtained remained dubious, the experts said, saying rapid expansion of this project was "risky" and "unacceptable."

Phung Giang Hai of the Agriculture Policy and Strategy Institute said the cold weather in winter and the sloping, degraded and low nutrient forest land in northern mountainous areas was totally unsuitable for rubber trees.

"The low temperature will affect the survival of new trees and hinder their growth. The sloping land will raise investment costs and increase the risk of erosion," he said.

Hai cited an institute report which showed that about 5 % of new rubber trees in the northwestern region had died, and this was true of 95 % in the northeastern region.

The institute's survey in Dien Bien Province's Thanh Nua Commune, where 35 households have planted rubber on 240 hectares since 2008, showed that many trees died after two cold spells in 2010 and 2011. After six years of cultivation, up to 90 % of trees in the area did not produce latex.

The reason is that many households planted their trees at heights of more than 800m, a whopping 200m higher than the level recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Nguyen Ngoc Lung, former head of the agriculture ministry's Forestry Department, agreed with other experts, saying approval of developing rubber plantations on a large scale in the area was fraught with risk.

Lung said many farmers had contributed their forest land for rubber plantations and received financial support from enterprises. But what they would do if they had a poor harvest and enterprises cut off their support, he asked.

On paper, the profit that can be earned from a hectare of rubber was five times higher than that of forest land, but crop failures would cause huge losses, not just economically, but environmentally as the current expansion has already depleted natural forest area and destroyed biodiversity.

Dinh Quang Tuan of the agriculture ministry said some enterprises took undue advantage of the Government's policy to request land allocation for planting rubber trees, and later, illegally changed the use of it to make big profits.

He said authorities must carefully study the results of rubber cultivation in the north. He noted that in China, many rubber plantations could not produce latex and were used for wood.

Nguyen Hong Phu, deputy chairman of the Viet Nam Rubber Group, said the expansion of area under rubber trees can help reduce poverty if it is implemented properly.

The northwest was among the most under-developed regions in the country, and it would take a lot of effort and money for enterprises to invest there. Therefore, the ministry should carefully consider the feasibility of rubber plantations so "enterprises like us feel secure about investing there," he said.

Phu said in Lao Cai Province, a 1,510-ha rubber plantation would be harvested in the coming years. The rubber plantations have created jobs for locals with high monthly incomes of VND3.2-3.6 million (USD 150-169) per month, he said.

However, several agricultural experts said at the conference that the Government and the agriculture ministry should promptly review the planning of rubber in northern regions after weighing potential economic benefits against the threat of losses as well as environmental degradation in the long run.

Viet Nam is the fourth highest rubber exporter in the world. Last year, it exported rubber worth USD 2.86 billion, accounting for 3.7 % of total export revenues.

Source: bizhub.vn, Hanoi; 13 Dec 2013(Syed Rashid Ali, Karachi, Pakistan)