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They called it the “white gold” because of the white colour of latex. Over the past decade, the cultivation of rubber trees has expanded rapidly throughout the Mekong region, stretching into non-traditional rubber growing areas in Laos and Myanmar. Prompted by rising prices, spiralling demand from an expanding Chinese economy and government incentives, farmers and investors rushed to planet the new boom crop. A latex price crash in 2011, however, left particularly small-scale producers struggling for income and dispossessed of agricultural and forest lands.
Several initiatives such as the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative, have since been launched to try and turn the rubber production into something more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
An investigation of several of them, published in the journal Geoforum, reveals that none of them stand any particular chance of succeeding. In fact, says centre researcher Grace Wong, a co-author of the published study, the sustainability of rubber is an elusive prospect. “The prospects for sustainable rubber in Laos and Myanmar – at least in the near future – looks dim,” she says.
There are several reasons for this, Wong explains. Firstly, the concepts of “sustainability” or “sustainable development” are malleable and value-laden, often manipulated to meet the concerns and interests of powerful actors, addressing some aspects of sustainability that are easier to meet while ignoring others that may challenge their business model. “Some of the initiatives we studied leave their definition of “sustainability” so broad and apolitical that they do not really tackle the underlying unsustainable production and practices,” Wong says.
Secondly, if a robust and meaningful definition of sustainability is to be applied, thereby considering a wide range of interacting social, political and environmental issues, then sustainable rubber production remains an illusion. This is due in part to the political and financial situation in Laos and Myanmar where land possession, labour exploitation and unfair contractual arrangements is widely applied.
Thirdly, although agroforestry and mixed crop models have the potential to reduce environmental impacts of rubber production (deforestation, chemical pollution and drought), they may not be economically viable in competition with monoculture rubber plantations. And this trade-off may be unpalatable when rubber is seen as an investment to drive economic growth.
Development practitioners we consulted openly wondered whether rubber is an appropriate crop to promote when prices and policies are not favourable
Grace Wong, co-author
While rubber plantations in the right places can provide economic and even environmental benefits, these are oftentimes not realised by the rural poor that need them most. Rubber production has increased incomes of smallholder farmers in Southwest China and Northern Thailand and this was enabled by significant government subsidies and technical support. However, similar investments without such safeguards have disadvantaged rural communities in Laos and Myanmar, leaving them without productive crop land, decreased food security and overall poor working conditions.
Smallholders are also directly exposed to the market risks of production, including price crashes and the long wait between plantation and maturation. “In fact, the development practitioners we consulted openly wondered whether rubber is an appropriate crop to promote when prices and policies are not favourable,” Wong says.
Ultimately, Wong and her colleagues argue, the sustainability initiatives they analysed in their study, are unlikely to have major impacts on the current practices of rubber production in Laos and Myanmar. “This is especially because they are voluntary and will do little to change an industry dominated by un-regulated large-scale estate plantations and scant interest in smallholder producers,” Wong concludes.
This research was originally carried out within a project entitled “Green rubber: Alleviating poverty and enhancing environmental integrity through restoring ecosystem services in a tropical plantation crop in the upper Mekong region”. The further research was based on an extensive literature review as well as interviews and consultations held with key actors working on rubber in both countries, including government officials, civil society representatives, industry groups, and academic researchers. Such interviews and consultations were used to reflect upon the meaning of “green” rubber and to learn about policy approaches and perspectives in the development of rubber and other boom crops. In June and August 2016, the researchers conducted 14 interviews in Myanmar and 5 in Laos. Insights were also gained from a project consultation workshop held in Vientiane, Laos in August 2016 where the results of the study were presented and a group discussion was held with 17 government officials and academics with expertise on rubber production.
Grace Wong's work has largely converged on assessing social, economic and ecological trade-offs in tropical environments, focusing in particular on the interface of development, socio-political processes and environmental change. She has worked extensively throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America.
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