The future of natural rubber hinges on research

During a roundtable discussion at the World Rubber Summit 2012 held on May 22 to 24 at the Raffles City Convention Centre, Singapore, organisational leaders from natural rubber-producing countries discussed matters affecting the supply of natural rubber.It was gleaned that yield improvement appeared to be the silver bullet, according to Lyn Cacha in this report.

Overview of the problems in the region
Come 2020, the world will consume 36.7 million tonnes of rubber and 16.4 million tonnes of it will be natural rubber, according to the latest figures from Singapore-based research bodyInternational Rubber Study Group (IRSG). By then, 91% of natural rubber will be supplied by Asia-Pacific countries.

Yet, despite recent increased supply of latex, the total harvests of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for more than 60% of global production of natural rubber, has not come close to meeting the inexhaustible demand.
Synthetic rubber, which is expected by some industry observers to augment natural rubber demand, has also its weaknesses. According to Dr Asril Sutan Amir, Chairman of the Rubber Association of Indonesia (GAPKINDO), synthetic rubber, which is a by-product of the oil industry, is also greatly affected by the supply and cost of petrol, global warming and socio-economics.

On the contrary, DrPongsakKerdvongbunditperceives the two types of rubber as friends because each has its different uses. The President of the Thailand Rubber Associationbriefly enumerated some facts concerning the natural rubber industry in Thailand.

“Firstly, no matter what the state of the economy is, demand and production of natural rubber will always go up. Secondly, there are no new plantations being planted because some countries have shifted to oil palm production and thirdly, there are less suitable planting areas in Laos and Myanmar. And lastly, 30% of the new plantationsin northeast Thailand will fail because ofpremature tapping and unsuitable land.”

Thailand started planting rubber in the northeast about seven years ago, expanding from traditional planting areas in the south, which is running out of space. Currently, output from the northeast accounts for less than 10% of total national output, Pongsak said. “In the south, we can only replant, as there’s no available land for new plantations.”

Thailand’s rubber production this year may total around 3.5 million tonnes as rains in the south, which represents 80% of local supplies, have disrupted tapping. The country produced 3.57 million tonnes last year, according to the Rubber Research Institute of Thailand.

Based on the world economy, volatility in demand and climate change,Sheela Thomas, Chairman of the Rubber Board of India (RBI), humbly says that she really doesn’t know what the capacity is for natural rubber in the coming years. She added thatin India, the erratic planting and replanting of rubber trees from 1997 to 2003 has also affected supply in the country.

In India, there is a gap between the consumption and production of natural rubber. At present, the country produces 75,000 to 100,000 tonnes/year of natural rubber and imports 120,000 to 150,000 tonnes/year. Kerala accounts for the major share of the rubber production in the country.

Likewise, Malaysia has its own set of challenges to deal with, which are the shrinking acreage, labour shortages and low yields that are threatening production. According to DatoAliasakAmbia, President of the National Association of Smallholders in Malaysia, rubber trees used to be grown in large plantations but now almost all of the rubber in the country is grown by smallholding farmers. About 80% of these farmers own an average of 25,000 sq m each farm.

“Most of Malaysia’s rubber plantations are located in Sabah and Sarawak. In the 1970s, 17 trillion sq m was allocated for rubber tress but has now shrunk to more or less 10 trillion sq m, which the government is trying to maintain,” he said.
Farmers have been shifting to the more lucrative oil palm tree, which takes a shorter time to produce yields, compared with the seven years before a rubber tree can be tapped.

L-R: Dr. Asril Sutan Amir, Chairman, GAPKINDO, Sheela Thomas, Chairman, Rubber Board of India, Dr. Pongsak Kerdvongbundit, President, Thailand Rubber Association, Dato Aliasak Ambia, President, National Association of Smallholders in Malaysia

Aside from declining latex production, Ambia cites the lack of skilled labourers as another disadvantage. Most of the operators are at their prime (between the ages of 50 to 60) while the younger generation has no inclination to carry on the business.

In Thailand, labour shortage is also an issue as most of its workers are imported from Myanmar. “The most important issue in Thailand now is labour since the majority, a large percentage, of rubber workers in Thailand come from Myanmar. Now Myanmar has opened up its country so we are afraid workers will return to their own country,” Pongsak said.

R&D developments and programmes

To address the smallholder issue, Ambia said that the association has formed a cooperative movement to achieve Malaysia’s rubber development goals. Sixty-four cooperatives, supported by the government, were assigned to help take over the management of 247,000 smallholdings.

Focus is also currently being given to develop and plant high-yielding clones in Malaysia. Ambia commended Thailand for its success in this aspect. “As far as R&D is concerned, I think Thailand has done a very good job to produce clones.”
To date, the Malaysian Rubber Board(MRB) has produced 2,006 clones, although some of these clones are not suitable for certain areas or types of soils. Improper planting of these clones could lead to branch snapping, and to a certain extent trunk snapping.

With the resources available, Ambia notes that smallholders need to be taught the correct way of using these clones. “Smallholder development and productivity through the transfer of technology is important.”
He said that educating rubber smallholders on early diagnosis and prevention and control of the disease as well as paying special attention on both pre-planting and post-planting practices are essential.

Likewise, Thomas expressed the same sentiments. To ensure quality is taken care at every stage of cultivation and harvesting, Thomas urged small and marginal growers to seek the help of rubber producers’ societies.

“Improvement in the quality of rubber is essential for ensuring growth and sustainability of the Indian rubber plantation industry,” she said.

Almost all the major tyre companies, such as Michelin and Bridgestone, have set up offices in India. Rubber farmers will be able to reap the benefits offered by the expanding market.

According to Thomas, 2012 is the year of commercial rubber cultivation in India. Amongst the projects to help revolutionise the harvesting of rubber is Thomas’s recent announcement of a cash award of INR500,000 to those who could develop a mechanised rubber tapping device. The RBIis in search for a mechanised tapping knife that can be used by unskilled people. In collaboration with the inventor, the board will take up further research required for its development and commercialisation.

Sustainable rubber economy
The natural rubber industries in these countries have always had intertwining connections between the environment, the economy and the community. During the conference, guest speakers suggested some approaches to integrate an equation of solutions to downstream problems. Despite the different angles provided, ensuring rubber plantation smallholders are raking in big profits, following the rise in prices of the commodity, was the consensus of the discussion.
Pongsak takes on a different angle through climate change. “Now there’s no more accurate weather forecast that is very important not only to the rubber planters but to all the agricultural products. Is this a punishment we get?” he jested.
“So we have to encourage them to plant more agricultural products including rubber by giving them a higher price for them to continue. They serve our food, they serve everything and we enjoy it, so give them back something,” he continued.

Ambia added thatend users should consistently dotheir best to ensure profits for the smallholders. “They (end-users) should go out and see how difficult it is to produce rubber.”

Moreover, new initiatives should be carried out,such as the introduction of the latest technology to stimulate rubber production. “Smallholders need to raise capital and things have to change to sell rubber in a more innovative way,” he emphasised.

Ambia cites Bridgestone’s attempts to a sustainable rubber economy as remarkable. The tyre maker, that was also present at the summit,has collaborative projects with smallholders in Japan, Indonesia and Cambodia. The projects have helped contribute to the livelihoods and preservation of biodiversity through activities that include donation of high-yielding clones and training on proper tapping and post-harvesting methods.

Recently, Bridgestone together with the Cambodia Rubber Research Instituteand Japan’s Ministry of Economy helped construct and strengthen the qualifying certification in Cambodia. With this assistance, Cambodia has increased the number of approved agricultural projects. In addition, its potential for rubber cultivation, coupled with demand led to significant increase in foreign investments. Last year, it approved projects worth US$647 million.

In a different vein, Thomas stressed that although research institutes may be ahead in terms of new discoveries, providing initial technical assistance is not enough. Providing further assistance like R&D to improve processes, material developments and anything that is commercially viable should be made accessible to smallholders, she said.

At the end of the session, all the guest speakers acknowledged the need for rubber research organisations to pull together in a concerted effort to meet the challenges of the global rubber economy. It was concluded that if the region is to effectively realise the economic potential of its respective rubber industries, then government, research funders, universities and businesses should work in unison.