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Tropical biodiversity being rubbed out

Rubber tree in South Thailand  Rubber tree in South Thailand Thawornnurak
17 Apr
A booming global demand for rubber is leading to mass deforestation in southeast Asia, as land is cleared for monoculture rubber plantations

In a region of the world where palm oil has been the main culprit in recent times for encouraging people to cut down forests and reduce biodiversity, rubber may be about to take over as the driving force.

As much as a possible 8.5 million hectares of land – an area the size of the whole of Ireland – will need to be cleared across south China and southeast Asia over the next decade, in order to meet the world’s growing appetite for rubber. This demand is led primarily by the tyre industry which consumes 70 per cent of naturally-grown rubber.

Certification schemes and sustainability commitments from multinational corporations have enabled palm oil plantation-induced deforestation to be restricted. However, a new study published in the journal Conservation Letters has found that in many cases, this is opening the door for alternative plantations such as rubber, where consumer awareness and sustainable certification is significantly lower.

Looking at four large ‘biodiversity hotspots’ in southeast Asia – Sundaland (the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali), Indo-Burma (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, most of Myanmar and Thailand, and parts of Southwest China), Wallacea (Indonesian islands east of Bali and Borneo and west of New Guinea, plus Timor Leste) and the Philippines – the study concluded that new sustainability measures on the production of rubber will be required, in order to prevent significant deforestation and biodiversity loss across the region, as well as issues regarding soil and water availability.

‘Rubber is a very lucrative crop which is at the forefront of development goals and strategies of some countries in Southeast Asia,’ Eleanor Warren-Thomas, from the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia,  and lead researcher on this study, explains to Geographical. ‘Further expansion of plantations seems inevitable, so what we need to do is focus on how best to achieve this while minimising the impact on tropical biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the livelihoods of local people. Proper land use planning, research into the potential for agroforestry rubber vs monoculture rubber to meet demand, and research assessing how best to minimise impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services within monocultural plantation landscapes are all urgently needed.’

rubber mapRubber extent in all rubber producing countries, excluding Bolivia for which data were unavailable (Image: E. Warren-Thomas et al.)

Rubber plants grow very effectively in tropical environments such as southeast Asia, and Warren-Thomas highlights how more than 70 per cent of the 75,000 hectare Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia was cleared for rubber between 2009 and 2013. She also describes how the rubber plantation expansion could contribute to the extinction of much of the region’s wildlife, including macaques and gibbons, as well as numerous bird, bat and beetle species. ‘Conversion to rubber monoculture also has a knock on effect for freshwater species because fertilisers and pesticides run off into rivers and streams,’ she says. ‘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.’

The study urges leading tyre manufacturers such as Goodyear and Michelin to implement sustainability practices when sourcing the rubber for their products. It also notes how the protection of tropical forests is not yet enough of a well-known issue to affect consumer behaviour when it comes to purchasing tyres and other rubber products, but suggests that schemes such as the emerging Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i), launched in January 2015, could raise awareness of the damage which unsustainable plantations are causing.

Warren-Thomas emphasises the essential role that these companies will need to play in limiting this damage, despite the fact that in markets such as China, sustainability isn’t a particularly effective selling point. ‘Sustainability certification for a range of crops has really grown in recent years, and consumer awareness is always improving,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, government capacity to enforce legislation that is already in place to regulate establishment of plantations, for example requiring impact assessments or creating buffer zones, is often low, so the onus may need to come from the private sector.’

She suggests that instead of these monoculture plantations, land-sharing ‘agroforests’ might be a more sustainable way of meeting the demand for rubber. ‘We know that in Indonesia, rubber agroforests support a range of forest birds and plants, whereas monocultures do not,’ she says. ‘That said, yields from agroforests are lower, so you would need a greater area of land to produce the same amount. Would this be better than creating monocultures and set-aside areas for biodiversity? The answer is not yet clear, and more research on this is needed. What would be better is to properly assess suitability of areas for rubber before they are converted, to prevent unnecessary damage.’

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