My Say: Cultivating rubber smallholders for the good of the planet

TheEdge Wed, Nov 29, 2023 01:30pm - 6 months View Original

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on November 27, 2023 - December 3, 2023

The survival of natural rubber as a smallholder crop is in doubt due to the depressed rubber prices seen over the last couple of years. Rubber smallholders, due to poor incomes from the sale of rubber, are finding it very difficult to survive economically. They have no control whatsoever over rubber prices, which are primarily dictated by supply and demand. They are exiting rubber cultivation and opting for other crops.

The above scenario is a tragedy for the environment because rubber cultivation is important for mitigating climate change through its role in removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in its biomass, which includes rubber produced as latex and cup lumps. Several technical articles on the subject of carbon sequestration by rubber plantations and the total amount of carbon locked away in biomass over their economic life span have been published and documented.

Natural rubber is also a unique crop in that the substrates produced from carbon dioxide absorbed by the rubber tree leaves from the atmosphere are partitioned into the synthesis of isoprene molecules with five carbon atoms per molecule to produce natural rubber and for the production of biomass for the tree trunks and branches. The rubber extracted through the process of tapping goes into the manufacture of tyres for road vehicles, farm machinery and aeroplanes as well as several downstream value-added products such as natural rubber gloves and automotive parts. The logs harvested at the end of the economic life of the trees are used for the manufacture of value-added products such as furniture while medium-density fibre boards are made from residual rubber chips produced during the production of sawn timber.

Additionally, rubber trees are deciduous, which means they defoliate and refoliate annually. Thus, the carbon in the fallen leaves is returned to the soil, enriching it with critical nutrients required by the trees. Technical papers have been published to support the concept that rubber farming is a self-sustaining eco-system with very minimal inorganic fertilisers required for survival and to sustain rubber production. In fact, rubber trees have been categorised as a forest species. It is recommended as an ideal species for reforestation of logged-over areas both in primary and secondary forests.

Natural rubber is an efficient sequester of carbon from the atmosphere and thus a very environmentally friendly crop. The carbon in the various types of rubber products is locked away for several decades and not released into the atmosphere. In fact, there are processes available for recycling old tyres so that they do not become an environmental problem.

Rubber smallholders mostly adhere to a sustainable mode of cultivation with minimal use of inorganic fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or weedicides. They are aided by several technologies that further facilitate sustainable and environmentally friendly modes of cultivation. Additionally, these technologies also enhance the positive environmental attributes of natural rubber.

There is enough justification for rubber cultivation to be rewarded for its critical environmental services in mitigating climate change. Several international funds have been set up in recent years to facilitate the adoption of green technologies and processes to mitigate climate change caused by the release of several greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide being the predominant contributor.

For example, the Green Climate Fund, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, was set up by developed countries to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change. The US$13.5 billion (RM63.17 billion) fund currently supports 243 projects in 129 developing countries.

Another fund of consequence is the European Union fund for green projects, which has €10 billion (RM51.09 billion) to promote and finance, among others, climate change mitigation and adaptation processes. Another fund, established this year, is the Africa Climate Change Fund with pledges of several billion dollars to help mitigate climate change in several African countries.

Concerted efforts must be made to source payments from the above-mentioned funds for the environmental services provided by rubber cultivation and for its critical role in mitigating climate change. These payments should be made to rubber smallholders in all natural rubber-producing countries, which will greatly facilitate their economic survival, particularly during periods of very depressed rubber prices. This will forestall the rubber smallholders from cutting down trees on their land to plant other agricultural crops.

I suggest that annual payments be made from these funds to the governments of natural rubber-producing countries based on their planted hectarage. The governments will then operate a mechanism to dispense quarterly payments as an outright grant to the smallholders based on their planted hectarage. The grant will only be for smallholders who have cultivated two generations of rubber or more (30 years per generation). The relevant authorities must first carry out an age breakdown of the respective smallholdings before commencing the periodic payments. They can periodically carry out field audits to ensure that the smallholders comply strictly with sustainable modes of cultivation. If any smallholder is found to be in breach, he will automatically be disqualified.

COP 28 (officially the 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC) is scheduled to be held from Nov 30 to Dec 12 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. This will be the best forum to push the agenda for natural rubber and secure the payment of green premiums for its cultivation.

It is certain that Malaysia will send a delegation to attend the conference and meetings. I suggest that the delegation include the director general and relevant officials of the Malaysian Rubber Board as well as the secretary general of the International Rubber Research and Development Board headquartered in Malaysia to present my proposal and secure the endorsement of and financial support for the continued survival of natural rubber cultivation for the good of Planet Earth.

Dr S Sivakumaran is a technical adviser for Greenyield Bhd

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