Author Archives: Sander Van de Moortel

New Research: Rubber Expansion Threatens Biodiversity and Livelihoods


Xishuangbanna prefecture in China’s Yunnan province has seen an explosion of rubber cultivation in the past 15 years.

Increasing amounts of environmentally valuable and protected land are being cleared for rubber plantations that are economically unsustainable, new research suggests. More widespread monitoring is vital to design policy that protects livelihoods and environments.

The research was recently published in Global Environmental Change and constitutes a joint effort by scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) East and Central Asia office, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the University of Singapore and the East-West Center.

Although global natural rubber prices have fluctuated strongly in the last fifteen years, they are likely to continue rising as synthetic alternatives are no match for natural latex. This financial incentive, as well as the expansion of oil palm, an even more lucrative rival, has caused rubber plantations to expand beyond their tropical comfort zone in Indonesia and into the margins of continental south-east Asia.

This has brought wealth to some, but not all, say the researchers. As marginal lands are often too dry, too slanted, too high, too wet, too cold, too windy, or a combination of the above, rubber plantations require increasing amounts of input in the form of fertilizer, pesticides, and labour in order to maintain yield levels – and even then may not be profitable.

The research also suggests that climate change will render 70% of current and another 55% of future plantation areas environmentally poorly suited for rubber. Smallholder farmers’ livelihoods face additional threat from price fluctuations, loss of food security, and the narrowing of income sources.

The environment also suffers. The surge in rubber demand saw valuable and even protected lands being converted into rubber plantations, drastically reducing carbon stocks, soil productivity, water availability, and biodiversity. This is particularly tragic given the high chance of failure.

“There is clear potential for loss-loss scenarios when forest is being cleared for rubber plantations that are not economically sustainable, and that have negative impacts on soils and water balance,” says lead researcher Antje Ahrends from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the World Agroforestry Centre.

Widespread monitoring of rubber expansion and its economic sustainability will prove vital for land-use planning and policy interventions. The team argue that carefully formulated payment for ecosystem services programmes, and a certification scheme for “environmentally friendly rubber” have potential to reduce the environmental impact of rubber expansion while ensuring the supply.

“Oil palm has received much more global attention than rubber, but in fact environmental and social impacts are comparable and the dynamics of the two are related. It may be time for a roundtable on sustainable rubber where the private sector, public parties and scientists can try to bridge the various interests and agree on standards,” says Meine Van Noordwijk, chief science advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre.

This article was authored by Sander Van de Moortel and originally published on the World Agroforestry Centre website. The article is republished, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Agriculture, Environment and sustainability, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management

On Xinjiang’s Freedom Struggle and Oppression

Uyghur woman facing a police cordon during protests in Xinjiang in 2009. Photo: REUTERS

Uyghur woman facing a police cordon during protests in Xinjiang in 2009. Photo: REUTERS

I never intended to write a background article on the Xinjiang situation, simply because I feel I’m not nearly an expert on the field. But inevitably, when you’re researching a subject and trying to form an idea, article after article pops up, and important people all over the world voice opinion after opinion. And that’s how it’s suddenly noon and you’re still sitting in your underwear on the couch with your head stuck deep into the internet.

Even though I have become a lot wiser about the Xinjiang issue, I am not in a place to make socio-political analysis. However, this terror attack, this fight for freedom, and this cultural and economic oppression are not confined to Kunming, Xinjiang or China. They are not isolated events. And neither are reactions from the opposite side, which slowly but surely tighten the noose of public opinion around the neck of a culture, a religion and a people until it has been stripped of its humanity and hunting season is declared open to shoot down – verbally or literally – anyone connected with it. It’s easy to draw a few parallels to the intolerant climate in Europe in the 1930′s and the world doesn’t need another such occurrence. With this opinion piece I want to contribute, however little, to halt this mass demonisation.

People have been rightfully pointing out that many western media used quotes (such as CNN, now removed) around terrorism, as if terrorism is some sort of privilege of the West to suffer. Of course, the definition of terrorism is problematic, even the UN hasn’t properly outlined it yet. I would define terrorism as an act of violence with a political motive which, rather than targeting the political bodies it is in conflict with, targets a group of unrelated people in the hope that their fear will cause them to put political pressure on the targeted government. By this definition, the Kunming knife incident is very likely to be a terror attack (very likely, because the attack hasn’t been claimed by anyone, and because the authorities have not made the perpetrators’ identities public yet).

The Washington Post has published an article in which it looks for motives and where it blames Chinese oppression. As terrorism and freedom struggles are a global issue, this comes across as hypocritical. The author probably doesn’t mean it as such, but if you read between the lines, he’s saying that while terrorism in the West is to blame on freedom-hating thugs, terrorism in China is the result of government oppression. In my opinion, naturally only the latter is true and the West ought to learn a lesson from this. It should also apply its China logic to how it judges insurgent groups, and not only in the Muslim world.

That brings me to the next issue: can it simply be blamed on government oppression?

There has been a lot of outrage about the statement of Dilxat Rexit, the head of the World Uyghur Congresswhich strives for Uyghur self-determination. In an e-mailed statement to the New York Times, he said: ”We oppose any form of violence, and we also urge the Chinese government to ease systematic repression. If this incident was really the work of Uyghurs, then I can only say that it may be an extreme act by people who feel they cannot take it anymore.” Some (e.g. Kaiser Kuo on his Facebook page) argue this is basically a defence of the barbaric acts of last Saturday.

Yet what do you expect the head of the World Uyghur Congress to say? He’s the head of an organisation that promotes the cultural and political freedom of Uyghur people all around the world. Do you expect him not to give his take on the motives? And do you not think that he will find those motives rooted in the cultural and violent oppression by the Han in Xinjiang? Do you expect him to merely condemn the attacks without following up with a ‘but’ clause? Of course not, that’s why he’s the leader of the WUC. What he is saying is: “I could see that coming.”

I am for once agreeing with Mao Zedong, in that there is no hatred without a reason. I strongly recommend taking ten minutes to read’s translation of an opinion piece written by Wang Lixiong (王力雄), Beijing-based political dissident and writer of “My West China, Your East Turkestan” (我的西域,你的东土). In it, the author argues that the problem is political at its core and therefore cannot be solved with economic solutions such as Beijing’s knee-jerk response of ‘developing’ China’s far west.

Mr. Wang writes that Uyghur people in Xinjiang are at a disadvantage on many levels. They often do not speak Mandarin well enough, have their own cultural and religious values and are therefore completely left out of the political process. At the same time, the government is siphoning away Xinjiang’s riches to the east. Social and economic segregation results in Uyghurs only getting the crumbles of a cake that the Han (who are now more or less equal in numbers in Xinjiang) have divided among themselves. The perpetual circle of violence and repression will lead to the ultimate exclusion of Uyghurs from society and, ultimately, to ‘Palestinisation‘ (a word the writer uses to mean the full mobilisation of a people against another). These pariahs will turn to their neighbours Afghanistan or Pakistan for their religious identity. This includes the risk that Uyghur people, who normally adhere a milder strain of Sunni Islam, will be converted to fundamentalists. The comparison to another Palestine or even Chechnya is indeed not far off.

It is easy for us to say something along the lines of “the Muslims are at it again.” It’s an old mantra repeated by ever more people all over the world. Yet I doubt that it’s right to blame religion. In fact, I’d even make the case that Islam doesn’t even play a real role in the knife attacks. It just happens to be the religious background of a people that want their land back, or at least want to be treated as equals in what once was their land. Possibly only the modus operandi changes: the IRA or the ETA would have planted a bomb.

Therefore, blaming religion is wrong and dangerous, because it would condemn a group far larger than the one engaging in violent activity. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the rise of radical Islam all over the globe is playing and will be playing an ever more important role in the lives of Xinjiang Uyghurs.

In light of the radicalisation of the entire Muslim world, if you don’t come to the conclusion that outsiders have created an environment in which they feel oppressed and which therefore allows terrorism to flourish, then your conclusion can only be that there is no chance of ever abating their extremism. Then you must conclude that Muslims are an evil group that needs to be eradicated or at least fought until they give up. I think history has taught us that that is not the way the cookie crumbles.

Editor’s Note: Sander originally published this post on his blog on 3/4/14.

1 Comment

Filed under China, Current Events, Kunming Train Station Attack, SLIDER

Kunming in the aftermath of the train station attack

Memorials in front of the Kunming Train Station

Memorials in front of the Kunming Train Station

In the aftermath of the attack on the Kunming train station, in which official sources say at least 29 people lost their lives and 143 were injured, I went to sniff around the city for stories and reactions. People were stoic, supportive of their fellow citizens and seem to steer clear of any racial violence.

In general, the city felt ridiculously normal for the day after the attack . The people manning the gate at my compound greeted me as cheerily as I scooted down the hill and the only armed police I saw were hanging around a major interchange. Most people ambled lazily around Green Lake park, gazing at the flocks of sea gulls on their way back to Siberia as if nothing had happened. Not a SWAT team to be seen, even though this would be a potential spot for carnage. Kunming’s 1st People’s Hospital also had only a few law enforcers stationed outside, a shrill contrast to the mob of police inside that was trying to keep nosy journalists at bay.

Unmanned police vehicle manned by local kids — right in front of the train station ticket office

Unmanned police vehicle manned by local kids — right in front of the train station ticket office

Even the train station felt relatively normal. On the left side of the square, a large part was sectioned off with police line and a dozen or so armed SWAT policemen were swarming around. In the middle of the square, under the large gilded bull, people were taking pictures of flowery memorials, one of which had already fallen down and torn. The ticket hall, the goriest place from Saturday’s attack, had been properly cleaned and was again filled to the brim with people queuing to buy tickets.

A young man cheekily ran behind me to measure himself against my height, so I used that as a pretext to ask him some questions. Whether he was afraid? “If I were afraid I wouldn’t be here”. Any other questions resulted in him uneasily shooting his eyes around so I left it at that.

A SWAT vehicle on Beijing Lu

A SWAT vehicle on Beijing Lu

The cigarette lady was more helpful. She had already closed the shop and gone home for the night when the killings happened, but she was dead afraid to come to work on Sunday. She had wanted to stay home, but her boss and the need for a salary made her show up. She added that the extra security made her feel safer, though. A Bai minority woman in traditional dress was waiting for her daughter to pick her up. When I asked her if she was worried about coming here, given yesterday’s events, she replied: “which events?” Apparently the news had not reached rural Dali.

I also visit one of the mobile blood donation centers that the government had set up at twelve different locations all over the city. They must have rushed them in, as the containers still sported a sign for a previous blood-donating event at New Year’s day and make no mention of the stabbings the day before. That didn’t seem to stop people from flocking to the cabin. I am told that at least 150 people had already donated blood at this point and another 60 people were waiting to give.

Mobile blood donation center – caption reads: "Kunming blood donation center wishes Spring City residents a happy new year"

Mobile blood donation center – caption reads: “Kunming blood donation center wishes Spring City residents a happy new year”

I met Miss Wu (25) and her two friends at the mobile blood bank. She herself is not able to donate, but her two male companions are. While the two men were inside, I struck up a conversation. ”We’re here to help our fellow citizens after yesterday’s massacre,” she beams. Solidarity and stoicism obviously go hand in hand in Yunnan. “I don’t think this will affect how I see Muslims,” she explains, “and I don’t think it will the view of most other Chinese, either. The attackers were a violent group who had nothing to do with other Muslims. There have even been a lot of Muslims coming in to donate blood. Wherever you have people, you have bad ones.”

A Chinese journalist asked me my opinion and added that he had not been able to interview any Uighur people. “Perhaps they’re afraid for retaliation [from Han majority people], but they really needn’t be, there doesn’t seem to be a strong anti-Muslim sentiment among the people.”

Business as usual at a Kunming mosque

Business as usual at a Kunming mosque

At the nearby mosque at Jinbi square, too, everything seemed to be business as usual. No signs of Islamophobic rioting, just people cooking all kinds of Halal cuisine for visitors. I talked to Ma Jun, a Hui (ethnic Han Muslim) woman from Inner Mongolia. While roasting some Erkuai pancakes, a local Yunnan delicacy, she told me she had seen some Uighur people coming in today for food and prayer, like on any other day. She made a plea for stronger feeling of unity among the Chinese people and says all will always be welcome under the roof of the mosque.

Questions remain, though, which no one currently has an answer to. One such question is: why Kunming? Of all places of importance to the government, was Kunming just the one with the weakest security? Were the attackers simply locals? Were they after tourists or after a particular train (the train to Shanghai was about to leave)? Kunming has almost no history of violence in the contemporary era, with the only notable event being the bombing of a bus in 2008. Then, too, Uighurs were initially blamed until it was later revealed that the lone bomber belonged to theHui minority.

Editor’s noteThis article was written by Kunming transplant Sander Van de Moortel and originally published on his blog A World of Nonging, on March 2.

1 Comment

Filed under China, Current Events, Kunming Train Station Attack, SLIDER, Uncategorized, Yunnan Province

Plugin by Social Author Bio