Tag Archives: sustainability

New Research: Rubber Expansion Threatens Biodiversity and Livelihoods

hike

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

Energy and Environmentalism on the Mekong: Time to Reach Across the Aisle

In recent years, two powerful narratives have emerged from mainland Southeast Asia. Generally speaking, discussions of the region focus around one of two topics: economic development and environmental degradation. For example, by typing “Mekong” into Google News the first page of results will show articles like this and this. As one can imagine, these two views of Southeast Asia are often in opposition and proponents of each rarely see eye to eye, sometimes going so far as to ignore the other side altogether. Recently, the battleground of these two narratives has been the construction sites of hydroelectric dams (both real and planned) that dot the Mekong River. Proponents of economic development see these dams as a necessary component to continued economic growth in the region. On the other hand, environmentalists point to the unknown ecological costs of the Mekong dams and argue that there are hidden costs to supposedly cheap hydropower. What is lost in the increasingly polarized game of right and wrong is a larger, more nuanced picture of the region and its needs. Some say that the Mekong needs dams while others argue that the region needs better protection measures for its natural resources. But what Southeast Asia really needs is for development fans and environmentalists to stop ignoring each other, and to restart the dialogue. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, GMS, Mekong River, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Uncategorized, water

Rubber and Sustainability in Southern Yunnan: A Tale of Two Villages

Will Feinberg compares Xishuangbanna’s rubber and sustainabilty in two of southern Yunnan’s ethnic villages. One monocrops while the other hedges.

Driving past new stores and half-built housing developments, you take a right into the forest. Keep going. The farther you drive, the worse the road gets until you burst through another patch of palms trees and cross a stream. Where are you? You’re in Mandian Village, just outside Jinghong, Yunnan and  right in the heart of Chinese rubber country.

Introduced to the area in the 1960s by the central government, rubber is big business in southern Yunnan. Large state plantations have steadily given way to private enterprises and the region has seen a proliferation of rubber planting in the past twenty years. Today in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region, which Jinghong is the seat of, rubber plantations already make up almost one fifth of all land.

While the environmental costs have been heavy, the rubber explosion has done wonders for Xishuangbanna’s economy. For rubber farmers in Mengla Country, for instance, the average household income is close to $30,000/year, comparable to places like Shanghai or Guangzhou. The economic benefits of rubber harvesting were quite clear to me while traveling through the region late last month. During the trip, I visited two villages that I had been to in 2011. In both cases, rubber has transformed the local economy, however one village was clearly better off than the other. Why?

The first village I visited was the aforementioned Mandian Village. Mandian is largely inhabited by people of the Dai ethnicity, with a 20-family group of Yi people living in an adjacent settlement. Mandian, like many other villages in the area, practices rubber cultivation and relies on rubber as its main source of income. According to villagers there, the Dai started harvesting rubber over a decade ago, while the Yi settlement began their rubber industry only within the last few years. For the village economy as a whole, rubber has had a positive influence. Per capita incomes have risen as well as household consumption and the money from rubber has allowed the town to build a new school.

However, as rubber is Mandian’s only cash crop, the village’s fortunes are now beholden to the world rubber market. Nothing illustrates this better than what happened to the village in 2012. Last year, the bottom fell out on the rubber market and the price of raw rubber dropped by half, going from 30 yuan per pound (1 US dollar is roughly equal to 6 Chinese yuan ) to 15 yuan per pound. Two villagers that I interviewed described the effects. One, a middle-aged Dai woman told of how most of the villagers who harvest rubber had to work overtime to scratch out living and the quality of life dropped for many families. Though because the Dai also plant rice, no one in the village went hungry. A young Yi woman that I spoke to also described how the economic hardships as a result of the rubber crash delayed the building of their house. The Yi, who were recently resettled as a result of the building of the Jinghong Dam, were forced to return to their old fields as a way of producing food during 2012 crash and without these fields, many villagers might have gone hungry. The fall of the rubber price in 2012 was not isolated just to Mandian village. The drop was felt in villages like Mandian all over southern Yunnan and in other rubber producing areas like Malaysia and Brazil. But there was at least one village that was comparatively isolated from the crash’s effects.

Nanpanzhong Village sits on the slope of a ridge just an hour’s drive from the Burmese border. A collection of some 120 families, Nanpanzhong is an Aini village. The Aini are a branch of the Hani/Akha minority, a nomadic, transboundary ethnicity that typically practice subsistence agriculture in the mountains of Southeast Asia. What makes the Aini of Nanpanzhong special, aside from their incredible hospitality, is their economy. Like the Dai and Yi of Mandian, the Aini also harvest rubber, but the role that rubber plays in the village’s economy is quite different. In an interview with the village mayor, I learned that money from rubber harvesting makes up only 30% of the town’s income. Instead, their primary source of income, by a long shot, is pigs. The town raises hundreds of short-eared swine which command quite a high price in China’s metropolises. According to the mayor, his pigs’ pork sells for 130 yuan/pound, many times higher than the price of normal pork. In fact, most of the village’s pork can only be found in places like Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai; people in Jinghong can’t even afford it.

Pork sales now net the village almost sixty percent of its total income, but Nanpanzhong’s foray into the meat industry is a rather recent affair: villagers only began raising pigs in 2003. Its impact, however, has been astounding. According to the mayor, the average household income was hovering around 500 yuan per year at the turn of the millennium. Thirteen years later, that number as skyrocketed to almost 8,000 yuan and now, the mayor claims, Nanpanzhongcun is the envy of the surrounding valleys.

 When the rubber price plummeted last year, Nanpanzhong was largely unaffected. Of course, the mayor explains, villagers feel the effects when the rubber price fluctuates, but certainly less so than other places. The village is largely self-sustaining for food and the money earned from rubber, livestock and tea (which makes up a tenth of the village’s income) is used for electronics, vehicles and building materials. Both the mayor and villagers that I spoke with were convinced of the Nanpanzhong model’s superiority.

The evidence is hard to disagree with. Not considering the environmental concerns, of which there are many, rubber can be an unsustainable enterprise. Mandian, and hundreds of villages like it, have had a mixed experience with rubber. While it brought the village a new school and the villagers a higher standard of living, Mandian’s reliance on rubber and the fluctuations of the global market brought hardships to the village last year, forcing some villagers to leave in search of food. On the other hand is Nanpanzhong’s model. Rubber, while an important source of income for villagers, is part of a healthy balance. With families growing their own food and relying on two cash crops (rubber and tea) and livestock for their income, the villagers of Nanpanzhong are largely insulated from greater trends in the rubber market. The village’s exact model may not be able to be replicated in every village in Yunnan, but its general ideas can. Pairing rubber with a second cash crop and agricultural self-reliance are concepts that could give protection to villages like Mandian and offer a more economically sustainable path for thousands of people in the region.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Economic development, Food, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Yunnan Province