Cut a groove in the trunk of Hevea brasiliensis and a white sap flows. This is natural or wild rubber, a versatile material long used by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon where it natively grows. And today, decades after the height of exploitative commercial trade, communities are reclaiming the rubber harvest for social and ecological benefit, supported by research and growing international interest in sourcing sustainable rubber.
Rubber as a global commodity
In the 1800s, rubber became essential to industry and war. Railroad and steam engine parts, waterproof shoes, tents, and prosthetics all required rubber. Then came tires, enabled by Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process. Demand for bicycle tires ignited rubber demand in the 1890s. Then came cars. In Brazil, trade in wild rubber became increasingly exploitative, with hard-living rubber tappers travelling rivers and roads through the natural forest to collect the sap and bring it to port.
Production might have continued this way but for a documented case of biopiracy. In 1876, an Englishman named Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil. Tree seedlings raised in London’s Kew Gardens were sent to Southeast Asia, where plantation production took off and effectively ended the wild rubber boom.
A rubber plantation in Kerala, India. Image by M. Arunprasad/Wikimedia Commons.
Today, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia produce about 70 percent of the value of the natural rubber trade, which continues to enable modern life. Three quarters of all production goes to tires for cars, trucks, and aircraft. And demand is still rising, with the number of cars on the road worldwide projected to double by 2050.
Rubber's forest footprint
Rubber plantations displace tropical forests, which are cut back to establish new monocultures. This creates a host of problems. Monocultures threaten the habitat of endangered species like tigers and gibbons and of pollinators like birds and bats. Their chemical inputs run off and compromise drinking water sources. They also attract pests and invasive species, which pose a threat to nearby natural forests.
In recent years these issues have increased in Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia and Laos. Between 2000 and 20016, rubber plantations expanded over forests and agricultural land from 8.8 million ha to 12.9 million ha—an area the size of Greece. Land grabs and human-rights abuses concern NGOs monitoring the situation. Without intervention, experts forecast similar problems in the Congo Basin, the next front in rubber’s expansion.
Rubber tapper in Myanmar showing off a sustainable harvest. Image from WWF.
The forest-positive opportunity
Like coffee and cacao, rubber can be a key player in solutions that favor forests and people. Gradually, smallholders in Southeast Asia are adopting rubber agroforestry as an alternative to monocultures. Between rows of trees, for example, farmers can grow crops like tea, cinnamon, or ginger, raise livestock, or plant other trees for timber. All these options present farmers with opportunities to support biodiversity, reduce chemical pollution and erosion, harvest food, and diversify their income.
Meanwhile, in the Amazon, a small trade in wild rubber has reemerged at prices that reflect its value as a conservation commodity. Unlike a farmed tree, wild rubber can produce latex for upwards of a century. If that rubber is highly valued, communities are empowered with an economic case to keep the forest and the rubber trees standing and healthy. A vanguard of ethical companies are sourcing wild rubber in support of this forest-positive potential.
Currently, rubber-based industries are moving toward sustainable sourcing. The Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i) is an emerging voluntary standard for rubber supply chains, while FSC-certified rubber aims to ensure a deforestation-free product. Prominent shoe and clothing companies are on board, as are major tire companies that have released statements on sustainable procurement policies. A purchasing commitment with a Partner Forest is a next-level commitment that ensures total supply chain transparency and co-benefits to communities leading forest conservation
An example of a sustainable model for natural rubber smallholder farming taken from a 2022 report titled Sustainability in the Natural Rubber Supply Chain - Getting the Basics Right.
Learn more about rubber
Learn more about sustainable natural rubber supply chains by reading this 2022 SPOTT report
Expand your understanding on rubber by reading this Kids Frontier article
Read about the threat that unchecked rubber plantations pose to native species by reading this Mongabay article
Find out more about rubber and its potential use in agroforestry systems by reading this Mongabay article