The global scenario for natural rubber appears to be increasing demand till the year 2020 and possibly beyond. There are indications that the natural rubber (NR) share of the total elastomers consumed globally will increase from its present level of 40 percent. It has also been projected that the prices for natural rubber will remain promising with prices likely to only fluctuate within a narrow band from prevailing prices. There is consequently a need to increase the production of natural rubber to meet the projected increase in demand over the next two decades.
As expected, the bulk of the increase is projected in Asia by the IRSG, with the production projected to increase from 8.6 million tons to 12.2 million tons or an increase of 3.6 million tons. The increases projected for both Africa and Latin America are less significant. The bulk of this projected increase will be in four countries namely Thailand (0.723 million tons), Indonesia (0.379 million tons), China (0.582 million tons) and Vietnam (0.687 million tons). Sri Lanka is far behind with the revised statistics.
The total area under NR cultivation is expected to increase from 10.5 million hectares in the year 2011 to 11.4 million hectares in the year 2019 in 11 Asian countries. The bulk of increase in hectarage will be in Indonesia (0.196 million hectares), Vietnam (0.130 million hectares) China (0.143 million hectares) and Myanmar (0.223 million hectares). It has also been reported by IRSG that there has been a dramatic increase in total new planting by 11 Asian countries during the period from the year 2005 to 2008 with more than one million hectares added during this period. This is expected to have an impact on total production from the year 2011 to 2014 when these trees come into production.
In addition to the new planting, it was also estimated by IRSG that in the year 2011, there will be 147,000 hectares replanted, in the year 2015 there will be 172,000 hectares replanted and in the year 2019 there will be 184,000 hectares replanted. The bulk of the replanting during the period from 2011 to 2019 is expected to be in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The NR share of the global elastomer consumption will increase from approximately 24 percent in the year 2011 to slightly above 46 percent in the year 2020.
The last several decades has seen the transformation of the natural rubber industry into one that is largely smallholder-based industry. The smallholders have become the driving force of the NR industry in four of the top six NR producing countries save for China and Vietnam with plantations in these countries moving out into cultivation of more lucrative and less labour intensive crops. This structural change is particularly significant because the bulk of the smallholdings are of uneconomic size with holdings being mostly less than three hectares with limited stand of trees.
Smallholders due to ingrained perceptions, familiarity with age old systems and inherent fears generally shy away from adopting state-of-the-art technologies that are extensively adopted by large plantations. It is widely accepted that smallholdings will have to transform into entities that are technology driven if the increasing demand for NR is to be met over the next decade.
Narrow range of clones planted
The planting of a single clone over large areas is potentially very risky particularly if there should be a major disease outbreak that could wipe out large areas thus adversely affecting production of rubber. The preference for planting of a single clone despite the availability of several new clones which have come on stream in the last couple of years is a challenge that needs to be addressed and overcome.
There is a need to diversify and broaden the range of clones planted from the perspective of long-term survival of the NR industry. The respective Rubber Research Institutes in NR producing countries have through relentless and concerted efforts produced several new clones which are vigorous growing and precocious high yielding clones. There are several new clones available in a number of major NR producing countries for commercial planting with yield potentials ranging from 2000 to 3000 kg per hectare per year. These recommended clones should progressively replace the existing narrow range of clones planted over large areas.
Genetic potential to commercial yields
The rubber breeders have through successive breeding programmes raised the genetic potential yield of rubber trees from 500 kg per hectare per year in the 1930s to 3000 kg per hectare at the present time. However, the commercial yields achieved in most NR countries are less than the genetic potential yield due to several factors. These include poor stand of tappable trees, presence of several runts or laggards in a given stand and reduced number of tappings. Available data in fact shows that there has been a progressive decline in annual average yields from year 2005.
Protracted immaturity period and poor stand at maturity
It is the practice to plant between 480 to 550 trees per hectare at time of planting but invariably at time of opening for tapping, six to seven years from planting the stand would have been reduced to 450 trees or less. The loss in trees from planting to maturity could be due to white root disease which is a serious problem in some countries. This is further compounded by lack of uniformity in a given stand due to use of poor quality planting materials at time of planting and the practice of protracted supplies for failed initial plantings thus resulting in a high percentage of runt trees or laggards which seldom catch up in growth or in yield productivity with plantings carried out initially.
The challenge is to ensure a high and uniform stand at time of opening for tapping if high yield productivity is to be achieved. This would be possible from planting of very vigorous and uniform planting materials through rigorous culling and selection of good quality planting materials in the nursery, using rootstocks resistant to white root disease. White root disease is increasingly becoming a serious problem in several locations and there is a need to screen a broader range of potential rootstocks for resistance to this disease so that the industry has a wider choice to choose from.
Increasing tapper shortage
This is a serious problem which is now affecting several NR producing countries even in countries such as India, Thailand and Cameroon where there is abundant labour. It is abundantly clear that rubber plantations be it smallholdings or large plantations are unable to attract workers to work as tappers even with prevailing unemployment. This problem is likely to become more serious in the years ahead with dire consequences for rubber plantations in trying to meet the increasing demand for NR. The failure of rubber plantations to attract workers could be attributed to several factors which among others are the low wages paid relative to employment in other sectors of the economy, strenuous work in mostly difficult environments particularly now that rubber cultivation has been relegated to marginal lands with planting on hilly terrain and steep slopes and the low social status accorded to rubber tappers in a given community.
Shortened economic lifespan
With proper management of the bark reserves on the rubber tree through use of appropriate exploitation systems the economic lifespan of rubber trees can be maintained up to 30 years or more. However, most smallholders tend to exploit their trees with intensive tapping systems (long cuts on daily frequency of tapping) with consequently valuable bark sacrificed without compensatory increase in yield productivity.
Since the smallholders will be the driving force in meeting the increased demand for NR it is necessary for effective transfer of appropriate exploitation systems to smallholders to enable them to better manage the bark reserves on their trees with higher yield productivity and simultaneously achieving the desired economic lifespan of 30 or more years.
(N.Yogaratnam can be contacted at email@example.com)