By Dr. N.Yogaratnam
The rubber industry of the country, like all other natural rubber (NR) producing countries, is currently enjoying a bonanza in the form of record rubber prices. The key factor for such performance is the extent of the demand-supply gap. Both the demand and supply depend on large number of factors, many of which are easy to identify.
Increased output resulting from favourable weather and political stability in leading rubber producing countries and revival of abandoned rubber plantings due to continued high prices and on the demand side, slowing down of the GDP growth following sharp rises in oil prices and related aspects are some aspects that are bound to have an impact on the long-term stability of rubber prices.
The rising NR price may also promote the tendency of NR consuming countries to go for more and more synthetic rubber (SR) in place of the high-cost NR component in their products and the growing demand for reclaimed rubber and the hunt for alternatives to NR are also matters of great concern for NR producers.
Alternatives to NR
In the hunt for NR alternatives, it had been the desert shrub guayule that came to the centre stage in the wake of NR short supply, whenever it happens. The major hurdle in the way of its commercial exploitation had been the comparatively higher processing costs and cheaper availability of NR. But it appears that the situation has changed today with the NR prices continuing to rise. It is believed that Guayule has also the distinct advantages of not having any protein allergy problem and many products like tyres can also be made out of it.
Another potential alternative is an annual plant, Taraxacum kok-saghyz or Russian dandelion, conveniently known as TKS. This plant, TKS, has the latex sap in its roots and can be densely cultivated. Harvesting the sap can be automated and the annual crop supply can be adjusted to demand, unlike the perennial tree Hevea. It is estimated that about one million pounds of rubber could be produced annually with 10,000 acres of TKS crop. The by-products of the extraction are reported to be about 2.3 million gallons of ethanol, an alternative fuel that could be sold to offset the cost. In any case, it has been reported that it requires a significant amount of agronomic work before commercialization. Sunflower and rubber producing tobacco plants are also emerging as potential challengers to NR.
Apollo Vredestein, manufacturer of tyres for cars, motorcycles, bicycles and agricultural applications, is involved in research into sources of natural rubber as a partner in the EU-PEARLS project. EU-PEARLS is a joint project between several European research organisations and industrial partners which focuses on research into two plants, the Russian dandelion and the desert plant guayule.
Initial studies show that both the Russian dandelion and guayule are a good alternative to the rubber tree in terms of their properties. The goal is to make it possible to produce natural rubber in Europe. The research results will be presented in September 2012 during the closing conference of the EU-PEARLS project in Wageningen.
National NR production policy
The NR industry therefore needs a national dynamic policy to ensure its long-term viability and to meet the growing demand of the domestic rubber products sector which is currently reeling under the NR shock.
Sri Lanka should therefore, adopt a national rubber production policy. This should take into account all aspects linked to production like nursery, pre and post-planting and harvesting practices. The accepted National Rubber Production Policy should be strictly adopted by all those who are partners in the development of the Sri Lankan NR industry. The corporate sector with about 30% of the rubber extent under their management should also fall in line.
One of the important strategies that should be adopted under this policy is to identify technologies for bridging the gap between the present national productivity level of about 1500 kg/ha and the achievable productivity level of about 2500 kg/ha/year and ensure adoption of such technologies by the corporate sector as well as the smallholder sector.
The first step in this strategy should be a national survey to identify the plantings/holdings with low productivity levels and also to identify the cause for low productivity in such plantings/holdings. These may be due to individual, organisational or technological deficiencies. Having identified these, the next step would be motivation and skills development/training and advisory services for effective adoption of modern, accepted production technologies that are relevant to the identified needs for enhanced productivity.
The mature yields and harvest index may be increased by technologies related to exploitation. The advent of Ethephon as a yield stimulant has also enabled earlier exploitation of trees at girths smaller than conventional girths. A minimum of 50cm was for long considered the norm before exploitation could commence. The current thinking is that commercial areas could be exploited at smaller girths provided adequate management inputs are supplied.
In fact with controlled use of low concentration of ethephon, trees of a girth of 42cm or over are being exploited economically in some countries. Exploitation devices such as ‘RRIMFLOW’ effectively used in some countries can be used at least in low productivity rubber plantings.
A policy of phased out national replanting programme should be formulated and strictly enforced. The estate sector is expected to follow an annual 3% replanting programme but this does not happen. This sector has a huge backlog for replanting. As the prices are attractive, there is a tendency to prolong the replanting cycle. A 30-year span is considered as the economic life of a tree. Let us not deviate from this for short-term benefits. This is the time for the government to enforce and encourage the growers to go for the much needed replanting.
Planting materials with yield potential in the region of 2,500 to 3,000 kg/ha/yr are available in Sri Lanka. If these can replace the old trees, the average productivity can be raised from about 1500 kg/ha to 2,500 kg/ha. Moreover, the newer clones are more vigorous in growth and tappability can be achieved 12 to 18 months earlier than was seen with older clones. Therefore, this should be considered as a national programme and adequate replanting funds allotted to cover the entire replanting cost and phased out replanting should be made mandatory.
The next important strategy needed in the national NR production policy is the expansion of rubber cultivation in non-traditional areas since new areas suitable for successful rubber are no longer available in the traditional rubber growing tracts for large scale production. The potential replanting areas under some regional plantation company’s management have gone into oil palm. The Southern Province has large extents of land with vast potential for rubber growing viz. Moneragala, Bibile and Hambantota.
The Moneragala Rubber Development Project that has already been set in motion aims at bringing 40,000 hectares unused and abandoned land under rubber cultivation based on smallholder farm model with public/ private sector support, phased over a 10-year period.
If the targets are met, this should provide additionally above 80,000 mt of rubber per year. Annual targets of 5,000 hectares had been fixed but, it appears that the targets may not be achieved. With the present extent of 115,000 ha, the planned planting of 40,000 ha in Moneragala should bring the total extent to 155,000 ha by year 2016. Still, there is a deficit of about 115,000 ha if we are to regain our position of 270,000 ha in early 60s, when Sri Lanka had been the fourth leading global rubber producer. We have a long way to go from the present ninth position. Uneconomical tea lands in the low and mid-country are also potential areas for rubber planting.
The success of any business depends on productivity in all areas of its focus. Land and human productivity in rubber plantings/holdings depend heavily on new knowledge, technology and people skills. Technology adopted by our competitors change rapidly and skill levels of competing countries are quite high. In respect of productivity, India with similar agro-climatic conditions as in Sri Lanka, occupies the leading position in global rubber productivity, being 1,835 kg/ha in year 2011. The problem in Sri Lanka is lack of new knowledge, appropriate skills and application of modern technologies in a systematic manner.
In conclusion, although the Government of Sri Lanka and the rubber industry are very keen to extend rubber growing to non-traditional areas in Uva and in the Northern and Eastern Provinces where land and labour are assumed to be non-limiting factors, yet, there are several constraints to successful implementation of such plans and in any case these programmes may not meet the short to medium-term NR requirements.