Natural rubber is one of the four main global commodities produced from trees. Predominantly harvested by smallholders, the industry sustains an estimated 40 million people and generates more than 300 billion dollars annually.
Experts say that adopting more sustainable practices and standards along the value chains will strengthen the resilience of struggling smallholders to shocks from climate and markets, contribute to mitigation of the climate crisis and improve smallholders’ livelihoods.
“Rubber is emblematic of the green economy and for sustainability because it has the potential to replace synthetic materials and fossil fuels while contributing to climate-change mitigation,” said Vincent Gitz, director of Programs and Platforms and director for Latin America at CIFOR-ICRAF. “It is important to raise the visibility of rubber and its potential to put in place an enabling environment and mechanisms that facilitate sustainable practices.”
He was speaking at a formal side event of the XV World Forestry Congress in Seoul, Republic of Korea held to discuss green economic growth in natural-rubber systems. The event was co-organized by the International Rubber Study Group and CIFOR-ICRAF, moderated by Salvatore Pinizzotto, secretary general of the IRSG.
Three interconnected themes absorbed the attention of the researchers, government officials and practitioners present at the event in person or virtually: the science, the economics and the policies.
CIFOR-ICRAF and other research organizations have shown that natural rubber has great potential as a renewable resource as part of a circular bioeconomy.
Rubber trees, for example, are more water-efficient compared to other commodity species, such as coconut, acacia and eucalyptus, according to Dr K.N. Raghavan, executive director of the Rubber Board of India under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
“Cultivating rubber produces few emissions because of the low need for fertilizer and also promotes soil health because farmers rarely need to till,” he said. “Natural-rubber plantations can also support a wide variety of other plants that increase biodiversity; the rubber trees are often intercropped with medicinal plants, food crops and fruit trees.”
However, increasing global temperatures are beginning to limit areas where natural rubber can grow.
“The International Rubber Research and Development Board has been focusing on breeding stronger varieties, as well as rubber modification and cultivation technologies,” which are intended to help the species adapt to the climate crisis, explained Datuk Dr Abdul Aziz, secretary-general of the Board.
Wild species of rubber from the Amazon could be used to strengthen plantation varieties.
Lekshmi Nair, head of Economics and Statistics at the International Rubber Study Group, emphasized the need for science to lead the transition to a net-zero natural-rubber sector. The Group researches collaborations that increase the percentage of natural rubber used throughout the world and that promote sustainable practices.
“At present, 47 percent of global rubber consumption is naturally sourced,” she noted, a figure from research that needs to grow if commitments by governments and companies to reducing emissions are to be met.
The science of natural-rubber plantations has a direct impact on economics because companies, such as the rubber giant Michelin, need to maintain supply and make the transition to 100 percent natural rubber by 2050. The company has already developed predictive computer models that indicate where they will be able to continue growing rubber, given climate trends.
“But at present, our priority is to reduce emissions through more efficient tyres and shipping,” said Thierry Serres, chief technical officer for Natural Rubber at Michelin.
Natural rubber is not only used in tyres, however. According to Aziz, it is used in more than 40,000 products globally, with the potential for even greater growth in the future.
Senior specialist at the Green Climate Fund, Ben Vickers, agreed, stating that the rubber industry has a 2.7 percent annual growth rate and there are no signs of slowing.
“Sustainably maintaining that supply will require the private sector to speed up the rate at which they are able to meet the goal of 100% sustainably sourced rubber in the coming decades,” he said.
Ensuring that rubber is indeed ‘natural’ and from sustainable supply chain is a critical component of that 100 percent, said Robert Nasi, CIFOR-ICRAF managing director.
“Currently, the industry is missing some kind of overarching certification or sustainability standard which would allow a sustainable rubber brand to be delivered to the market,” he warned.
The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification could help fill this gap, according to Richard Laity, the Programme’s manager for Southeast Asia.
“Already,” he noted, “the Programme is hosting conversations with the Association of South-East Asian Nations [ASEAN] and there are pilot projects in different countries.”
The ASEAN Consultative Committee on Standards and Quality in Rubber-based Systems has a working group to identify standards in countries such as Thailand and Viet Nam, which are the largest global producers of natural rubber, advised Dian Sukmajaya, senior officer for Forestry at the ASEAN Secretariat.
For the evidence of researchers and the best practices of businesses to have a big enough impact on the climate crisis, holistic policy frameworks are needed that centre on smallholders.
Smallholders, noted Aziz, produce most of the world’s natural rubber and must keep producing despite increasing climate shocks, low market prices and unpredictable situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are millions of smallholders and their families dependent on this crop,” he said, “so it is important that consumers and policymakers ensure that smallholders receive a remunerative price for their effort.”
Non-profit groups play an important role in the development of effective policies. They advocate for smallholders’ interests through forming networks, strategies, assisting with monitoring and reporting and bridging between smallholders, governments and the larger private sector, according to Mooi See Tor, deputy regional director for Southeast Asia at Proforest.
“Direct policy interventions by governments can contribute to increased forest cover while growing the natural-rubber industry,” noted Diogo Esperante, executive director of Brazil’s Associação Paulista de Produtores e Beneficiadores de Borracha (APABOR/São Paulo Association of Rubber Producers and Processors).
Brazilian national legislation obligates producers to convert 20 percent of their land to natural forests, which could be an opportunity for smallholders to intercrop natural rubber — similar to the formerly common practice in Indonesia — as an additional source of income. Natural rubber could help restore the country’s 20 million hectares of degraded pasture.
Moving forward, good policies promoting natural rubber will rely on strong networks at the local, national and international scale.
“Partnership is extremely important in the transition toward sustainable natural rubber,” said Pinizzotto. “It is a strategic resource; we need it now and we will need it in the future, so collaboration is key.”
Emily Gallagher, an integrated rural development specialist with CIFOR-ICRAF, noted the importance of inclusive and equitable supply chains wherein female labour is recognized and valued.
“Industry can lead the way to improve capacity, work–life balance, safety and security,” she said.
Other actions, including women’s committees and gender-affirmative policies, will help ensure the industry isn’t leaving half its producers out of the picture.
The side event was co-organized by the Forests, Trees and Agroforestry Partnership; the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF); the International Rubber Study Group; and the International Rubber Research and Development Board.
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