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How can rubber contribute to sustainable development in a context of climate change?

Rubber trees grow in rows in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Developing the rubber sector while meeting environment and social objectives involves both challenges and opportunities.

Lying in the shadow of oil palm in terms of sustainable development issues, the sector needs a combination of measures to progress toward sustainable development. There is now a wealth of knowledge and evidence to make this happen.

“Evolution to Revolution: New Paths for the Rubber Economy” was the theme of the World Rubber Summit held in Singapore on March 18-19, 2019, organized by the International Rubber Study Group (IRSG). The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) participated in the summit and I presented during a session titled Managing sustainability performances in the rubber value chain.

Plantations of all major tropical commodities – especially oil palm, timber, pulp, cocoa and rubber – are expanding quickly, creating opportunities for development while also raising concerns about impacts on the environment, landscapes and livelihoods.

FTA has identified plantations as a research priority. Rubber is a particularly interesting example; plantations are continually expanding with a very concentrated sector downstream (the majority being a small number of tire producers), and a production sector heavily dominated by smallholders.

Read also: Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in Myanmar

Rubber at a crossroads

The sector is confronted with a range of issues when it comes to its impact on and contribution to sustainable development.

Land-use change: Rubber is the most rapidly expanding tree crop within mainland Southeast Asia. Additional land will be required to meet future rubber demand, which could be in forested areas or on mosaic landscapes, swidden agriculture and agroforest, though there is also potential to reduce land-use change and deforestation through more intensive systems – both in terms of rubber and other associated production depending on situations.

Biodiversity: In many areas rubber expansion has been on former natural forest, including sometimes in protected areas. The effects of converting primary and secondary forests to rubber monoculture are well understood – it decreases species richness and changes species composition. However, the biodiversity value of swidden agriculture and of mosaic landscapes is less well known and the effects of their conversion to rubber plantations has been assessed in less detail.

Climate change mitigation: The potential contribution of rubber to climate change mitigation depends on what it replaces and the way it is conducted. The impact is generally negative when rubber replaces primary or secondary forests, but positive when planted on very degraded land. The impact can be neutral or slightly positive when rubber replaces swidden systems with a short fallow period, but negative when it displaces swidden systems that will then encroach on forest.

Water and erosion: Effects again depend on what rubber replaces. For instance, there can be less fog interception relative to complex canopies. Conversion to rubber can increase evapotranspiration relative to native vegetation. Rubber risks depleting deep-soil moisture during the dry season with effects on groundwater and streamflow. In mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, plantations on steep slopes have negative impacts on soil erosion, landslide risk and water quality. There are also indications of impacts from rubber plantation runoff on water quality and aquatic biodiversity.

A hevea tree is seen in Ngazi, DRC. Photo by A. Fassio/CIFOR

Social issues: Production is still dominated by smallholders in most countries, especially in “traditional” production areas. The establishment of rubber replacing swidden agriculture has substantially increased smallholder income in Southwest China and Northern Thailand. In non-traditional areas, such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and some African countries, the expansion of rubber often takes the form of larger-scale plantations – which could disadvantage rural communities, with some reports of evictions and of poor labor conditions in large-scale plantations.

Resilience to price fluctuations: Rubber prices can be volatile, which is a concern for long-term investment and has consequences for the sustainability of economic and production models. Smallholders who are purely engaged in rubber are very exposed, especially if they are not supported by public policies. Smallholders with diversified systems are the most resilient. Paradoxically, large estates may be more exposed due to monoculture and having to pay a workforce.

Climate change adaptation: Until recently it was difficult to predict the incidence of climate change on violent precipitation and winds, to which plantations are vulnerable. There is also a need for more research on the impacts of climate change on the distribution of pests and diseases. Diversified systems are more resilient to shocks of any kind, including from climate change, and can contribute to adaptation at a landscape level.

Read also: Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Ways forward 

Given these challenges, the potential impacts of rubber expansion and the contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement ultimately depend on three factors. First is where expansion occurs, and the land use or land cover that rubber replaces. Second, it involves production systems, yield and overall efficiency, including the use of rubber wood, as well as impacts on water and biodiversity. The third factor is benefits for smallholders and local populations, contributing to economic and social resilience.

A range of objectives could pave the way forward for sustainable development.

  • Limiting negative impacts of land-use change
  • Regulating land concessions and contract farming
  • Supporting smallholders and farmer groups
  • Promoting and improving diversified systems

To meet these objectives, it would be necessary to see a combination of measures.

  • Research in development
  • Extension services aiming for high yields and quality, as well as diversified production systems
  • Land-use zoning and planning
  • Enabling regulatory environment on concessions and contracts
  • Recognition of sustainable practices, including through corporate social and environmental responsibility and certification
  • Support and incentives for smallholders when engaging in sustainable development, such as secure tenure, technology transfer, economic risk mitigation, payment for environmental services

The rubber sector needs measures connecting downstream with upstream, involving various stakeholders, building on science and knowledge and promoting transfer in a practical way. The newly launched Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) will hopefully address this.

Knowledge and evidence could enable the transition in a proactive way, contributing to sustainable development outcomes. FTA stands ready to work with the GPSNR and to help support the sector move toward sustainable development, “from evolution to revolution”.

By Vincent Gitz, FTA Director


The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

  • Home
  • How can rubber contribute to sustainable development in a context of climate change?

How can rubber contribute to sustainable development in a context of climate change?

Posted by

FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Rubber trees grow in rows in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Developing the rubber sector while meeting environment and social objectives involves both challenges and opportunities.

Lying in the shadow of oil palm in terms of sustainable development issues, the sector needs a combination of measures to progress toward sustainable development. There is now a wealth of knowledge and evidence to make this happen.

“Evolution to Revolution: New Paths for the Rubber Economy” was the theme of the World Rubber Summit held in Singapore on March 18-19, 2019, organized by the International Rubber Study Group (IRSG). The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) participated in the summit and I presented during a session titled Managing sustainability performances in the rubber value chain.

Plantations of all major tropical commodities – especially oil palm, timber, pulp, cocoa and rubber – are expanding quickly, creating opportunities for development while also raising concerns about impacts on the environment, landscapes and livelihoods.

FTA has identified plantations as a research priority. Rubber is a particularly interesting example; plantations are continually expanding with a very concentrated sector downstream (the majority being a small number of tire producers), and a production sector heavily dominated by smallholders.

Read also: Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in Myanmar

Rubber at a crossroads

The sector is confronted with a range of issues when it comes to its impact on and contribution to sustainable development.

Land-use change: Rubber is the most rapidly expanding tree crop within mainland Southeast Asia. Additional land will be required to meet future rubber demand, which could be in forested areas or on mosaic landscapes, swidden agriculture and agroforest, though there is also potential to reduce land-use change and deforestation through more intensive systems – both in terms of rubber and other associated production depending on situations.

Biodiversity: In many areas rubber expansion has been on former natural forest, including sometimes in protected areas. The effects of converting primary and secondary forests to rubber monoculture are well understood – it decreases species richness and changes species composition. However, the biodiversity value of swidden agriculture and of mosaic landscapes is less well known and the effects of their conversion to rubber plantations has been assessed in less detail.

Climate change mitigation: The potential contribution of rubber to climate change mitigation depends on what it replaces and the way it is conducted. The impact is generally negative when rubber replaces primary or secondary forests, but positive when planted on very degraded land. The impact can be neutral or slightly positive when rubber replaces swidden systems with a short fallow period, but negative when it displaces swidden systems that will then encroach on forest.

Water and erosion: Effects again depend on what rubber replaces. For instance, there can be less fog interception relative to complex canopies. Conversion to rubber can increase evapotranspiration relative to native vegetation. Rubber risks depleting deep-soil moisture during the dry season with effects on groundwater and streamflow. In mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, plantations on steep slopes have negative impacts on soil erosion, landslide risk and water quality. There are also indications of impacts from rubber plantation runoff on water quality and aquatic biodiversity.

A hevea tree is seen in Ngazi, DRC. Photo by A. Fassio/CIFOR

Social issues: Production is still dominated by smallholders in most countries, especially in “traditional” production areas. The establishment of rubber replacing swidden agriculture has substantially increased smallholder income in Southwest China and Northern Thailand. In non-traditional areas, such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and some African countries, the expansion of rubber often takes the form of larger-scale plantations – which could disadvantage rural communities, with some reports of evictions and of poor labor conditions in large-scale plantations.

Resilience to price fluctuations: Rubber prices can be volatile, which is a concern for long-term investment and has consequences for the sustainability of economic and production models. Smallholders who are purely engaged in rubber are very exposed, especially if they are not supported by public policies. Smallholders with diversified systems are the most resilient. Paradoxically, large estates may be more exposed due to monoculture and having to pay a workforce.

Climate change adaptation: Until recently it was difficult to predict the incidence of climate change on violent precipitation and winds, to which plantations are vulnerable. There is also a need for more research on the impacts of climate change on the distribution of pests and diseases. Diversified systems are more resilient to shocks of any kind, including from climate change, and can contribute to adaptation at a landscape level.

Read also: Challenges and opportunities for sustainable rubber in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Ways forward 

Given these challenges, the potential impacts of rubber expansion and the contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement ultimately depend on three factors. First is where expansion occurs, and the land use or land cover that rubber replaces. Second, it involves production systems, yield and overall efficiency, including the use of rubber wood, as well as impacts on water and biodiversity. The third factor is benefits for smallholders and local populations, contributing to economic and social resilience.

A range of objectives could pave the way forward for sustainable development.

  • Limiting negative impacts of land-use change
  • Regulating land concessions and contract farming
  • Supporting smallholders and farmer groups
  • Promoting and improving diversified systems

To meet these objectives, it would be necessary to see a combination of measures.

  • Research in development
  • Extension services aiming for high yields and quality, as well as diversified production systems
  • Land-use zoning and planning
  • Enabling regulatory environment on concessions and contracts
  • Recognition of sustainable practices, including through corporate social and environmental responsibility and certification
  • Support and incentives for smallholders when engaging in sustainable development, such as secure tenure, technology transfer, economic risk mitigation, payment for environmental services

The rubber sector needs measures connecting downstream with upstream, involving various stakeholders, building on science and knowledge and promoting transfer in a practical way. The newly launched Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) will hopefully address this.

Knowledge and evidence could enable the transition in a proactive way, contributing to sustainable development outcomes. FTA stands ready to work with the GPSNR and to help support the sector move toward sustainable development, “from evolution to revolution”.

By Vincent Gitz, FTA Director


The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Fighting fires with academic narrative

Fighting fires with academic narrative

Canal blocking is seen from above in Dompas, Riau. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Land and buildings are burned after fires spread to Sebangau national park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

Fire and haze, a recurring problem in Indonesia, must be addressed not only within the country but also on a regional level, according to Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Herry Purnomo. 

The issue, which often sparks a debate of environmental conservation versus livelihoods, needs to be resolved by taking into account the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability.

Purnomo and other scientists working in the field hope relevant research, leading to outputs that create an academic narrative to inform policymakers, will create the possibility of legal changes. This, in turn, could help to alleviate the annual blazes.

Recognizing the problems at hand in terms of communication and synergy, CIFOR and partners are coordinating a National Policy Dialogue on Laws and Best Practices for Reducing Fire and Haze, in collaboration with the University of Riau, set to be held in Pekanbaru, Riau, on Aug. 30. The event will come close to home for many participants, as the province has seen more than its fair share of fire and haze events.

Read more: Peatland fire policy: From past to present

The dialogue aims to maximize opportunities provided by the Indonesian legal system at national and subnational levels to reduce fires and share lessons learned from best practices, and is expected to develop ways to strengthen laws to reduce fires and haze, communicate strategies from communities and companies, and support common action among ASEAN member countries.

Purnomo sat down with FTA to discuss the value of the national dialogue and what he hoped would be achieved between stakeholders.

How does research inform the debate about fire and haze in Indonesia? 

Firefighters battle a blaze at night outside Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

This event is part of a UK Department for International Development (DFID) project called the Political Economy Study of Fire and Haze – carried out by CIFOR and partners, and also supported by FTA – mostly located in Riau province. For two years we have been working together with the parliament in Riau as well as district level government.

The research has led to outputs that have created an academic narrative, which has led to the possibility of changes in the law. Last year we provided research inputs for this year’s legislation program through a legal drafting workshop and consultative meetings with various stakeholders including governments, parliament members, private sectors, NGOs/CSOs and academics. We then developed the national dialogue to communicate and also to scale up and scale out the project, not only in Riau.

Peat fires are seen as a means to quickly and cheaply clear land for plantations. But what about the economic and social consequences that result from the haze, which also cost money?

CIFOR is working to find the right balance between conservation and economic development. If we stopped burning altogether, it would be difficult for local people to have a livelihood. Local authorities also need to help find the appropriate balance. To me there’s no magic formula unless you can understand the situation in a particular area and move forward.

We can incentivize other ways of clearing the land and ‘disincentivize’ the burning. In the local law we have put that local governments need to invest, working together with the national agency for technology application, to find the cheapest technology for preparing land without burning.

Canal blocking is seen from above in Dompas, Riau. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR

There also needs to be a willingness  from the community. It’s not cheap at all. You need to learn; you need new technology. Communities need champions.

Why is CIFOR holding the event in Riau?

When fire starts in Riau, it causes haze problems not only in Indonesia but also in Malaysia. Meanwhile, fires in South Sumatra can cause problems in Singapore. Fires typically start in Riau, then Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua. Whatever happens becomes not only a domestic problem but a regional problem.

Why are laws to protect against expanding plantations on peatland not always well enforced in Indonesia? 

Because of patronage. Who burns the land? On the ground you can see farmers. But who owns the land? Actually not those farmers. The land is owned or managed by what we call oknum or cukong, free riders and rent seekers in economic terms. Oknum want to obtain a lot of benefits without appropriate investment. Oknum can be investors, scientists, members of parliament, government officials, police, members of the army, corporate staff… They are linked with lawmakers, and linked with bad police. So it’s a bit complicated on the ground.

Corruption is often involved. But it’s getting better in Indonesia. We have been giving inputs to the law draft at the local level, to provide incentives, and provide more equipment for the police to better carry out law enforcement.

Currently it’s hard for the police to find evidence about who burns land, because to find it, they have to go to remote areas. I went there; I had to rent a 4WD car and it took four days just to reach the area. For example, if there is land burning in a national park, it’s difficult to get there.

You need to spend money if you want to understand the actors. But there is not much money available at the local level to prevent fire and haze. Can we give more support to the local police, to make it possible for them to find evidence? In court we need proof. Proof is important for laying blame.

What needs to be done to ensure that laws and regulations are upheld by the central governments, local administrations, smallholders, the private sector and other actors?

That’s something we included in our inputs to the local law drafts – that local governments have to provide support and money to the police, and also to improve the capacity of the judges. There’s a big difference between environmental charges and criminal charges.

We are working step by step. From the evidence on the ground, when we tried to develop canal blocking or improve farmer organizations, the districts said they didn’t have a budget for it. They said there was no legal umbrella, and asked why they had to put aside money for it.

So, we thought, why don’t we help make a legal basis for them to be able to provide money for this issue? That is the purpose behind the national dialogue.

Army officers and firefighters try to extinguish fires in peatland areas, outside Palangka Raya. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

What are some of the best practices that should be shared and implemented by these actors? 

We have several examples of community-based restoration. In the private sector, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) has a program and APRIL has the Fire-Free Villages program. So I invited them to share lessons and challenges.

Restoration in nine villages, for example, costs a lot through this type of program. A hundred villages would cost a lot more. The companies would like the government to help by taking responsibility for giving incentives for preparing land without burning. It’s good but we need to out-scale.

APP, for example, has 500 villages to deal with inside and around its concession. It’s impossible without involving public money and public investment.

What needs to be done regionally – across ASEAN – to address this issue? 

A lot of high-level talks happen but there needs to be more done on the ground. I met with the second secretary of Singapore to discuss what Singapore could do to collaborate and invited them to the national dialogue. Government and private sector representatives from Malaysia and Singapore are expected to attend the national dialogue, as well as academics, and representatives from the ASEAN Secretariat. The Singapore, Thai and Malaysian embassies have been invited.

There is a vision, led by Thailand, for a “haze-free ASEAN by 2020.” It’s very ambitious. We also have a transboundary agreement on haze that has become law. But to me it seems like there is not much action on the ground. We want them to be more involved in the on-the-ground activities. If you have something on the ground, people will respect you. Why not have a district model – one or two hectares showing how fire prevention and livelihood improvement can work together?

It’s part of a huge debate between peat conservation and oil palm. Not only between government and private sectors, but actually among government representatives themselves – for example, with the minister of environment on the one hand and the minister of industry on the other hand. It’s about how to find synergy.

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA Communications and Editorial Coordinator. 


This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.


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