Poorly planned rubber production means that meeting society’s demand for natural rubber is leading to large scale conversion of some of the most important tropical forests in the world.
Rubber is a key driver of forest conversion and degradation in many important landscapes. Due to the complex and opaque nature of the value chain, it has received less attention than other tropical commodities, and issues have been harder to tackle.
It is predicted that the demand for natural rubber will increase to 18 million tonnes by 2024, which would, without new controls, lead to the conversion of a further 8.5 million hectares of tropical forests, mainly in south-east Asian Biodiversity Hotspots such as Sundaland, Indo-Burma, Wallacea and in West Africa. As land is increasingly under pressure from a range of commodities in these areas, it is probable that – as seen in the last rubber expansion cycle 15 years ago – that this would include encroachment into Protected Areas. Such forests are essential for the health and wellbeing of communities and vital for biodiversity, including Critically Endangered bird species including the White-shouldered Ibis, and globally threatened mammals. As well as damage to the forests themselves, herbicides and pesticides from rubber plantations run into waterways killing many freshwater species.
Sectoral change is needed. Due to the time it takes for new plantings to come into production, expansion takes place when prices are high, leading to extensive forest conversion and land-grabbing, but by the time the new plantings come into production prices have dropped.
In addition, the majority of production comes from smallholders, who are often in debt to the traders that fund the expansion, with a cycle of small returns that reduce investment and, therefore, production efficiency. In some areas, movement towards plantation production under poor landscape management can lead to larger scale conversion and further reduction in income to smallholders.
Although there has been pressure from the automotive and tyre sector for “change,” these companies are normally many stages removed from what is happening on the ground.
It is only by the whole value chain coming together that we can find workable solutions to ensure that the rubber we all use doesn’t come at unacceptable environmental and social costs.
BirdLife, as part of Trillion Trees, has been active for the last four years in bringing together the whole of the natural rubber value chain – from producers, traders, processors, to the manufacturers and vehicle makers – together with civil society and academia. All stakeholders can now discuss sustainability issues from all perspectives, and then not only make commitments on what is needed, but collectively agree on how they can be brought about. We then plan with individual groups to see how to help pilot and test new approaches, analyse the results and feed them back into the planning process.
This work has led to the establishment of the Global Platform of Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) – already including more than 30 companies, who between them represent the bulk of the world’s tyre production. The GPSNR has committed to work to harmonise standards to improve respect for human rights, prevent land-grabbing and deforestation, protect biodiversity and water resources, improve yields and improve supply chain transparency and traceability.
Trust and openness towards different perspectives are key, necessary elements when ensuring an open dialogue between different stakeholders. Bringing industry and NGOs together in a long established industry such as that of Natural Rubber has had its challenges. Throughout the process BirdLife has been a constructive voice. Together with others, BirdLife has helped build trust among GPSNR stakeholders to ensure that they are working for the collective good, and contributing in guiding our strategic planning. – Stefano Savi, Director, Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber –