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Where the Rubber Meets the Orangutan

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 28, 2015

orangutan_6

A lot of shoppers now routinely reach for fair-trade coffee. Many also look for foods that contain no palm oil, a notorious destroyer of tropical forests. Few, however, think about the tires on their car. But the typical car tire is 28 percent natural rubber. It comes from rubber trees grown on plantations, and those plantations are rapidly replacing forests across vast swaths of Southeast Asia.

According to a new paper published in Conservation Letters, the rubber tree is now the fastest-growing crop in Southeast Asia. Car tires consume 70 percent of the production, and demand is booming, largely because of the rapid rise of the Chinese economy. Without major changes, the rubber trade is on track to eat up between 10 million and 21 million acres of tropical forest over the next decade.

The larger figure works out to more than 30,000 square miles of forest, an area roughly the size of South Carolina, and it will mean taking down habitat for a stunning diversity of species, from orchids to elegant sunbirds.

Many of the forests that are likely to become rubber plantations are hot spots for plant and animal diversity. When the Sundaland region of Borneo and Sumatra goes, for instance, it’s likely to take the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan with it. The cattle-like banteng, with fewer than 5,000 individuals surviving across Southeast Asia, is another likely victim.

Oddly, the threat from rubber production has mostly escaped public scrutiny, even as other industries operating in tropical habitats—coffee growing, palm oil production, and timber harvesting—have come under heavy pressure to adopt more responsible practices. Perhaps the rubber trade just seems too far removed from our lives because we don’t eat or drink it.  Or maybe it’s got something to do with our moral blind spot about automobiles. But with rubber tree plantations already occupying about 71 percent as much former habitat in Southeast Asia as do palm oil plantations, it’s unlikely that this obscurity will last.

One partial remedy, according to the University of Anglia’s Eleanor Warren-Thomas, lead author of the new study, would be a certification system like those now in place for the lumber and palm oil industries. Without some such certification scheme, she said, “it’s difficult to think of how you could influence large parts of the rubber production industry.” These “sustainable” harvesting schemes are by no means perfect: They don’t always target the right criteria, are susceptible to corruption, and can be difficult to enforce.  But “they do have an impact,” Warren-Thomas said.

A group of governments and rubber industry associations have begun working toward this sort of certification as part of the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative. But the guidelines the group recently issued leave much to be desired, said Warren-Thomas. “Biodiversity is mentioned, protected areas are mentioned, but only very briefly,” she said. And in those sections, the guidelines simply tell companies that they should “demonstrate compliance with relevant local legal requirements.” That phrase is laughable in the context of the weak regulations that exist in many Southeast Asian countries.

Those laws are almost never sufficient to protect local biodiversity. In any case, Warren-Thomas noted, just following the law should be standard behavior, not something that gets rewarded with a certification. “You should go above and beyond that and be making independent assessments” of where plantations can be situated to do the least damage, she said. At the moment, the new guidelines are also completely voluntary.

The other problem is that across Southeast Asia, there’s enormous variation in how rubber is grown, from vast monoculture plantations where almost no native species can survive to small agroforestry holdings that can provide high-quality habitat for many species, even if they aren’t as good as pristine forest. So any sustainability measures would have to be tailored to particular regions or plantation types. And the plantations are popping up across a range of landscapes, both on former agricultural lands and in forests. In Cambodia, rubber tree plantations have displaced the largest dry evergreen forest in Southeast Asia. Areas officially designated as protected for wildlife, both in Cambodia and China, have been cleared to make way for rubber plantations.

Until tires and other rubber products can be certified as forest-friendly, there’s not much opportunity for consumer choice—other than the choice not to drive in the first place. Meanwhile, though, people can demand that their governments restrict imports to rubber that doesn’t come from wrecking rainforests, said Matthew Struebig, a tropical ecologist at the University of Kent. (But with the Obama administration now pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement, don’t look for that to happen anytime soon.)

It may also help to write to tire brands—Michelin and Bridgestone are part of the “sustainable” rubber working group—and remind them that any certification scheme needs clear, effective, stringent requirements. Otherwise, it’s just another form of green washing.

Geoffrey Giller contributed reporting for this column.

One Response to “Where the Rubber Meets the Orangutan”

  1. UPDATE August 23 2016 Researchers say they have developed a way to make tires out of a synthetic rubber that, afterwards, is completely degradable. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160822083237.htm

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