Can coexist well and greed

Rubber - The greed for rubber

Summary: The growing demand for rubber poses a major challenge to the world's population. Southeast Asian farmers cut down indigenous forests to cultivate rubber plantations, which leads to the destruction of biodiversity. Furthermore, the resulting monocultures are very susceptible to disease, which in turn could lead to a standstill of the economy. But the industry is dependent on rubber and the rubber boom is bringing prosperity to many people in Asia. Charles C. Mann examines the political, ecological and social role of rubber.

The spring sun is shining, the whole village is on its feet, and Piyawot Anurakbranpot is standing in the river with his car. He drove the pickup especially here, right in the middle of the stream that flows through Tung Nha Noi, cows and people walk by and marvel at how he polishes his brand new, chic white Isuzu until it shines.

It is not a matter of course that someone like “Chin”, as his friends call him, drives such an expensive car - at the age of 21. More precisely, not so long ago it was unimaginable here in Tung Nha Noi in northern Thailand. But for some time now, families like Chin's have been on the up. You can see the reason for this when you look at the mountains. Ten years ago they were still overgrown with dense tropical forest. Now most of the slopes have been cut down and replanted with a single species: Hevea brasiliensis. Rubber trees.

Every night, like tens of thousands of others in Southeast Asia, the “Chin” family goes to the plantations, taps the trees and lets thick white rubber milk drip into small buckets. The sticky latex mass is then converted into a solid substance with the help of chemical additives, rolled into mats and processed in factories into belts, sealing rings, insulating materials - and many, many rubber tires. Around three quarters of the rubber extracted worldwide is used in the production of tires for cars, trucks and aircraft - almost two billion a year.

Rubber is so commonplace, so inconspicuous, so boring that it is easy to overlook. But that's a mistake. For more than 150 years, rubber has played a hidden but important role in political and ecological history. No industrial revolution would be possible without him. This is because three raw materials are required for such a machine: iron to make steel for machines, fossil fuels to drive them - and rubber to connect and protect all moving parts. Try driving a car or running your washing machine without a V-belt. Or instead of using a flexible rubber hose to guide the coolant through the engine with a rigid metal tube. Good luck!

Most people think of rubber as products made from synthetic materials. More than 40 percent of the world's rubber is obtained from trees, mainly from Hevea brasiliensis. Compared to natural rubber, synthetic rubber is cheaper to manufacture, but it is also less durable and less flexible. For all things that have to work absolutely reliably - condoms, surgical gloves, aircraft tires - natural rubber is the first choice.

Iron is found almost everywhere on earth, as is fossil fuels. But rubber is only grown in Southeast Asia, only there is both the climate and the infrastructure for it. The region is experiencing a kind of gold rush, because regardless of whether the global economy is picking up or collapsing: In the long term, the demand for tires is growing. The rubber boom has brought prosperity to millions of people in this poor part of the world: In Tung Nha Noi, “Chin” is not the only one with an expensive pick-up. Rubber has also led the region out of isolation: brand new "rubber roads" now connect the formerly remote plantations with the tire factories in northern China.

But the rubber trade has also triggered what Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Hawaii describes as "one of the greatest and fastest ecological changes in human history": In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, farmers are clearing and replacing forests them with rubber trees. They transform one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world into a monoculture and possibly endanger elementary natural processes in a region inhabited by tens of millions of people. Every tire on “Chins” pick-up - and every tire on our cars - is a tiny piece of tropical forest, cleared and compressed into a black ring.

Monocultures are extremely productive - and extremely vulnerable. Henry Ford had this bitter experience almost 90 years ago. The automobile giant operated its own iron and coal mines, built power plants and cut forests. His River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, included a deep-water port, the world's largest steel foundry at the time, and 160 kilometers of railroad tracks. Everything that was needed to make automobiles was made in River Rouge - with the exception of rubber. So in 1927 Ford bought 10,400 square kilometers of land in the Amazon basin, the original home of the rubber tree - an area about half the size of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

For centuries, the indigenous people there had waterproofed their clothing with rubber and made rough rubber boots. At the beginning of the 19th century, the North Americans had started to import the rubber and made their own boots and coats from it. However, these first rubber products melted in the summer heat and became brittle in the cold. The triumphant advance of the new material only began in the 1840s, after the self-taught inventor Charles Goodyear developed vulcanization - a process that makes rubber more resistant.

Now naturalists went in search of latex-containing trees in the Amazon rainforest. Boomtowns like the Brazilian Manaus emerged. In this city, built in the deepest jungle, the rubber barons built huge villas and a magnificent opera house made of Italian Carrara marble.

In Europe and North America, however, people did not want to be dependent on a raw material that came from a country outside their own political sphere of influence. In England, the directors of Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, decided to hire someone to source rubber seeds from the Amazon. They came across Henry Alexander Wickham, a man who is despised in Brazil to this day.

Wickham was an adventurer whose ambitions were as great as his inability to live up to them. In the 1870s, he and his wife tried their hand at growing tobacco and sugar in Santarém on the lower Amazon. On behalf of Kew Gardens, Wickham collected more than half a ton of rubber seeds and shipped them to London. The saplings raised from the 70,000 seeds were brought to the British, French and Dutch colonies in Asia, where budding rubber barons cleared the rainforest with sharpened axes and blazing torches.

By 1910, more than 50 million imported trees were growing in Asia. When Asian rubber flooded the market the following year, prices collapsed in Brazil. To the anger and horror of Brazilians, their profitable business came to a standstill within months. In the decades that followed, Hevea brasiliensis spread to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Southeast Asia became the center of rubber production. The plantation owners invested their overnight fortune in land in Singapore, and Wickham, the celebrated founder of a new industry, now wore a nautilus shell tie clip, a vest with silver chain clasps, and a mustache that crept under his nose like a tropical plant.

He died in 1928, a year after Henry Ford bought his plantation on the Tapajós River in the lower Amazon basin. Ford had decided to produce rubber itself in order to make itself independent of imports from Asia. Thousands of workers built a city based on the American model in the rainforest: with one-story clapboard houses, Baptist churches and a main street with American bakeries, restaurants, tailors, shoemakers and cinemas. "Fordlandia", as the project was called, had the only 18-hole golf course on the Amazon. Hundreds of thousands of people could have lived there. Ford invested a total of $ 20 million, which is almost $ 300 million today.

Fordlandia turned into an unprecedented disaster. The plantation was unsuitable for large-scale rubber cultivation - the soil was too sandy and the rainfall unpredictable. If Ford had asked a botanist for advice, he would certainly have explained to him that rubber trees are never close together in the wild for good reason: They are prone to South American leaf fall disease.

For Microcyclus ulei, the parasitic sac fungi that cause the disease, rubber trees are more than a meal. "The fungus does not kill the rubber trees immediately," writes historian Greg Grandin in his book "Fordlandia". Instead, the spores penetrate the leaves and use up their nutrients until they fall off. As soon as the leaves grow back, the fungus attacks again.

It is a quiet, grueling fight that is usually fatal for the tree. In the wild, however, the spores of the Microcyclus ulei do not simply jump from one host to the next because the trees are far apart. But on a plantation they grow close together and the fungus can migrate. Ford had created a huge incubator for harmful fungi.

What had to happen happened: in 1935, after only a few months, Fordlandia's rubber trees were bare - economically ruin. Ten years later, Ford sold the land again, almost unnoticed by the public and for a fraction of the original price. And in the following decades, too, all attempts to operate a rubber plantation in Central or South America failed. The mushroom was stronger.

In So Phisai, Thailand, the air smells like a nail salon. This is due to the formic acid, which is used to convert latex into a homogeneous rubber compound. That smell is also the smell of money.

In So Phisai, many would like to be like Sommai Kaewmanee. The son of landless migrant workers borrowed money in 1992 and used it to plant the city's first rubber trees. Back then, he tells me, everyone in So Phisai was growing cassava and barely making ends meet financially. Young people had to move to Bangkok to find decent jobs. Kaewmanee persuaded three more farmers to join in and planted 1,500 trees. He promised his colleagues that whoever relies on rubber will become a millionaire.

During my visit, Kaewmanee shows me the accounts of his rubber plantation. If you show the numbers in a diagram, the curve is similar to the trend in the global auto trade: things are going up, not in a straight line, but unstoppable. With his gradually growing rubber wealth, Kaewmanee bought a new house, a fancy SUV, and the portable electronic devices his children stare at when they get back from school. Kaewmanee became an agricultural advisor for his district, where 90 percent of farmers now grow rubber trees. He now owns 75,000 trees; his nursery sells a million seedlings annually. There is still enough forest around So Phisai, he says, that can easily be used for rubber production.

Kaewmanee owes its house and car to Chinese scientists. When rubber was first introduced in Southeast Asia, it initially only grew in the warm and humid forests near the equator, in what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and in southern Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar - in countries with a climate similar to that of rubber's homeland on the Amazon.

During the Korean War, the US imposed a rubber embargo on China. Furious, the Chinese began to breed varieties that also thrived in the relatively cool Xishuangbanna district of Yunnan Province, on the border with Laos and Myanmar. Xishuangbanna only takes up 0.2 percent of China's land area, but is known for its biological diversity: 16 percent of the plant, 22 percent of the animal and 36 percent of the bird species in China can be found here.

All of this threatens to fall victim to rubber cultivation. The Chinese army created state plantations with new, cold-resistant trees. Smaller farmers soon took over most of the remaining land. If you climb a mountain in Xishuangbanna today and look around, you will only see rubber trees everywhere.

To make one tire you need roughly the monthly latex yield of four trees. Xishuangbanna is nowhere near big enough to meet the ever-increasing demand in Asia. Thanks to government funding, rubber plantations have recently spread to Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The result: global rubber production rose from four million tons in 1983 to around twelve million tons today. The price: More than 46,000 square kilometers of forest were cleared for the cultivation in Southeast Asia, an area the size of Lower Saxony.

The rapid growth in combination with a recent drop in demand has meant that rubber prices have fallen in recent years; Nevertheless, everywhere in the north of Laos you can see blazing fires in the mountains - laid by families who clear the forest for new cultivation areas. The residents of entire villages get up at two o'clock at night and tap trees because the latex flows best before dawn.

The risks of this approach go far beyond the loss of biodiversity. The rubber trees on the new plantations come from the seeds that Wickham once smuggled out of Brazil - and they are just as susceptible to South American leaf fall disease. Already in the eighties of the 20th century there were warnings that a single introduced spore could bring the automobile age to a standstill.

"With every transcontinental flight that lands in Southeast Asia, the probability of an economic catastrophe increases," warned two researchers from Florida A&M University in 2012. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations even recommends checking all passengers flying to Southeast Asia who have been in the spread of the disease in the previous three weeks.

This proposal was not implemented. And while scientists in Brazil have already begun tests for resistant types of rubber, Asia has decided against such breeding programs. In my four stays there, I have not met a single farmer who has thought about it.

Perhaps even more worrying is the high water consumption in the production of rubber. As far as the regional water balance is concerned, making tires is like pumping groundwater out of the mountains, filling it directly into tank trucks and exporting it. The result is that wells and rivers dry up, explains Xu Jianchu from the World Agroforestry Center. He knows the industry's answer to these concerns: “There's water in plastic bottles!” The whole of Southeast Asia will soon be littered with rubber trees. "It only stops when the state intervenes," says Xu.

On a foggy and rather cool day, I drive to the Nabanhe National Nature Reserve in Xishuangbanna. Liu Feng, research director of the protected area, and Gerhard Langenberger, agroecologist at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, are with me. The landscape alternates between plantations and wild nature and reminds me of the patchwork of fields and forests in my native New England. We drive into the reserve because, according to Liu and Langenberger, it is an example of how rubber could coexist with a natural ecosystem.

Unlike most nature reserves, Nabanhe is full of people. On 260 square kilometers there are 33 villages with a total of 6,000 inhabitants. The area is divided into three zones. The core zone is a total reserve in which people have no business. This is bordered by a buffer zone in which people live, but who are only allowed to use the resources to a limited extent. The outer area is an experimental zone in which, among other things, rubber can be grown. "Maintaining your balance is difficult," says Liu.

That same afternoon we see villagers pulling up illegally grown rubber plants. Neighbors reported the small plantation. The forest police monitor the removal of the plants. The penalties for the owners are mild, they should only be reminded of the rules. “I don't blame the farmers,” says Langenberger. “You have been poor for so long.Now they finally have a product that gives them access to the world market. ”The scientists, he says, should only provide the facts and leave it to the local people how they want to deal with the landscape. You couldn't - and shouldn't - stop them from growing rubber.

That is currently the challenge that rubber is presenting us with: Nature conservation would like to ban all human activity in order to preserve the vital rainforest; the industry, on the other hand, would like to cover every plot of land with rubber trees. Langenberger hopes that the Nabanhe reserve could be a guide to how the two work together.

It's an experiment that sends out an encouraging signal into our connected world from a small angle. In a world in which little works without this inconspicuous substance called rubber - and which is threatened by it at the same time.

Translated from the English by Dr. Ina Pfitzner

(NG, issue 01/2016, page (s) 76 to 95)