Drilling deep into the verdant greenery of Phuket, local farmers painstakingly tap the sap of rubber trees. Meanwhile, recent research unravels a startling revelation, suggesting that the devastation of forests due to rubber cultivation in Southeast Asia may be substantially larger than previously accounted for. This discovery shines a glaring spotlight on the pressing challenges importers face in adhering to sustainably sourced supply chain practices.
Escalating demands for global rubber outputs are spearheading relentless pressure on pristine forests, causing catastrophic losses in biodiversity. According to a team of internationally renowned researchers, Southeast Asia, which shoulders a staggering 90% of worldwide rubber production, is bearing the severe brunt of this destruction.
The researchers, whose findings were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, indicated that previous accounts had considerably understated the deforestation caused by rubber production, especially in contrast with impactful commodities like soy and palm oil.
However, cutting-edge high-resolution satellite mapping techniques, which pin-pointed an increased number of plantations overseen by smallholder farmers, revealed an alarming prognosis – forest loss due to rubber cultivation far exceeds previous approximations.
They noted that over 4 million hectares of forest have yielded to rubber plantations since 1993, with nearly two-thirds of this loss concentrated in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Astoundingly, more than 14 million hectares of combined land in Southeast Asia, alongside China’s primary rubber-generating provinces of Yunnan and Hainan, have been dedicated to rubber cultivation, a leap from 10 million in 2020.
The actual scale of losses could likely be even more severe. Many plantations, established during the rubber boom two decades ago, were later repurposed for different use in the aftermath of the significant price slump in 2011.
Approaching the close of next year, the European Union will implement a law aimed at restricting commodity importers from purchasing goods that contribute to deforestation. Originating from the regulation of soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa, and coffee, an amendment to include rubber was added last December at the solicitation of EU lawmakers.
For guaranteeing freedom from potential penalties, importers are mandated to furnish verifiable evidence that the traded products do not originate from lands victim to deforestation beyond 2020. Antje Ahrends of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, the lead author of the study, suggests that these rules may further propel buyers to procure rubber from large-scale producers with simpler supply chain dynamics.
Ahrends expressed, “The varied stages involved in the rubber supply chain, coupled with the dispersed framework of rubber production, pose significant hurdles for traders and manufacturers in determining the exact geographical origins of the rubber and verifying that no deforestation has occurred.”
Organizations, including the Forest Stewardship Council, striving to enhance the traceability of rubber produced by smallholder farmers – accounting for 85% of worldwide production – are fostering efforts to ensure their rubber complies with European standards and regulations.