Rubber Exports Boom In Southeast Asia Unveils Alarming Deforestation Crisis

According to a warning issued by an international team of academics, a boom in global rubber demand is intensifying the strain on natural forests and contributing to a reduction in biodiversity, notably in Southeast Asia, which accounts for 90% of global rubber output.

According to a recent study, the extent of deforestation driven by rubber cultivation has been significantly under reported, with the actual figures being two to three times higher than previously believed. Researchers used satellite data and cloud computing to create the first comprehensive record of deforestation related to rubber production in Southeast Asia, the region responsible for the majority of global rubber production.

Further studies reveal that over the past 30 years, over 4 million hectares of tropical forests in Southeast Asia have been cleared for rubber plantations, a figure at least two to three times higher than previous estimates. Additionally, more than 1 million hectares of these plantations have been established in regions known for their biodiversity. The most significant forest losses occurred in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, as stated in the research. In Cambodia, over 40% of rubber plantations were linked to deforestation, with 19% of this deforestation taking place in crucial biodiversity areas.

Deforestation caused by Southeast Asian rubber production may be underestimated by a factor of two to three, posing substantial hurdles for importers looking for sustainable sources. According to a warning issued by an international team of academics, a boom in global rubber demand is intensifying the strain on natural forests and contributing to a reduction in biodiversity, notably in Southeast Asia, which accounts for 90% of global rubber output.

There are 14.2 million hectares of mature rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, with over 70% of these plantations concentrated in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. China, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos are all important rubber-producing countries. It’s worth mentioning that the study excluded rubber plantations that were abandoned before 2021, even though they may have contributed to deforestation.

Rubber Usage

Rubber, a crop with deep historical roots in Mesoamerica, was used by Indigenous peoples for generations before being “discovered” by colonial authorities and introduced to other tropical regions. It is among the significant crops that originated from rainforests.

The production of natural rubber involves the process of “tapping,” which collects a sticky sap called latex by making incisions in the bark of specific tree varieties, primarily the Hevea brasiliensis, a deciduous tree native to the Amazon basin and now widespread across tropical regions. The latex, collected in containers, is subsequently treated to reduce brittleness and enhance durability through a heat treatment.

Currently, approximately 90% of global rubber production is attributed to Southeast Asia, with the remainder coming from South and Central America and, more recently, West and Central Africa. The expansion of rubber cultivation is closely linked to tropical deforestation, primarily driven by global market demand.

About 85% of all natural rubber is produced by smallholder farmers on plantations, frequently smaller than 5 hectares in size. These small-scale operations are often challenging to detect in satellite imagery and national crop data.

The Crisis

The analysis determined that mature rubber plantations covered a total of 14.2 million hectares in Southeast Asia in 2021, primarily concentrated in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It was estimated that approximately 4.1 million hectares were cleared for rubber plantations between 1993 and 2016 alone.

Moreover, the study identified one million hectares of rubber plantations in regions designated as Key Biodiversity Areas as of 2021. The research acknowledged certain limitations and uncertainties, including cloud cover in some regions.

In Southeast Asian islands, variations in climate and seasonality meant that rubber trees shed and regrew their leaves at different times compared to other regions, making it challenging to distinguish them from other vegetation.

The calculation of deforestation in the study was based on the conversion of any previously planted area to rubber, including areas converted from agro-forestry or other crops to rubber plantations, which were counted as “deforested.”

Overall, the researchers believe their count likely underestimates the total rubber cultivation area and the impact of rubber production on deforestation. This is due to the difficulty of accurately capturing all cultivation through satellite imagery and the fact that the study only examined active rubber plantations in 2021, excluding abandoned ones that might have contributed to deforestation.

It’s worth noting that the study focused exclusively on Southeast Asia, even though rubber is also grown in parts of Africa and South America. The researchers argue for increased attention to rubber’s role in deforestation, especially in the context of new legislation being developed by the EU and other entities.

Final Words

There are more than one million hectares of rubber plantations in Southeast Asia have been established in vital biodiversity zones, which are among the most crucial areas for preserving species and ecosystems on a global scale.

Rubber, a vital rainforest commodity, is derived from latex tapped from specific trees native to the Amazon and currently cultivated in various tropical areas. This latex is subject to processing to enhance its flexibility and durability through heat treatment.

Although the connection between rubber production and deforestation has been recognized previously, accurately measuring the scale of this environmental impact has been challenging, primarily because it’s challenging to differentiate rubber plantations from natural forest cover in satellite imagery. As a consequence, this issue has received limited attention in evaluations of losses resulting from commercial plantation activities.