When travelling Southeast Asia and observing the landscapes of the world region, one is repeatedly confronted with large plantation economies. The largest plantations are palmoil and rubber plantations.
That's how it starts: The 'Devil's Milk' is collected in small bowls, attached to any rubber tree in the plantation. As well to see, most of it is water. The further industrial processing of the raw material is very dirty. Jobs in the rubber industries are dangerous and unhealthy. Image by Asienreisender, Sihanoukville Province, Cambodia, 4/2015
Rubber was first introduced into the world region by the British in the late 19th century. The first rubber plantations were installed in the Strait Settlements on the Malay Peninsula. It was economically and ecologically meaningless until the years before the First World War. In fact it's a historically young appearance, although it's now big and covers enormous landscapes.
While palmoil is growing best in the lowlands, rubber can be planted in the lowlands as well as in higher regions. The largest producers of rubber in the world are Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The southern Thai provinces of Trang and Satun, to give two examples, are almost fully covered with large rubber monocultures. The tropical rainforests, who covered the landscapes before, have been logged or burned therefore. Last refuges are left in the steep slopes of the Tenasserim Mountains. This means a great ecological disaster. A great variety of living species got extinct, the pressure on the shrinking biodiversity is rapidly growing. Entering a rubber plantation is like strolling over a graveyard - except a very few animals and some weeds nothing else is living here than rubber trees.
Inside a Rubber Plantation
Inside a Rubber Plantation, Sihanoukville Province, Cambodia. Square kilometers over square kilometers over square kilometers the same, monotonous landscape. Few species can still live in this habitate.
The two images bottom show the shacks in which the plantation workers with their families live. Normally there is no electricity, no running water, no waste water drainage there. No waste disposal either...
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2015
As Paul Litchfield once stressed, rubber is "one of a handful of indispensable industrial commodities." Rubber's most notable quality is elasticity. When it get's stretched or squeezed, it will afterwards go back to it's former shape. It's not only flexible, it's also watertight and airtight. It can also be used as electrical insulation. It has a minimal abrasion, what makes it good for building tyres. It's resistant to a number of acids and alkalis. It can be combined with many textiles to give them certain new qualities.
What Rubber does...
Source: John Tully, 'The Devil's Milk - A Social History of Rubber'. Originally published in 'India Rubber World', 1930.
The first steps of the procession of latex to rubber. The liquid is separated from the latex itself and then shaped into mats of a length roughly 80cm to 50cm. The shaping happens in a simple machine with two iron rolling pins. Then it's dried up in the sun, packed and bound in stacks for transport.
Here, on Ko Chang, the whole process was done inside the plantations. It was said that the quality of the local rubber here was of not of the highest quality.
The island of Ko Chang is said has been part of Burma/Myanmar in the past and came anyhow to Thailand. It looks pretty much like a Thai colony, for rubber is dominating the local economy. The locals who live here are all involved in the rubber business. Some of them stay only part of the year on the island.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2010, 2012, 2015
Hevea brasiliensis is the scientific (latin) term for the rubber tree. It is originally a South and Meso American tree. Rubber is essentially for the modern industries. Therefore the rubber tree plays a key role in it's production and the most important natural source of latex, which get's processed (vulcanized) into rubber. Additionally rubber is synthetisized from oil. Nowadays about 60% of the world's production of rubber is made from oil. Rubber grows in equatorial countries only, spanning from 30 degrees latitude around the equator (therefore also called the caoutchouc belt).
Hevea brasiliensis is a tree which grows up to 20 to 40 meters high with a stem diameter of only 35cm. The branches grow regularly and upwards. Below the bark, inside the stem, run latex canals. Latex consists by 55% - 70% of water, by only 30% to 40% of caoutchouc itself. Other, minor ingredients are sugar, proteins, waxes and resins. The fruits are about 4cm big, the seeds around 2cm.
In the age of five to six years the rubber tree is old enough of being harvested. The tree barks get scratched with a knife in an 30 degree horizontal angle. The cut mustn't be too deep, otherwise the tree gets seriously hurt. The latex is running down the cutline and drops via a small tap into a bowl. Every day workers have to collect the latex.
In the age of about 25 years the rubber tree does not produce latex anymore. The plantation trees get cut then and replaced by young trees. Rubber tree is a harder wood as oak or beech is. It's also relative resistent agains tropical humidity, and therefore a good material for the production of furniture.
Rubber Wood Processing
The wood of cut rubber trees is collected and put onto a truck for whatever further processing. Large rubber plantations stretch in the plains of Chanthaburi Province / Thailand. Here at the foot of Namtokphlio National Park, a mountain massive close to the Gulf of Thailand. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 9/2015
Originally a South and Mesoamerican plant, American Indians used rubber already 3,500 years ago. Most famous is the rubber ball which was used in games. Rubber was also used to treat clothes and other items of daily use. First usage in Europe was modest: erasers were used from 1770 on, a first raincoat from 1824 on, followed by rubber boots. But the material caused difficulties. In great heat it melted and became sticky, below certain temperatures it got hard and broke.
Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of latex in 1839. Now a more usable, elastic rubber was available for the industries. This triggered in the coming years the so called caoutchouk boom in the Amazon region of Manaus and Belem. However, the early trials to build up caoutchouk plantations failed in South America. The monocultures fell victim to fungi.
The Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 caoutchouk seeds out of Brasil in the year 1876. The English started to cultivate plantations in their colonies in Ceylon (nowadays: Sri Lanka) and the Malay Peninsula. However, a meaningfull production for the world market started in the Asian colonies only from the early 20th century on. Another region of production became equatorial Africa, namely the Congo and Gabun.
Synthesizing of caoutchouk started in the First World War, when Germany lost access to it's oversea resources. In the Second World War not only Germany but also the West Allies lost great parts of their access to the caoutchouk plantations, when whole Southeast Asia got occupied by Japanese forces in 1942. The synthesizing of rubber was enforced by both sides. Additionally to the substitution of rubber by chemopetrical resources the exploitation of dandelion was considered. Dandelions contain between 5% to 7% of caoutchouk, mostly in their roots.
Nowadays there are different national standards for rubber: Thai Tested Rubber (TTR), Standard Indonesian Rubber (SIR) or Standard Malaysian Rubber (SMR). The five most producing states for rubber are Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and China. Vietnam, on place 6, expanded it's latex production in the last years. Cambodia for example is planning large new plantations in the next years. The most important caoutchouk importers are the USA, Japan, China, Germany and France.
Southeast Asia's biodiversity is heavily threatened; every month species die, some of them before they have been discovered by scientists. Also prominent mammals are among the victims: the tiger, the elephant, gibbons and many more. The massive expansion of palmoil plantations for the production of so called 'eco-fuel' gave much reason for critical discussions in the west. Less prominent is the heavy impact of rubber plantations for the tropical ecology.
A British scientific team recently (early 2015) published a research in which they analyse a growing demand for 8.5 million hectars additional rubber plantations within the next ten years to satisfy the rubber industries. 70% of the rubber will be ned in the tyre industries to equip vehicles and planes. Plane tyres are usually by 100% made from natural rubber. The international car industries announced in 2010 to double the amount of global vehicles within the next 15 years (until 2025). They didn't add that the price for that is, among others, the increasing destruction of the last remaining tropical rainforests.
The British organization 'Global Witness' published in May 2013 a report called 'Rubber Barons':
Cambodia and Laos are in the grip of a land grabbing crisis, driven by Vietnamese ‘rubber barons’. This report reveals how two of Vietnam’s largest companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), have leased vast tracts of land for plantations in Laos and Cambodia, with disastrous consequences for local communities and the environment. Close ties to corrupt political and business elites provide them with impunity, deals are cloaked in secrecy and they are bankrolled by international finance such as Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
The huge pressure for land to plant rubber is driven by high prices and soaring international demand, especially from China.
Deforestation for Plantation Economies
Rampant deforestation in Ratanakiri, east Cambodia. The wood of the destroyed rainforest is often not even used for other purposes - it's burned, for that is the quickest and cheapest way to get rid of it. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2013, 2015
The situation does not look better in other Southeast Asian countries. There are certain local differences, but after all it's everywhere the same game: the laws are weak anyway, natural protection has a low priority if any, and money and corruption make the way free for what powerfull international corporations want.