The rough side of rubber

Rubber plantations in Yunnan are destroying China’s richest biodiversity hotspot. But blaming small-hold farmers will not resolve the issue, writes Janet C Sturgeon.

Rubber plantations in Yunnan are destroying China’s richest biodiversity hotspot. But blaming small-hold farmers will not resolve the issue, writes Janet C Sturgeon.

Over the past couple of years, the government in Xishuangbanna, a prefecture in south-west China’s Yunnan province, has finally woken up to the destructive environmental impacts of monoculture rubber plantations. Problems they have identified include biodiversity loss and regional climate change as Xishuangbanna becomes hotter and drier.

A large sign on the bridge across the Mekong River in Jinghong, the prefecture capital, touts Xishuangbanna as China’s biodiversity treasure. But has the rubber boom put an end to this?

Xishuangbanna has been home to large state rubber farms since the 1960s. Since the dissolution of communes and allocation of land to farmers in the early 1980s, local officials have encouraged ethnic-minority farmers to plant rubber on their own lands. As a result, rubber now seems to be everywhere in Xishuangbanna.

Two years ago, the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden (XTBG), a local research institute, developed government-approved plans to urge ethnic minority farmers to restore their rubber fields to natural forest. But since 2003, with the dramatic rise in world rubber prices, farmers have enjoyed huge increases in household incomes from rubber. They are now understandably reluctant to accept significant income loss from reforestation on their rubber lands.

The problem is not easy to solve, since it pits the needs of local livelihoods directly against those of environmental restoration. The depth of the current dilemma requires us to delve into the history of rubber in Xishuangbanna, the role of ethnic-minority farmers in rubber production and state campaigns calling for farmers to plant rubber. It also raises the question of why reforestation plans target smallholder farmers rather than state rubber farms.

When the west imposed a trade embargo on the new People’s Republic of China in the early 1950s, leaders in Beijing decided that China should be self-sufficient in certain critical goods needed for fighting the Korean War and advancing industrialisation plans. Rubber was among them. Together with Hainan, Xishuangbanna was selected as a production site for rubber, even though the climate was not suitably tropical. Experiments that enabled the successful production of rubber in the region were touted as a “miracle” of science and a testament to revolutionary fervor.

The goal was to plant one million rubber trees in the prefecture. During the 1960s, large state rubber farms recruited Han Chinese workers from elsewhere to staff the state farms. Local minority farmers – regarded as lazy and “backward” – were thought to be unsuitable for the factory-like work. During the 1970s, educated urban youth sent to Xishuangbanna for “reeducation” worked to open land and expand rubber plantations. Clearing the land for state farms removed large tracts of lowland tropical rainforest and subtropical forest, resulting in a rapid decline in biodiversity, say botanists at the XTBG.

When communal land was contracted to individual households in the early 1980s, local government encouraged farmers to plant rubber on sloping lands. They believed rubber would serve the twin goals of feeding latex into China’s rapidly industrialising economy and raising household incomes. Until the 1990s, the state subsidised the price of rubber, providing farmers with a stable, if modest income.

Subsequent state campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s enjoined farmers to plant ever more rubber. Under the “Grain for Green” campaign, intended to promote reforestation in western China, farmers received free seedlings and five-year grain subsidies for planting forest cover on degraded land. And, in Xishuangbanna, the authorities decided rubber trees counted as forest cover. After joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001, China was obliged to follow the world rubber price. Over the last decade prices have tripled, bringing unexpected riches to farmers.

Encouraged by state subsidies and rising prices, farmers planted rubber across any remaining sloping lands, replacing natural forests with what the government calls “economic forests”.  Research carried out by the US-based East-West Center shows that ethnic minority families buy modern houses, drive the latest car models and send their children all the way through school, and sometimes to university. These farmers regard themselves as succeeding on China’s own terms. They have become progressive entrepreneurs whose well-educated children will contribute to China’s modernisation.

But along with economic benefits, rubber plantations have taken a toll on the environment. Replacing natural forests with rubber has led to rapid biodiversity loss, depleted water resources (rubber trees suck up huge amounts of water) and even regional climate change as Xishuangbanna becomes measurably warmer and drier.  Scientists fear that the hotter, drier climate may eventually limit the amount of rubber that Xishuangbanna can support.

In response to these concerns, researchers at XTBG have developed plans to turn certain rubber areas into natural forests. Potential sites include roadsides and sensitive watersheds on village lands. They are also engaged in projects to establish biodiversity corridors between the prefecture’s nature reserves and to connect them with a nature reserve in neighboring Laos. In order for plans to be effective, these experts argue that farmers must be compensated for their loss of rubber income. One PhD student at the institute is developing a sophisticated model to calculate how much farmers should be paid.

But farmers report that no efforts have been made to consult them on their willingness to reforest, their choices of sites for forest restoration or the species they would prefer. Farmers know where streams used to be and what kinds of forest used to be where, and they are aware of the reduced availability of water for lowland crops. Many farmers are willing to participate in environmental-recovery activities, but they are wary of state promises. Numerous times in the past, they have been promised reimbursement that has never appeared, or reimbursed at a fraction of the value of land or other resources. Farmers ask what other crop could provide as much benefit as rapid-growing rubber, which can be tapped for latex after seven years.

In recent visits to Xishuangbanna, I have heard nothing about efforts to reforest state rubber farms, other than a proposal to reforest one site on a state farm as a model for farmers to emulate.  Partly privatised in 2003, the state farms have not fared well in a competitive market. They are in financial trouble and may be broken up. Meanwhile, there is little acknowledgment of the environmental damage caused by the expansion of state farms. According to the state, the problem is caused by “backward” ethnic-minority famers, rather than “modern” state rubber farms.

The history of rubber in Xishuangbanna makes it clear that farmers planted rubber in response to multiple state campaigns over many years. They are now reaping the benefits, but are unfairly blamed for all the environmental problems resulting from monoculture plantations. Any plans to reclaim farmers’ land for reforestation or environmental recovery should start by including farmers in the discussion. Their input is critical to deciding where to plant, what to plant and how to reimburse farmers for long-term income loss. This kind of participatory planning and implementation, largely lacking in Xishuangbanna, is crucial for resolving the conflict between livelihood and environment in a prefecture touted as having the richest biodiversity in all of China. Does it still? Should it? And if so, who should bear the cost?

Janet C Sturgeon is assistant professor of geography at Simon Fraser University in Canada.  Her research focuses on ethnic groups, forests and land management in China and Thailand.

For more information on the spread of rubber in Xishuangbanna and adjacent areas of south-east Asia, visit the East-West Center’s research project.

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