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Year : 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 418-424

Through the Technology Lens: The Expansion of Rubber and its Implications in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia

East-West Center, Honolulu, HI, USA

Correspondence Address:
Jefferson Fox
East-West Center, Honolulu, HI
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.155587

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Date of Web Publication21-Apr-2015


Natural latex from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is a hot commodity, with consumption increasing worldwide at an average rate of 5.8% per year since 1900. The vast majority of the world's rubber supply has historically come from the wet-humid tropics of Southeast Asia, but researchers in China have successfully developed new hybrids that grow well in areas with cooler temperatures and a distinct dry season. Today, investors are promoting rubber plantations in non-traditional rubber growing areas of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, northeast Thailand, and northwest Vietnam. By critically assessing the impacts of this expansion of rubber and clarifying the relationship between tools and technologies, the paper suggests that the widespread adoption of rubber as a technology leads to loss of natural and agricultural biodiversity; greater use of surface and groundwater supplies; increased use of pesticides, fertilisers, and other chemicals; higher exposure to market booms and busts for smallholders and investors; and for some farmers, the loss of their land to industrial plantations on which they may become labourers. The paper argues that if state authorities recognise the double-edged nature of rubber as a technology, they can act to try to limit its damaging effects through polices that recognise secure tenure and encourage small-scale, diversified agroforestry systems.

Keywords: rubber, tools, technology, plantations, biodiversity, China, Laos, Southeast Asia

How to cite this article:
Fox J. Through the Technology Lens: The Expansion of Rubber and its Implications in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Conservat Soc 2014;12:418-24

How to cite this URL:
Fox J. Through the Technology Lens: The Expansion of Rubber and its Implications in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2022 Oct 6];12:418-24. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2014/12/4/418/155587

   Introduction Top

Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA), defined as land above 300 m elevation, covers about half of the land area of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and China's Yunnan Province. The region harbours an immense wealth of natural resources, including globally important stocks of forests and biological diversity, and is home to a rich heritage of indigenous cultures as well as the headwaters of major river systems. The last several decades have seen the rapid emergence and expansion of high-value export-oriented crops across this region, with a central dynamic of this change being the rapid growth of boom crops (Hall et al. 2011).

Natural latex from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is a hot commodity, with consumption increasing worldwide at an average rate of 5.8% per year since 1900. Synthetic rubber accounts for approximately 57% of all rubber used, but natural rubber is cheaper and of superior quality for high-stress purposes. Jet and truck tires are almost entirely natural rubber. Prachaya (2009) forecasts that total rubber consumption will increase from 22.1 million tons in 2008 to 23.2 million tons by 2018; and that the relative share of natural rubber will increase from 43% in 2008 to 48% by 2018. Consumption of natural rubber is anticipated to increase from 9.6 million tons in 2008 to 13.8 million tons by 2018 (growth of 3.7% per year).

The vast majority of the world΄s rubber supply comes from Southeast Asia, with Thailand accounting for 31%, Indonesia 30%, and Malaysia 9%. Native to the Amazon basin, rubber trees have historically been cropped in the equatorial zone between 10°N and 10°S in areas with 12 months of rainfall. In mainland Southeast Asia, this includes portions of southern Thailand, southeastern Vietnam, and southern Myanmar. In an attempt to free itself from the world market and to promote economic development, China began investing heavily in the 1950s in research on growing rubber in environments perceived to be marginal in terms of having cooler temperatures and a distinct dry season. State rubber plantations were established in Hainan and Yunnan provinces in areas that lie as far north as 22° N. China΄s success in growing rubber in these ΄non-traditional΄ environments greatly expanded the habitat in which rubber is planted. Hybrids are now grown at elevations exceeding 1000 m (Qui 2009) and in areas with distinct dry seasons.

Investors from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand are investing heavily in rubber plantations in non-traditional rubber growing areas of Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well as portions of their own countries-northwest Vietnam and northeast Thailand. In Laos, more than 140,000 ha of rubber have been planted in the last decade and the plantation area may reach 300,000 ha during the next decade (Douangsavanh 2009). In Cambodia, the Ministry of Agriculture plans to expand the area under rubber cultivation from 100,000 ha to as much as 800,000 ha by 2015. In Myanmar, rubber is expanding into border areas in the Kachin and Shan states. In Thailand, rubber has expanded to include over 64,000 ha in the north and 348,000 ha in the northeast. The rubber growing area in Vietnam has increased from 395,000 ha in 1999 to 550,000 ha in 2007, with 4,500 ha planted in the northwest region. The Vietnam government has a target of 700,000 ha of rubber by 2020. Collectively, more than 1,000,000 ha of rubber have been planted in the last several decades in non-traditional rubber growing areas of China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Li and Fox 2011; see [Figure 1]). By 2050, the area of land dedicated to rubber (and/or other monoculture plantation crops) in these areas could quadruple, largely by replacing lands currently occupied by evergreen broadleaf trees and swidden-related secondary vegetation (Fox et al. 2012).

The papers in this special section are concerned with how changes in land use, such as the introduction of boom crops, declaration of protected areas, and extractive activities like hydroelectric dams or mining, transform both how people live their lives and the meaning of what has been commonly called 'local knowledge.' Numerous authors have examined the social and environmental implications of the expansion of rubber in Mainland Southeast Asia (e.g., Guardiola-Claramonte et al. 2008, 2010; Baird 2010; Phanvilay 2010; Li and Fox 2011; Fox and Castella 2013; Sturgeon et al. 2013). A number of papers have also examined the political and economic drivers of this change (e.g., Woods 2011; Dwyer 2013; Lestrelin et al. 2013). In this paper, I attempt to look at the expansion of rubber through the lens of technology-first defining technology, and then presenting narratives of land-use change from China and Laos that demonstrate how viewing rubber through the lens of technology provides insights into its impacts. I then assess what these impacts might mean for government policy. By examining rubber as a technology, I am not ignoring the work done on the social and environmental drivers and implications of rubber, but rather seek to suggest that once a monoculture such as rubber reaches a certain threshold it takes on a life that is beyond what farmers, extension agents, brokers, investors, and government agents may have imagined, and has implications or 'ironic effects' that are not foreseen or intended. An awareness of a technology's 'ironic' effects may be useful when designing and implementing policy responses.

Tools, technologies, and ironic effects

Critically assessing the impacts of this expansion of rubber cropping across mainland Southeast Asia requires us to clarify the relationship between tools and technologies. Tools are products of technological processes. They are used by individuals, communities, corporations, and nation-states-and they are evaluated based on their task-specific utility. If tools do not work, they are exchanged, improved, cannibalised, or discarded. In contrast, technologies consist of widespread patterns of material and conceptual practices that embody and deploy particular strategic values and meanings (Hershock 1999). Technologies are complex systems promoting and institutionalising relational patterns aimed at realising particular ends. Technologies cannot be value neutral, and do not occur in isolation from one another but in families or lineages (Shrader-Frechette and Westra 1997; Hershock 1999).

A hammer is a tool. Individuals using hammers assess them in terms of their reliability, technical specifications, and features. Likewise, we can conceptualise a single rubber tree or a rubber variety as a tool for producing latex. By contrast, the deployment of rubber as a crop across mainland Southeast Asia becomes a technology that consists of a complex system of material and conceptual practices. These include the breeding of varieties to suit upland environments, the development of land tenure systems that ensure that investors who plant rubber will be able to harvest it, the development of roads and processing plants, and the development of markets.

There are two major implications of the tool/technology distinction. First, while we can refuse to use a tool, there are no clear 'exit rights' from the effects of heavily deployed technologies, even if individuals elect not to use the tools produced by those technologies. For example, although one can elect to not own or use a personal computer, computing technology is so widely deployed that it is not possible to avoid its effects. In practical terms, we cannot escape from the computerised world-we have no exit rights. Similarly, farmers in Indonesia who practice 'jungle rubber' cultivation can elect not to tap them if prices are low. These farmers use rubber trees as a tool to be used when it is to their benefit to tap them. But in a rubber landscape such as that found in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China, even if a farmer chooses not to grow rubber, he or she cannot escape living in an environment dominated by rubber and its effects on vegetative cover, biodiversity, use of pesticides, economic risk and reward, etc.

Second, a critical evaluation of a technology must go beyond assessing how well relevant specific tools perform, to examining the changes the technology brings about within and among societal systems and values. If viable exit rights do not exist for a technology, we cannot evaluate the ethical implications of that technology in terms of how well the tools serve individual users. Rather, we can only evaluate the technologies in terms of how they transform the quality relationships we have with the environment, with one another, and with our personal, cultural, and social identities. In short, technologies must be evaluated in explicitly social and ethical terms (Illich 1973, 1981).

Critical histories of technology deployment suggest that when technologies reach the level of intensity and scale at which individuals cannot exercise exit rights, they begin to generate problems which only the technology in question or one closely related to it can address. Hershock (1999) calls these wide ranging, systemic ramifications 'ironic' or 'revenge' effects. For example, automotive transportation technologies were originally adopted to make transportation faster and easier. Their widespread adoption, however, transformed both environmental and social realities in ways that eventually generated problems-for example, inhospitable urban sprawl, traffic gridlock, and massive air pollution-that could only be addressed through more and better transportation technology. At present, scales of deployment and social, economic, and cultural embedding, transportation technology, and the tools associated with it are no longer truly elective. The 'ironic' effects generated by technologies are not incidental consequences, but rather systematically conducive to the further deployment of that technology and/or affiliated technologies.

Following this argument, once rubber cropping dominates a landscape, it generates 'ironic' or 'revenge' effects that require related technologies' further development and deployment. In the case of rubber, evidence suggests that the widespread adoption of this technology leads to loss of natural and agricultural biodiversity; greater use of surface and groundwater supplies; increased use of pesticides, fertilisers, and other chemicals; higher exposure to market booms and busts for smallholders and investors; and for some farmers, the loss of their land to industrial plantations on which they may become labourers.

   Narratives of How Changing Land-Use Practices Change People's Livelihoods and Local Knowledge Top

Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China

In response to military needs highlighted by the Korean War, the Chinese government introduced rubber to Xishuangbanna in the early 1950s as a strategic, industrial product to be produced on large-scale collective state farms. In 1955, the Bureau of Reclamation began to organise extensive land clearance using demobilised soldiers, often veterans of the Korean War, almost all of whom were Han Chinese (Fox et al. 2009). During the collective period in China, which in Xishuangbanna lasted from 1958 to 1982, farmers were organised into communes for agricultural production, including in upland ethnic minority areas, with state attention on labour, rather than land, as the important factor of production.

Between 1978 and 1983, the Chinese government implemented the Household Responsibility System, which dismantled the farming communes and introduced a new ideology of land use, turning farm households into entrepreneurs responsible for caring for their own needs. Agricultural lands, such as paddy, were contracted out to individual farmers while forests remained under state control. In 1983, Yunnan Province implemented a policy called liangshanyidi (freehold and contracted forestlands and swidden fields), with the objective of stabilising forestlands and swidden fields through land titling and demarcation. The main goal of this reform was to shift forest management from the state to individuals for forest regeneration. Under this reform, both freehold plots and collectively held forests were leased or contracted to individual households who were given long-term use rights (Xu et al. 2005).

A combination of domestic protection of rubber prices, the introduction of the Household Responsibility System (which gave farmers long-term usufruct use rights to land), and the introduction of new seeds and information all encouraged small-scale farmers to plant rubber as a cash crop, particularly during between the 1980s and the mid-1990s. Under a major state campaign to encourage upland farmers to plant rubber at elevations below 700 m in fields used for swiddening, state farm personnel provided seedlings and technical training. In 2002, the 'Grain for Green' campaign was introduced to promote the development of China's western provinces and protect the environment; this program provided farmers with grain for eight years if they planted forest cover on degraded slopes. In Xishuangbanna, the authorities decided to count rubber trees as forest cover. At about the same time, a rapid rise in rubber prices occurred. Eager for wealth, households began planting rubber in their traditional woodlots, in village forests, and on the remaining and steeper slopes. Below 700 m, and even above, rubber became ubiquitous.

It is important to note that farmers in China have relatively clear tenure rights (long-term leases), access to the infrastructure necessary for collecting and processing rubber developed to service the state farms, and knowledge about how to grow rubber gained from working on state farms or from friends and relatives who have worked there. Given these conditions, rubber farmers in Xishuangbanna have achieved unprecedented wealth. Janet Sturgeon (2010: 3225) quotes an Akha rubber farmer as noting that "Money is the most important thing; money makes everything possible." That "everything" includes sending their children to high school in Jinghong, and for some, on to university; buying insurance for retirement and health care; and even a holiday in Jinghong for an entire village. Indeed, Sturgeon argues that some ethnic-minority rubber farmers in Xishuangbanna have achieved a standard of living today that has more in common with middle-class urban residents than with most of their fellow farmers (Since this paper was submitted to the workshop on 'Changing Frontiers of Ecological Knowledge' in March 2011 [USD 2.46 per pound], the price of rubber has dropped by 70% in December 2014 [USD 0.75 per pound]).

This narrative suggests that among ethnic minority peoples in Xishuangbanna, ecological knowledge of rubber was produced through repetitive interactions with state agricultural extension campaigns to raise farmers' incomes. While most of these campaigns failed, farmers learned much about which crops are worth investing in, and how to manage land, labour, and capital. This knowledge was then circulated and transformed through their interactions with friends and family both in Xishuangbanna and northern Laos. Clearly, from the perspective of many farmers, the conversion of forests to rubber agroforestry has been an overwhelming success. Their household income has multiplied and they count themselves among the middle class in a rapidly changing market economy. Prospects for the long-term impact of this change on the environment, as well as on livelihoods, are not as optimistic.

The conversion to rubber and the capital-intensive farming methods required have had 'ironic' or 'revenge' effects. These include environmental problems such as accelerated erosion and landslides on permanently converted hillslopes, degradation of stream water quality by pesticides and fertilisers, and stream desiccation caused by increased extraction of stream water and groundwater for irrigation (Ziegler et al. 2009). Furthermore, there is still great uncertainty regarding the potentially high water use of landscapes converted to alien monoculture plantations, particularly rubber in MMSEA (Guardiola-Claramonte et al. 2008, 2010; Qui 2009; Ziegler et al. 2009). In addition, the expansion of rubber has come at the cost of destroying a biodiversity hotspot-one of the most biologically-rich landscapes on the face of the earth. Farmers have also made themselves vulnerable to market and environmental forces. A long-term fall in rubber prices or an outbreak of a new virus affecting rubber trees could quickly wipe out the good fortune of many. These 'ironic' effects are not merely the result of poor planning or incidental consequences, but rather are systematic of rubber cultivation at landscape scales.

Luang Namtha, Northern Laos

Across the border in Northern Laos, a different story unfolded. Post-war political insecurity until the mid-1980s prevented active development efforts in the uplands; government agents, however, encouraged upland people to move to lower elevations and to consolidate their villages into larger centres that could be assisted by government service providers. In the early 1990s, the Lao government introduced measures to demarcate forests and protected areas (National Biodiversity Conservation Areas Law of 1993 and Forest Law of 1996). The National Land and Forest Allocation Policy (LFA), proclaimed national policy in 1996, supported the delineation of village boundaries and recognised villages' rights to manage and use forest resources as well as farmers' rights to use agricultural land (Fujita and Phanvilay 2008). The LFA categorised forest areas and agricultural lands at the village level, and, in particular, sought to stop shifting cultivation in upland areas.

In the mid 1980s, the Lao government began to liberalise the market and promote private sector activity. This was followed by the removal of agricultural price regulations, production quotas, and agricultural taxes; actions that allowed farmers to sell their products freely without government intervention. In the mid-1990s, the emphasis of the government's agricultural policy switched from improving food production to integrating rural farmers into the market economy.

In the early 1990s, the government opened international borders with neighbouring countries and began constructing improved roads. These changes launched new economic opportunities, particularly for farmers living at lower elevations along the road. These changes also released an influx of people and goods. Chinese investors initiated new projects including investments with relatives who lived across the border as well as small-scale private investments that encouraged farmers to transition from subsistence to cash-crop production.

Baan Hat Nyao, a Hmong village near the town of Luang Namtha, was the first to collectively plant rubber and commence tapping in Laos. Alton et al. (2005) write that village leaders had been refugees working on rubber collectives in Xishuangbanna in the early 1990s. After they resettled in Laos, they took advantage of the knowledge they had gained in Yunnan to initiate rubber production in the village. By 1996, approximately 154,000 rubber trees (342 ha) had been established on older fallow land, and tapping of juvenile trees began in 2002. Phanvilay (2010) documented the expansion of rubber in a nearby Akha village. He found that early adopters planted the crop because they had gained experience growing and tapping rubber working with relatives in China, where smallholders started planting rubber in the mid-1980s. The privately owned rubber trees in China began to produce latex in the early 1990s, making the farmers who owned them comparatively wealthy. Soon after, Lao farmers decided to start planting rubber too.

Sturgeon (2010) writes of Dai farmers in Xishuangbanna who share-cropped rubber on their relatives' land in Laos. The Chinese and Lao relatives commonly split profits 60/40 or 70/30, with the farmers in China getting the larger share because they provided the investment and technical know-how. The farmers in Laos supplied the land and labour, and in some cases would eventually inherit the trees. Until recently, the Lao relatives were brought to China to prepare, weed, and harvest paddy lands to take advantage of the wage differential between China and Laos. Sturgeon concludes that not only did the Dai learn to grow and promote rubber but they began to develop complicated and highly flexible arrangements for land, labour, and capital, enabling them to use the capital produced from their rubber trees in China to invest in other operations such as expanding rubber in Laos.

In addition, a Chinese national government program provided Chinese investors with government funds for projects that sought to eradicate opium in Laos and Burma. Under the guise of opium eradication, these investors supplied Lao farmers with planting materials for cash crops ranging from rice, watermelons, chillies, and pumpkins in the lowlands, to maize, sugarcane, and rubber in the uplands. The combination of investment capital and market opportunities encouraged Lao farmers to plant these crops in their dry season paddies and upland agricultural fields (including both active swiddens and forest fallows). These incentives also created agricultural wage labour opportunities in areas where cash crop production became prominent. These new economic opportunities motivated upland households to move to lower elevations near roads to access both agricultural land and wage labour opportunities.

In the village Phanvilay (2010) studied in Luang Namtha, villagers do not have formal land titling. An informal land market, however, exists, and some of the early adopters have capitalised on the vulnerable economic status of late adopters by buying their land. Thus, those who missed the first waves of conversion to rubber and then sold land are relegated to receiving only secondary benefits (wage labour opportunities). The scenario of informal land markets, and early and late adopters reflects broader patterns operating in other parts of the uplands of Southeast Asia (Li 2002; Fox et al. 2008). The commercialisation of farming systems has created a new source of income for many families, while at the same time stimulating land markets and accelerating land alienation. In addition to informal land sales, at least 1.1 million ha has been given by the Lao government to land concessionaires in a process marked by a denial of local land claims, lack of consultation, and forced evictions (Global Witness 2013). Unlike in neighbouring Xishuangbanna, where land use and tenure policies are clear and communities have maintained legal rights to their land, some communities in Northern Laos are rapidly selling their land and beginning to experience a chaotic pattern of changes in land use and tenure.

This narrative suggests that in northern Laos, farmers gained ecological knowledge of rubber through personal experiences living and working on state farms as well as from friends and relatives in China. The role of state agricultural extension campaigns in Laos appears to have been negligible, and knowledge was created and sustained through social networks. Unlike in China, where almost all farmers appear to have benefited from the transition to rubber, in Laos there clearly are winners and losers. The 'ironic' effects of rubber in Laos are not limited to the environmental and economic risks discussed above for China, but include exposure of farmers to market forces without the security of land titling. In Laos, without secure land tenure, households slow to adopt rubber have found themselves at an economic disadvantage while their neighbours have become wealthy on this new crop.

   Conclusion Top

I do not seek to discredit rubber cropping because the world needs natural rubber, and appropriately managed rubber can increase household incomes. But it is important to understand the environmental and social implications of rubber, so that those who choose to grow it can do so wisely and with an understanding of the unintended consequences that may accompany its use.

In terms of governance, I think two points need to be made. First, once rubber becomes a dominant component of a landscape, 'revenge' or 'ironic' effects are inevitable. These effects are not due to mistakes made by farmers, or due to an accident of time and place, but rather due to the widespread deployment of the complex system of material and conceptual practices that define rubber as a 'technology', which involves state farms, crop science, land tenure security for farmers, government subsidies for investors, rural farmers' aspirations for a better life, and so forth. As mentioned earlier, these ironic effects include the loss of natural and agricultural biodiversity; greater use of surface and groundwater supplies; increased use of pesticides, fertilisers, and other chemicals; higher exposure to market booms and busts for smallholders and investors; and loss of land to investors and concessionaires. While these problems cannot be avoided, good governance could help in alleviating them. Government policies could be structured to increase not only agricultural production or GDP but also to improve the livelihoods of smallholders and to protect other environmental services such as biodiversity, and soil and water conservation. In order to do this, these policies must provide economic support for small-scale, diversified, agroforestry systems (multi-storied agricultural systems that preserve the features and ecological functions of a forest, with great species diversity).

Second, rubber growers need secure land tenure before they invest the resources needed to plant and maintain rubber for the 6 to 7 year period required before latex can be tapped. But as Hall et al. (2011) argue in their recent book on land dilemmas in Southeast Asia, tenure is a two-edged sword. The exclusive access to land that is productive for some comes into tension with the fact that others cannot access it. In Xishuangbanna, smallholder rubber production is a viable and effective proposition because the government recognises long-term use rights and provides extension services and subsidies during the initial period when the rubber is being planted and becoming productive. On the other hand, the lack of secure land tenure and the lack of government support make it difficult for smallholders in Laos to become rubber producers. Lao government policies need to support effective land tenure, agricultural extension services, and the provision of subsidies and services during the period it takes rubber to become productive.

The expansion of rubber in MMSEA affects the identities of upland peoples, particularly as they relate to new modes of livelihood, and their shifting relationships to the natural resource base, to the markets, and to the state. Recent years have witnessed road construction, crop intensification, capital investment, deforestation, and a movement of people and ideas on an unparalleled scale. With these developments have come fundamental changes in upland economy, policy, morality, and knowledge, as rural people respond to new pressures and take advantage of the new opportunities that rubber provides. Technology's 'revenge' or 'ironic' effects mean that the adoption of that technology not only brings the desired positive effects but also a series of other effects that are much less welcome. These effects are inevitable and they raise troubling and perhaps insoluble problems for specific people and groups. But if state authorities recognise the double-edged nature of rubber as a 'technology', they can act to try to limit its damaging effects through polices that recognise secure tenure and encourage small-scale, diversified agroforestry systems[28].

   References Top

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