|Rubber Plantation In Isaan|
|Tapped Rubber Tree In Malaysia|
|Malaysian Latex Gathering Station|
When Duang and I visited Luang Namtha Province in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, we saw huge fires on our way to the market in Muang Sing. I thought that the fires were associated with Hill Tribe people's "slash and burn" technique of agriculture. We questioned our driver and he informed us that the mountain sides were being cleared by large Chinese companies in order to create rubber plantations. Later in the day I noticed many areas of skinny tall trees aligned in perfect straight rows covering the hills. Later when we flew out of Luang Namtha to return to Vientiane, I was shocked at the number of hill sides denuded of native rain forest and supplanted by immature rubber plantations. Laos offers cheap land as well as cheap labor for Chinese companies. The profits of Chinese international trade are now being used to exploit the natural resources of Laos.
In Isaan, the rubber plantations are not large enterprises. Just as with rice production, rubber cultivation consists of small family owned plots. Like all cultivation, rubber production is a large gamble. Unlike rice, you can not eat your harvest or consume what you are unable or unwilling to sell. It takes around seven years from planting the trees before you can commence to harvest the latex from the trees, seven years of fertilizing, weeding the plantation, and pruning the trees. Seven years of carrying the costs of the land, preparing the land, the costs of the trees and the costs of planting the trees without a return on your investment is an additional financial burden as well as worry. Once the trees mature, they can be harvested for latex for about 25 years with older trees being more productive.
|Tapped Rubber Trees In An Isaan Plantation|
|Tapped Rubber Tree in Thailand|
The trees are tapped in the early morning when the internal pressure is the highest. This was confirmed by the rice farmers that we talked with near the rubber plantation in Isaan. They told us that the trees were tapped at night. Working at night helped to explain why we say several huts scattered about the rubber plantation. The huts were obvious locations for the workers to sleep or rest before and after work for the tappers. Once the tree is tapped, latex will ooze out for four hours when the latex coagulates in the tubes blocking off flow. When the flow stops the workers collect the latex from the collection cups. The tree is given a rest of a day or two and then tapped once again. The repetitive tapping of a tree uses up about 1 inch (25 cm) of bark a year. On older trees you can see a wide scar along the face of the tree where the bark has been cut and healed over many years.
The rubber plantation that we explored in Thailand was vacant for the most part. On one side of the road the trees had been tapped and were collecting latex. On the other side of the road, the latex collection cups had been placed in a vertical "storage" position rather than the horizontal "collection" orientation. The trees across the road had not been tapped recently and appeared to be in a "resting" state or perhaps the costs of harvesting the latex was not economically justified due to fluctuating market prices.
When I first got out of the truck I was somewhat challenged by a couple of field dogs from down the road. They walked up to within 30 meters of me barking as if to let me know they were around rather ti threaten me. I ignored them and shortly they returned to where they had come. A while later, while I was relieving myself, I heard the anxious sounds of things headed my way. I was relieved to determine to see that the things headed my way were not ghosts (phii) or any other creature to fear but just a small herd of cattle. Four cows and two calves quickly passed by me, crossed the road, and disappeared into the rubber plantation on the other side. A little while later, an old and bent over cattle herder approached from the direction the cattle had come from. The cows were no longer in sight, so I pointed in the direction that they had disappeared and told him in Thai "cows". he acknowledged my assistance and shuffled off in search of his free ranch herd.
|In Search of the Free Range Cattle Herd|