Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rubber Plantation

Rubber Plantation In Isaan
On our recent quest and journey along the "road of opportunity", we encountered some rubber plantations.

Tapped Rubber Tree In Malaysia
I had first encountered rubber plantations when I lived in Malaysia 1999-2000.  They were large plots of land rivaling the palm oil plantations in size.  Although we were working six days a week, we were able to get out and about the countryside on our day off - Friday.  A small group of us would take a company vehicle for the day to explore our environs.  On journey brought us into contact with a large rubber plantation.  We initially stopped for me to photograph the tapped rubber trees - pretty much photographs taken all the time.  Shortly after getting back into the car while still within the plantation, we crossed paths with a couple workers driving motorbikes overladen with ball like globs of latex gathered from the tapped rubber trees.  This was an invitation to adventure.  We followed the workers to their destination.

Malaysian Latex Gathering Station
After a while the workers, followed closely by us, arrived at a centralized collection terminal for the latex collected from around the plantation. The workers offloaded their bikes and the globs of raw latex were weighed.  There were machines that would later compress the globs into more compact  and dense shapes for loading onto lorries for transport to a location for further processing.  I remember thinking at the time that these rubber plantation workers were amongst the world's hardest working people.  They were drenched - with their sweat from the oppressive Malaysian climate, sporadic rain showers and from the liquid latex.  An earthy smell from their sweat, the odor of the raw latex, and the smell of decay from the rain forest vegetation contributed to the ambiance of this isolated location.

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
Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia produce the vast majority of natural rubber (gum rubber) in the world.  Asia produces over 90% of the world's gum rubber.  Surprisingly the rubber tree, Herva brasiliensis, is not native to Asia.  The scientific name of the Para rubber tree is a tip off as to its origin - Brasil!  Originally the plant only grew in the Amazon Rain Forest.  The discovery of the vulcanization process increased world demand for raw rubber in 1839 leading to the development of rubber plantations in Brasil.  The British were largely responsible for the spread of rubber tree cultivation in the late 1800's.  Once the British were able to cultivate the trees in their botanical gardens, they sent seeds and seedlings throughout their empire to establish a reliable source and economic source of raw rubber.  Singapore, Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia, and India became sources of latex for the British Empire.  Ironically, efforts to make South America, its original home, a source of natural rubber production have been hampered by a leaf blight native to the area.

Tapped Rubber Tree in Thailand
The latex is extracted from the rubber tree by cutting the bark on an angle, inserting a galvanized steel spout, and allowing the latex to drip into a small collection cup or bowl.  The latex is tubes inside of the bark that grow in a right handed spiral at an angle of 30 degrees up the tree.  Men cut the trees carefully to not injure the tree's growth.  I have read that because the trees have a right handed helix the incisions are made up and to the left to optimize collection of the latex.  The trees that we observed in Thailand conformed to that theory.  However, the trees that I photographed in Malaysia were tapped "up and to the right".  I have no explanation.  I had a theory that perhaps the spiral helix was dependent upon the location of the trees - trees north of the equator spiraling to the right and trees south of the equator spiraling to the left - sort of like water draining from a sink north or south of the equator.  I just about had myself convinced of the validity of that theory until I checked the map.  The rubber trees in Malaysia although very close to the equator, were still north of the equator just as the rubber trees 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
I did not get to photograph the workers tapping the rubber trees or collecting the latex ... this time.  However now that I know a little more about the process and more importantly the timing, it is only a matter of time before we return to document the "rest of the story"  as Paul Harvey used to say.  One thing for certain though;  it will not be before we quit having these daily rains!  We are truly in our rainy season and this season seems to be much more rainy than others that I have experienced here in Isaan.

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