Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. When you think of Thailand, images of white sand beaches fringed with palms trees come to mind. If you stop to look around on your travels you may start to notice another tree in proliferation, the rubber tree.
Rubber trees are not native species to Thailand, the first being planted way back in 1899 by a Thai-Chinese investor. Today, Thailand only competes with Indonesia in south-east Asia as the largest producer and exporter of natural ‘latex’ rubber.
Almost 90% of all Thai rubber is exported and is used to make condoms, balloons, tires and surgical gloves. Incredibly, the Thai rubber export market nearly doubles that of its rice market.
What are the Different Varieties of Rubber Trees?
There are many different types of rubber trees. The most common varieties are Hevea brasiliensis and Pará rubber tree. The former is the most common variety, and it is grown in plantations all over the world. The latter is native to Brazil and grows in the wild there.
The Hevea brasiliensis variety was introduced to other countries by the Dutch in 1876, after they discovered that Pará rubber tree latex was inferior to Hevea brasiliensis latex for use in making tires. Today, this variety accounts for more than 98% of all natural rubber production worldwide.
Rubber Trees Across Thailand
When you start to look around you will notice rubber tree plantations just about everywhere. These fast growing, monoculture, 20 foot high commercial rubber tree plantations are generally privately owned and it is estimated around 1.2 million Thai households have at least one person who works year round farming rubber.
There are around 3,000 rubber tree plantations in Thailand, which produce around 2.5 billion kilograms of rubber annually. The average production cost for rubber is about US$0.40 per kilogram and the average price is about US$1.50 per kilogram, with most of the plantations operating on a net margin of only 10-20 percent countrywide.
Rubber Journal Asia is the leading digital trade journal for Thailand’s rubber industry. It provides news and information on current trends, market developments, and business opportunities in Thailand’s economy.
Tapping Rubber Trees for Latex Sap
When a tree is around seven years old it is ready to be tapped. This is done about every other day and mainly at night when it’s cooler. We sometimes hear our neighbours (or at least our dogs do) going out or see the farmers head torches among the trees from our home. Each time a tree is tapped it yields about 50g of latex and the life of a tree is approximately 30 years.
The latex sap is collected in a cup attached to the tree. The rubber farmer adds a drop or two of acetic acid (vinegar) to the latex that causes it too coagulate very quickly.
The Price of Rubber
The price of rubber seems to be quite volatile and has been hitting the lows for the last few years. I guess it’s part supply and demand and part tied to the price of petroleum.
When the price of rubber bottoms or the trees reach a certain age, and produce only small latex yields, huge swathes of land are cleared and the trees are sold for lumber. This is made into furniture, plywood and composite boards. Pineapples are often planted on the cleared land as this is currently seen as a high cash crop when rubber falls. However, the price of rubber has a way of bouncing back!
I walk our dog Taxi throughout our neighbouring farmers rubber tree plantations every morning as part of our daily routine. It’s a great way to start the day. We can see the wood and the trees but we still have to keep an eye out for snakes, but that’s another story!
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We don’t grow rubber trees on our farm but we do grow our own cocoa trees using permaculture principles.
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Rubber Tree Plantations