- Since the cost of natural rubber, unlike synthetic rubber, is determined by markets and mostly driven by commodity exchanges like that of Singapore, Tokyo, and Shanghai, Thailand’s rubber farmers – mostly made up of small landowners who hold 95 percent of the planting area – don’t have safeguards against the seesawing econometrics of the business.
- They have also traditionally cultivated rubber as a monoculture – a practice often criticized for its environmental effects on soil, fauna population, quality, and productivity. So, diversifying the scope of their lands and livelihoods is an option that only makes sense.
- Gaining certification through organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) helps them transition through that diversification, widening the possibilities of income and teaching them more sustainable ways to manage their operations.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Since as far back as the early 1990s, Thailand has been the world’s largest exporter of natural rubber, responsible for as much as 35.1 percent of rubber exports in 2016. That year, Thailand globally sold more than 3,610 metric tons of natural rubber with an export value of $4.9 billion — its top export partners being China, United States, Japan and Malaysia.
However, the country’s rubber producers have not had it all smooth sailing and, as the largest producer of the commodity, this has had a severe effect on Thailand’s rubber industry and its farmers.
While the export quantity has mostly stayed in a constant range between 3,150 and 3,740 metric tons, the export value had dipped significantly from its 2011 heyday. In 2011, 3,330 metric tons of natural rubber was valued at $14.66 billion. Compare this to 2016 when 3,610 metric tons was valued at just $4.92 billion — a plunge of almost 70 percent. This price decline has resulted from a sharp increase in global supply and the changing dynamic of the global economy.
Since the cost of natural rubber, unlike synthetic rubber, is determined by markets and mostly driven by commodity exchanges like that of Singapore, Tokyo, and Shanghai, Thailand’s rubber farmers — mostly made up of small landowners who hold 95 percent of the planting area — don’t have safeguards against the seesawing econometrics of the business.
They have also traditionally cultivated rubber as a monoculture — a practice often criticized for its environmental effects on soil, fauna population, quality, and productivity. So, diversifying the scope of their lands and livelihoods is an option that only makes sense.
Gaining certification through organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), where I work as a media manager, helps them transition through that diversification, widening the possibilities of income and teaching them more sustainable ways to manage their operations. For example, becoming members of a smallholders’ group certification with organizations that promote sustainable management practices gives farmers access to opportunities and training that they can use to take forward this process of expansion, all while nurturing the natural ecology around them.
Under Principle 2 of the FSC’s International Generic Indicators, the organization or (in this case) the group manager is required to maintain or enhance the social and economic well-being of workers, which includes training requirements (Annex B). Some of these training requirements are to do with safety, social responsibilities, the handling of pesticides, and the maintenance and/or enhancement of ecosystem services.
Farmers like Somjit Yunu, Sanya Thongphoe, and Somjit Aphairat — who are members of a group certification in Thailand’s southern city of Hat Yai — have reaped the benefits of the skills they have learned through the training that sustainable management organizations like FSC enabled.
Forty-five-year-old Somjit Yunu, who owns 1.2 hectares (about 3 acres) of land, says she has learned better management practices for her plantation and a more positive way to nourish her land. Before becoming FSC-certified, her farmland was mostly monoculture. After gaining considerable knowledge about how her land can be of multi-crop use, she now also grows mahogany and durian on it. Yunu says that the change in her approach has brought about very visible benefits, economically and environmentally.
“I now use the organic garbage I earlier threw away as fertilizer for my land. The soil is better and less likely to degrade. The biggest reward for me is that I have started noticing that the soil has more earthworms and the quality of the fruit borne is better — thus enhancing its retail value,” Yunu says.
While another rubber plantation smallholder, Somjit Aphairat, was already practicing agroforestry, the training he received by being part of FSC has only advanced his knowledge.
“I have learned better waste, data, and records management after becoming a member. The diseases to my plants have decreased considerably, I make better use of my lands and monitoring them is now much more convenient thanks to the constant knowledge that FSC’s group manager imparts,” Aphairat says.
Sanya Thongphoem, a rubber plantation owner in Hat Yai, practiced traditional cultivation until 2017 — tapping latex from his trees till they were old enough to cut and sell for their wood. In August 2017, Thongphoem learned about a beekeeping workshop conducted by FSC-certified Panel Plus and enrolled himself in the hope of boosting his income, while he waited for the next latex harvest.
The 46-year-old farmer earned an annual income of 150,000 Thai baht (THB) or EUR 4,200 from latex collected from the rubber trees on his 2.5-hectare (6-acre) plantation. This translates to 12,500 THB per month (approximately EUR 350).
According to OECD’s Economic Outlook for Southeast Asia, China and India 2014, this is much lower than the country’s average monthly household income of 20,378 THB for farm operators that own land, almost half of Thailand’s national average monthly household income of 23,236 THB and at least four times lesser than what a professional, tech, or admin worker earns as a monthly average (51,866 THB).
So, the opportunity that beekeeping provided is understandably attractive to Thongphoem.
He has now cultivated tens of thousands of bees and currently owns 110 beehive boxes — 104 boxes of stingless bees (meliponines) and 6 boxes of common honeybees (apis). The economic opportunity this presents is huge.
Thongphoem says each beehive with stingless bees can produce 1 liter of honey per year, which sells for 350 THB (EUR 10) per 200 milliliter bottle. A beehive box with common honeybees produces 8 liters in the same period, selling at 150 THB (EUR 4) per 200 milliliter bottle.
With the beehives Thoengphoem cultivates, he can sell 520 bottles of meliponine honey and 240 bottles of honey from regular honeybees, making an additional annual income of 182,000 THB and 36.000 THB respectively. That’s an additional 218,000 THB (EUR 6150) annually or 18,200 THB (EUR 514) per month.
To put this in perspective, Thoengphoem’s earnings as an apiarist has the potential to boost his current income by 33 percent. It’s no wonder then that he hopes to eventually make apiculture (also called beekeeping) his main source of income.
“As I see it, beekeeping has boundless prospects. The bees help in the pollination of plants, they produce honey, which farmers and beekeepers like me can sell, and they maintain the balance of nature. This helps us improve our avenues for income, but is also good for the environment,” he says.
Elaborating further, Thongphoem says being FSC-certified has brought him benefits that are less tangible — and of more value than just economic gain could provide: “Earlier, I also used chemicals and pesticides like everyone else and never thought of the adverse impact it has on the environment. Thanks to the constant knowledge I’m able to access from FSC-certified Panel Plus, I have now switched to using organic fertilizers.”
These farmers are an example of how smallholder land owners can continue to reap economic gains even as they contribute to environmental stability and the well-being of their local ecosystems. By simply choosing to practice sustainable management of their lands, these smallholders are able to mitigate the risk of unstable rubber prices and a fickle economy, enrich soil biodiversity, and earn a decent livelihood.
• Marais, A., Hardy, M., Booyse, M., & Botha, A. (2012). Effects of monoculture, crop rotation, and soil moisture content on selected soil physicochemical and microbial parameters in wheat fields. Applied and Environmental Soil Science, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/593623
Arlene Chang is the Media Manager at Forest Stewardship Council International (FSC) in Bonn, Germany. She is also an independent writer on issues of sustainability, technology, health, gender and international development.
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