Why We (Still) Can’t Live Without Rubber

As global car sales soar, the demand for tires is transforming Southeast Asia’s landscape. New plantations of rubber trees are lifting some out of poverty—but may also spark an ecological disaster.

This story appears in the January 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Sometimes you just want to spend a few hours washing your truck. It’s a beautiful day, all of northern Thailand vibrant in the spring sun, so you drive your new Isuzu into the stream that runs through your village, Tung Nha Noi. Cows and people walk by as you stand in the water, a 21-year-old guy with a hot ride, sponging it so clean that the vehicle gleams like hope in the sun.

Not so long ago the chances that someone like Piyawot Anurakbranpot—“Chin” to his friends—would have a fancy truck at such a young age would have been close to zero. People in remote villages like Tung Nha Noi didn’t have the money. But recently families like Chin’s have become much more prosperous. The reason is visible in the hills behind him. Ten years ago they were covered with dense tropical forest—a profuse tangle of native vegetation. Now most of the slopes have been shaved as clean as a drill instructor’s chin and replanted with a single species: Hevea brasiliensis, the Pará rubber tree. Night after night, Chin’s family and tens of thousands of others in Southeast Asia go into plantations and tap their rubber trees, maple-syrup style. Thick white latex drips into buckets. The goo is coagulated into solids that are pressed into sheets and transported to factories, where they are processed into O-rings, belts, gaskets, insulation, and tires—lots and lots of tires. About three-quarters of the world’s rubber harvest goes to make automobile, truck, and airplane tires—almost two billion a year.

Because rubber is so common, so unobtrusive, so dull, it may not seem worth a second glance. This would be a mistake. Rubber has played a largely hidden role in global political and environmental history for more than 150 years. You say you want an industrial revolution? If so, you need three raw materials: iron, to make steel for machinery; fossil fuels, to power that machinery; and rubber, to connect and protect all the moving parts. Try running an automobile without a fan belt or a radiator hose; very bad things will happen within a minute. Want to send coolant around an engine using a rigid metal tube instead of a flexible rubber hose? Good luck keeping it from vibrating to pieces. Having enough steel and coal to make and drive industrial machinery means nothing if the engines fry because you can’t cool them.

To the extent that most people think about rubber at all, they likely picture a product made from synthetic chemicals. In fact, more than 40 percent of the world’s rubber comes from trees, almost all of them H. brasiliensis. Compared with natural rubber, synthetic rubber is usually cheaper to produce but is weaker, less flexible, and less able to withstand vibration. For things that absolutely cannot fail, from condoms to surgeon’s gloves to airplane tires, natural rubber has long been the top choice.

Iron can be found around the globe; so can fossil fuels. But rubber today is grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, because the region has a unique combination of suitable climate and infrastructure. Despite all the ups and downs in the global economy, the demand for tires continues to grow, which has created something akin to a gold rush in Southeast Asia. For millions of people in this poor part of the world, the rubber boom has helped bring prosperity; Chin does not have the only new pickup in Tung Nha Noi. And rubber has helped end the region’s isolation. Brand-new “rubber highways”—the last finished in 2013—now connect previously remote plantations in Southeast Asia to tire factories in northern China.

But the consequences of the rubber trade are not purely economic. Southeast Asia’s legions of Chins have set off what Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Hawaii calls “one of the biggest, fastest ecological transformations in human history.” In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar rubber farmers have cut or burned down forests and planted row after row after row of H. brasiliensis. In the process, they are converting one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems into a monoculture as uniform as a Kansas wheat field, potentially threatening the basic ecological functions of an area inhabited by tens of millions of people. Each of the five tires on Chin’s truck—one on each wheel plus a spare—is like a small patch of tropical forest, stripped and compressed into a glossy black ring. So is every tire on my car and yours.

Monocultures are intensely productive—and intensely vulnerable. Just ask Henry Ford. Giant among industrialists, control freak extraordinaire, brilliant but possibly illiterate, Ford ran his own iron and coal mines, built his own power plants, logged his own timberlands. His River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn, Michigan, had a deepwater port, a steel foundry (the world’s biggest at the time), and a hundred miles of interior railroad. Every type of material needed to manufacture automobiles was made at River Rouge save one: rubber. In 1927 Ford acquired nearly 4,000 square miles in the Amazon Basin, original home of H. brasiliensis.

Native peoples had used rubber for centuries to waterproof their clothing and make rough rubber boots. By the early 19th century North Americans were buying rubber from their southern neighbors to make boots and coats of their own. But these early rubber creations melted in the summer heat and lost their flexibility in the cold. Only in the 1840s, after the amateur U.S. inventor Charles Goodyear discovered how to stabilize rubber, did it become suitable for widespread use. Goodyear’s discovery was called vulcanization. It opened the floodgates for a stream of inventions.

Realizing that rubber had been transformed from a curiosity into a valuable commodity, explorers went into the Amazon forest in search of the latex-bearing trees. Boomtowns sprang up, Manaus the most remarkable. In this Brazilian city encircled by vast forest, rubber barons threw up huge mansions, paraded their bejeweled mistresses, and built an ornate opera house of imported Italian marble.

European and North American governments didn’t like depending on a commodity controlled by a nation that was out of their political control. Officials at England’s Kew Gardens went looking for someone they could pay to bring rubber seeds out of the Amazon. Enter Henry Alexander Wickham, a man loathed in Brazil to this day.

Born in 1846, Wickham was an entrepreneur whose ambitions were as great as his inability to achieve them. In the 1870s he and his wife were struggling to establish a tobacco and sugar plantation in the lower Amazon town of Santarém. After being contacted by Kew Gardens, Wickham gathered three-quarters of a ton of rubber tree seeds, which he loaded onto a London-bound ship. British authorities were appalled when he showed up demanding payment for every one of his 70,000 seeds. Yet sprouts from the seeds eventually were transported to British, French, and Dutch colonies in Asia. Would-be rubber kings fanned out into the equatorial forest, axes flashing, torches flaring. By 1910 more than 50 million South American trees were growing in Asia. The following year, as Asian rubber flooded the market, prices in Brazil collapsed. To the nation’s shock and fury, its hugely profitable rubber industry imploded within months.

In the following decades Southeast Asia became the hotbed of rubber production, as H. brasiliensis spread across much of what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Plantation owners, suddenly wealthy, snapped up real estate in Singapore. The ever itinerant Wickham, lionized as the creator of the new industry, took to wearing a nautilus-shell tie clasp, a waistcoat fastened with silver chains, and a luxuriantly curled mustache that hung below his jaw like a flowering tropical vine.

Wickham died in 1928, a year after Henry Ford obtained his land on the Tapajós River, in the lower Amazon Basin. Detesting his dependence on Asian rubber, Ford had decided to create his own supply. Thousands of workers hacked out a new, midwestern-style city from the rain forest, stocking it with rows of clapboard bungalows, Baptist churches, and a Main Street with American bakeries, restaurants, tailors, cobblers, and movie theaters. Fordlandia, as the project was quickly nicknamed, had the only 18-hole golf course in the Amazon. The scale was grandiose: The city was big enough to house several hundred thousand people. All told, Ford spent about $20 million to build it, close to $300 million in today’s money.

The project was that rarest of events, an unqualified disaster. Incredibly, the company laid out a rubber plantation half the size of New Jersey without consulting a single person who knew anything about growing H. brasiliensis. For starters, the property was unsuitable for large-scale rubber cultivation. The soil was too sandy and the rainfall too seasonal. If a botanist had been on-site, Ford might have learned that there is a good reason that rubber trees are never found clustered together in the wild: They are too vulnerable to attack by South American leaf blight.

Microcyclus ulei, as biologists call it, looks at rubber trees the way ant armies look at frogs: as lunch. The fungus “doesn’t kill trees straight out,” historian Greg Grandin explains in his book Fordlandia. Instead its spores tunnel into leaves, consuming their nutrients until they fall off. When the leaves regrow, the fungus attacks again; the trees, Grandin writes, “grow successively weaker, either producing dwarf shoots or dying back altogether.”

The battle is silent, protracted, and for the tree, almost invariably fatal. In the wildMicrocyclus ulei spores can’t spread easily from one rubber tree to another because the trees are widely dispersed in the forest. On a plantation, trees are close to one another, like dishes at a buffet, letting the fungus hop easily between them, one plate to the next. In creating his rubber plantation, Ford had effectively spent huge sums to create an enormous fungus incubator.

In 1935 the inevitable occurred. Fordlandia’s rubber trees were denuded in just a few months—an ecological cataclysm, an economic ruin. Ten years later Ford quietly unloaded the land for pennies on the dollar. In the seven decades since, every attempt to create a rubber plantation in Central or South America has failed. In the end, the fungus always won.

In the 1920s, eager to control the supply of rubber he needed for tires, automaker Henry Ford created the world’s biggest rubber plantation on 2.5 million acres of the lower Amazon Basin. Fordlandia, as it was called, was a disaster. Incredibly, he established the plantation without hiring anyone who knew how to grow rubber.
In the 1920s, eager to control the supply of rubber he needed for tires, automaker Henry Ford created the world’s biggest rubber plantation on 2.5 million acres of the lower Amazon Basin. Fordlandia, as it was called, was a disaster. Incredibly, he established the plantation without hiring anyone who knew how to grow rubber.

As you drive into the outskirts of So Phisai, Thailand, the air smells like a nail salon. The smell is from formic acid, the chemical used to coagulate latex from rubber trees. You see new roofs with satellite dishes on almost every home. The smell of formic acid is also the smell of money.

Many of the people in So Phisai want, in effect, to be Sommai Kaewmanee. The son of landless migrants, he borrowed money in 1992 to plant the town’s first rubber trees. At that time, he told me, everyone in So Phisai grew cassava, barely eking out an income. Young adults had to move to Bangkok to find decent jobs. Kaewmanee borrowed money to put about 1,500 trees on eight acres and persuaded three other farmers to join him, promising that people who planted rubber would become millionaires. (Most of them got pretty close, he told me.)

During my visit Kaewmanee showed me the books from his growing business. If the figures had been plotted on a graph, they would have mirrored those for global automobile sales: a wiggly but inexorable march upward. Rubber riches, slowly accumulating, bought him a new home and a spiffy 4x4 vehicle and the portable electronic gadgets that his kids, home from school, were staring into. Kaewmanee had become the agricultural supervisor for his subdistrict, where 90 percent of the farmers grow H. brasiliensis. He now has about 75,000 trees. His nursery sells a million seedlings a year. Forestland is still available around So Phisai, he said, ready to be turned into tires.

Kaewmanee didn’t know it, but his home and car were made possible by Chinese scientists. When rubber first came to Southeast Asia, it could grow only in the warm and wet equatorial forests of what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern tips of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar—places that mirrored rubber’s Amazonian home.

During the Korean War the United States imposed rubber sanctions on China. Furious, China developed varieties of H. brasiliensis that could grow in the relatively cool district of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, on the border with Laos and Myanmar. Xishuangbanna represents just 0.2 percent of China’s land area, but it houses many of China’s species: 16 percent of its plants, 22 percent of its animals, and 36 percent of its birds. All are now threatened by rubber. Armed with the new, cold-tolerant trees, the Chinese military established state-run plantations there. Small farmers later filled in most of the land that was left. Today you can stand on a hilltop in Xishuangbanna and see nothing but rubber trees in every direction.

It typically takes a month’s worth of latex from four trees to make just one tire. Xishuangbanna isn’t nearly big enough to satisfy Asia’s demand. Promoted with state programs, sought after by Chinese corporations, H. brasiliensis has spread through Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam like suburban sprawl, replacing swaths of native forest along the way. Global natural-rubber production has jumped from 4.4 million tons in 1983 to more than 13 million tons today.

To grow that extra rubber, Southeast Asian farmers have cleared about 18,000 square miles, an area about the size of Massachusetts and Vermont put together. And that figure doesn’t include the forest logged for new processing facilities, the new homes built in the forest for new rubber workers, or the roads cut to reach the new plantations.

All that production—combined with a decline in demand—has made rubber prices fall in the past few years, but nobody expects the growth to stop. The boom means that a random visitor like me can drive around northern Laos at night and see fires in the hills—set by families burning patches of forest to make room for new plantings. It means teenage Thai boys drive by on motorcycles groaning beneath a half dozen garbage bags full of homemade balls of coagulated latex. It means entire farming villages that get up at two in the morning to tap rubber trees, because latex flows best before dawn.

The ecological threat posed by the rubber boom goes beyond the loss of biodiversity. The rubber trees on these new plantations are descendants of the seeds that Henry Wickham spirited out of Brazil. As Henry Ford learned the hard way, they are terribly susceptible to blight. By the 1980s scientists were cautioning that a single errant spore of South American leaf blight reaching Southeast Asia could bring the automobile age to a screeching halt. “The potential of an economic disaster increases with every transcontinental flight landing in Southeast Asia,” two researchers at Florida A&M University warned in 2012. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report the previous year recommended that all air passengers bound for Southeast Asia who have been in South America’s blight zone within the previous three weeks should be inspected. No such program has been enacted. Although scientists in Brazil have found and begun testing resistant varieties of rubber trees, no Asian breeding program for blight resistance has been established. In four visits to Southeast Asia I didn’t encounter a single rubber farmer who was considering resistant varieties.

Even ecologists have devoted little attention to the threat. Instead they focus on “more immediate issues,” says Xu Jianchu, of China’s Kunming Institute of Botany, about 200 miles northeast of Xishuangbanna. Rubber tappers, working at night, fear encountering snakes in the dark, so they drench the hills with herbicides to wipe out snake-hiding ground cover. Species that depend on the destroyed plants quickly succumb too—a further loss of biodiversity. Rain erodes the exposed earth, threatening the soil.

Perhaps most serious, rubber trees consume a lot of water in the process of making latex. Producing tires is like taking groundwater from the hills and putting it on trucks for export. As a consequence, Xu says, highland wells and rivers are drying up. The industry response has been that “people can get water in plastic bottles,” he says, with a grimace. Soon rubber will cover most of Southeast Asia. The problems will spread from China to much of Southeast Asia. “Unless governments step in, it will not stop.”

On a foggy and distinctly cool day I drove to the Nabanhe National Nature Reserve in Xishuangbanna. With me were the reserve’s research director, Liu Feng, and Gerhard Langenberger, an agroecologist at Germany’s University of Hohenheim. The landscape switched back and forth between plantation and wildland in a way that reminded me, to my surprise, of the patchwork of fields and forest around my New England home. We were going to the reserve because Liu and Langenberger think it hints at how rubber could coexist with a natural ecosystem.

Unlike most nature reserves, Nabanhe is full of people. Its one hundred square miles include 33 small villages, with a total population of about 6,000. The land is divided into three zones. In the core, no human activity is allowed, as in a classic wilderness park. Surrounding that is a buffer zone, where people can live but are allowed only limited use of resources. And surrounding that is an experimental zone, where people can farm—that is, plant and tap rubber.

The balance is difficult to maintain, Liu said. That afternoon we saw villagers ripping out illegal rubber plants. The malefactors had been turned in by their neighbors. Forestry police watched as the plants were dragged away. A few hours later we met some of the police for drinks and food in a kind of mountain saloon. One told me the villagers’ punishment hadn’t been severe—he just wanted them to be mindful of the rules.

Langenberger believes that scientists should provide the facts and then let locals decide how to manage the landscape. “I don’t blame the farmers,” he said. “They’ve been poor here for so long. Now they have a crop that lets them participate in the world market.” Scientists can’t—and shouldn’t—“tell them to stop growing rubber,” he said. The logic of conservation is to forbid all human activity in the name of preserving vital rain forest. The logic of industry is to cover every scrap of land with rubber trees. Langenberger hopes it might be possible to create a state of productive tension. The Nabanhe Reserve, he hopes, could help show the way, a small effort to make things work in this tiny corner of the interconnected world.

Charles C. Mann is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He’s the author of 1491, winner of the National Academies of Sciences’ Keck award for best book of the year, and the best-selling 1493.

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