For more than 30 years Babu Joseph has been tending rubber trees on his small farm in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Kerala used to be home to thousands of producers like him, who made a living extracting latex from small plantations of rubber trees, but over the last decade those numbers have dwindled.
“Rubber was once the state’s prime cash crop but over the past decade, prices have plunged,” he explains.
Tapping rubber trees is a labour-intensive activity. In the evening or early morning workers slice through the bark with cuts deep enough to allow the latex to run out and be collected in buckets – a process that is repeated on each tree every few days.
It requires some skill to make the incisions to the correct depth without damaging the tree.
Paying workers to do that amid falling prices has made plantations an unattractive business.
“Poor returns and high labour costs have forced many of the growers like me to give up their rubber plantations,” says Mr Joseph.
India’s rubber production peaked in 2013 at 913,700 tonnes, according to figures from the country’s Rubber Board.
Production then fell dramatically to 562,000 tonnes in 2016. Since then it has seen a modest recovery but remains well below the 2013 peak.
The boom years were fuelled by favourable weather and the rising price of natural rubber, which peaked on the international markets at 540 cents/kg in 2011.
But as Mr Joseph noted, prices have plunged – trading this year at 130 cents/kg.
While domestic production has stuttered, demand for natural rubber in India has soared. Around 70% of India’s natural rubber is consumed by the tyre industry, which has grown rapidly in recent years and is forecast to grow further.
“Consumption growth is expected to race ahead of production growth,” says Rajiv Budhraja, director general of the Automotive Tyre Manufacturers Association (ATMA).
“The wide gap between natural rubber production and consumption… is a major concern for the Indian rubber goods sector,” he adds.
He says tyre manufacturers are not happy to rely on imports for such a crucial material and also want to support the government’s Make In India initiative.
Importing rubber has hurt Indian producers, says Prasad Purushothama from the Rubber Board.
Usually, he says, international rubber prices are lower than those in the domestic market. So imports tend to drive down prices, further discouraging domestic producers.
The industry is trying to revive domestic production. Four members of the ATMA in partnership with the Rubber Board have a plan to create 200,000 hectares of new rubber plantations in Northeast India and West Bengal.
“The project is progressing as planned,” says Mr Budhraja. “In about four to five years from now, the Northeast will emerge as a large natural rubber production base in India.”
There’s also hope that India’s rubber growers can become competitive again with the help of technology.
On the outskirts of Guwahati in the state of Assam, a Rubber Board research farm is growing the world’s first genetically modified (GM) rubber plants, tailored for the climatic conditions of Northeast India.
Rubber plants originate from the Amazon, so favour warm, humid climates.
But the genes of the experimental plants have been tweaked so that they can survive in hotter, colder or drier conditions.
“GM technology is the future of rubber plantations,” says Jessy MD, deputy director at the Rubber Research Institute of India.
“It will add on qualities to the existing cultivated clones, which is not possible through conventional methods,” he says.
That’s going to be particularly important as weather conditions in Kerala, the traditional area of rubber cultivation, are changing.
“Climate change is one of the major challenges that will affect rubber farming in the coming years,” says Mr Purushothama.
The hope is that the new trees will mean rubber production can expand to new areas.
The rubber trees of Assam are under evaluation and it will be some years before they make much of an impact on India’s domestic production.
In the meantime some rubber producers are turning to other technology.
Chinmayan MK has an 18-acre rubber plantation in Kerala, where he uses machines to tap the rubber.
“The machines are costly but once used it’s much better than traditional techniques,” he says.
With the machine, workers with no experience can start tapping rubber. With a little practise they can tap as fast, or faster, than workers using knives.
The motorised tapping machine is the solution to the lack of tapping workers, says Mr MK.
According to him, the machines have resulted in a 60% rise in output on his plantation, while costs have fallen by 40%.
“In the beginning I was reluctant, but today my entire plantation works on machines,” he says, adding that innovation is needed to reverse the decline of Kerala’s rubber plantations.
“Many of the plantations have become old and need to be revived. But most of them are selling their land instead of finding a way to increase the production.”
Source : BBC