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Rubber's rich rewards

Rubber has long been an important crop for smallholder farmers in Indonesia (© Sujono)
Rubber has long been an important crop for smallholder farmers in Indonesia
© Sujono

Rubber has long been an important crop for smallholder farmers in Indonesia. Introduced to the country early in the 20th century, it was quickly incorporated into traditional complex agroforestry systems alongside other useful trees and food crops, and provided a dependable source of income. These 'jungle rubber' systems are also noted for their high biodiversity, harbouring many species including some which are endangered. However, the rubber varieties in use were relatively low yielding, and farmers have increasingly struggled to make ends meet. Perhaps inevitably, more profitable land uses, such as large-scale rubber and oil palm plantations, began to replace the traditional jungle rubber systems.

Could this decline be halted, and the benefits of jungle rubber preserved through alternative, more profitable rubber agroforestry systems? This was the question that motivated a team of researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre, the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD) and the Indonesian Rubber Research Institute in the mid 1990s. With improved, higher yielding rubber varieties as the starting point, they worked with more than 150 farmers to develop and trial a range of alternative agroforestry systems that might be workable and more profitable for the farmers. Today, tens of thousands of Indonesian smallholders have adopted these systems and are reaping the benefits.

Profitable alternatives

Tens of thousands of Indonesian smallholders have adopted agroforestry systems (© Sujono)
Tens of thousands of Indonesian smallholders have adopted agroforestry systems
© Sujono

"I changed the way I manage my land," says Abdul Roni, who farms in the province of Jambi in Sumatra. "In 1996 I cleared the jungle rubber, planted high-yielding varieties and learned how to space my trees, weed between the rows and control disease. I also started to use fertilizer, something I'd never done in the past." Today, he gets three times higher yields from his rubber trees, and was recently able to pay for one of his children to go to university. Three others are in school and hope to follow in their elder sibling's footsteps.

The research team developed three distinct agroforestry systems, and farmers have adapted these to their needs. Following up on the adoption of the alternative systems, the researchers found that many farmers prefer to grow the high-yielding varieties in simple systems, alongside other tree and plant species which they have carefully selected for their useful products harvesting fruits, timber, resins and medicinal plants, as well as latex. By following the recommended management practices, farmers can get significantly higher yields and profits than from the traditional jungle rubber systems. Returns to labour are also higher, and start-up costs are relatively low. And while not as biodiverse as the jungle rubber systems, the agroforestry systems harbour many more species than some of the alternative land uses, such as large-scale monoculture plantations.

Eco-rewards

However, the research team had to accept that the alternative agroforestry systems alone would probably not be enough to halt the steady conversion of land to the more profitable but more environmentally damaging uses. As the importance of ecosystem services such as conservation of biodiversity becomes better understood, and new ways are developed to reward farmers for protecting these services, they investigated whether any of these options might be applicable to rubber agroforestry.

Researchers are looking for niche markets for certified environmentally friendly rubber (© Charlie Pye-Smith/World Agroforestry Centre)
Researchers are looking for niche markets for certified environmentally friendly rubber
© Charlie Pye-Smith/World Agroforestry Centre

Eco-certification is one promising possibility currently under investigation. If niche markets for certified environmentally friendly rubber can be found, with buyers prepared to pay a premium to support the farmers and their systems, this could tip the balance in favour of smallscale rubber agroforestry systems. "We've already had some interest from the Netherlands about supplying certified rubber to make bicycle tyres," says Laxman Joshi, a forester with the World Agroforestry Centre who led the research programme from 2004 to 2009. Other potential markets, he suggests, might be Formula One or hybrid cars.

Indonesia's government gave this possibility a boost in 2009, when it recognised the country's first Hutan Desa - or 'village forest' - in the village of Lubuk Beringin. The designation gives land rights to the community, which are essential if they are to negotiate agreements linked to sound land management, and it lays the foundation for both environmentally and economically sustainable rubber agroforestry in Indonesia.

For more information, see Rich rewards for rubber, written by Charlie Pye-Smith for the World Agroforestry Centre

Written by: Anne Moorhead

Date published: November 2011

 

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