Hungry Tire Industry Treads On Southeast Asian Species

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Rubber plantations Demand for natural rubber fueled by the tire industry is threatening protected parts of Southeast Asia, according to recent findings. Up to 8.5 million hectares of additional rubber plantations will be required to meet this growing demand by 2024.
Image credit: Eleanor Warren-Thomas, University of East Anglia

The expansion of rubber tree plantations to feed the tire industry could have “catastrophic” impacts on biodiversity in protected parts of Southeast Asia.

While rubber plantations have long had a dark history in terms of the exploitation of human rights in Latin America — particularly of indigenous peoples — a new study shows that increasing numbers of rubber trees are threatening forests and endangered species in Southeast Asia.

“There has been growing concern that switching land use to rubber cultivation can negatively impact the soil, water availability, biodiversity, and even people’s livelihoods,” said Eleanor Warren-Thomas of the University of East Anglia in a release. Warren-Thomas is the lead researcher of a study published in Conservation Letters.

“The tire industry consumes 70 per cent of all natural rubber grown, and rising demand for vehicle and aeroplane tires is behind the recent expansion of plantations. But the impact of this is a loss of tropical biodiversity.”

The study focused on areas of high biodiversity from the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and Borneo to Southwest China, Thailand and the Philippines, among other places.

”Rubber can thrive across a wide range of climate and soil conditions across Southeast Asia, and could replace a whole range of forest types containing large numbers of globally threatened and unique species,” Warren-Thomas said. ”Protected areas have already been lost to rubber plantations. For example, more than 70 percent of the 75,000-hectare Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia was cleared for rubber between 2009 and 2013.”

She said that critically endangered or threatened wildlife like the white-shouldered ibis (Pseudibis davisoni), Eld’s deer (Panolia eldii) and Banteng (Bos javanicus) live in areas planned for future rubber plantations in Cambodia.

Palm oil plantations have long been one of the main drivers behind forest clearance in rainforest areas like Borneo. But while many palm oil companies are receiving international pressure to turn to more sustainable practices in those areas, Warren-Thomas said that little attention has been focused on the rubber industry so far.

“There has been huge pressure on companies to clean up their act when it comes to oil palm — with certification schemes and commitments from major players like Unilever to source sustainably grown products,” she said. “Rubber grown on deforested land is not treated any differently in the market to rubber grown in a more sustainable way. This is misleading, especially when some products made from natural rubber are labelled as an ‘eco-friendly’ alternative to petrochemicals.”

The researchers also found in their study that palm oil plantations looking to get eco-friendly sustainability certificates are replacing rubber plantations with palm oil, thereby pushing the rubber plantations elsewhere — an act that could result in more forest being cleared.

But she said there may be ways that sustainable practices could be worked into rubber plantations to make them friendlier to biodiversity, but further research needs to be done on these issues.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

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