National Geographic : 2016 Jan
rubber boom 133 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 sub- district, where 90 percent of the farmers grow H. brasiliensis. He now has about 75,000 trees. His nursery sells a million seedlings a year. For- estland 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 equato- rial 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 Xi- shuangbanna in Yunnan Province, on the bor- der with Laos and Myanmar. Xishuangbanna represents just 0.2 percent of China’s land area, but it houses many of China’s species:16 per- cent 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. Xishuang- banna 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 visi- tor 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 coagu- lated 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 de- scendants 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 single errant spore of South American leaf blight reaching Southeast Asia could bring the automobile age to a screeching halt.