National Geographic : 2016 Jan
136 national geographic • january 2016 A&M University, warned in 2012. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report the previ- ous year recommended that all air passengers bound for Southeast Asia who have been in South America’s blight zone within the previ- ous 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 pro- gram for blight resistance has been established. In four visits to Southeast Asia I didn’t encoun- ter a single rubber farmer who was considering resistant varieties. Even ecologists have devoted little attention to the threat. Instead they focus on “more im- mediate 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 herbi- cides to wipe out snake-hiding ground cover. Species that depend on the destroyed plants quickly succumb too—a further loss of biodi- versity. Rain erodes the exposed earth, threat- ening 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 riv- ers are drying up. The industry response has been that “people can get water in plastic bot- tles,” 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 Xishuang- banna. With me were the reserve’s research di- rector, Liu Feng, and Gerhard Langenberger, an agroecologist at Germany’s University of Hohen- heim. 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 in- clude 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 sur- rounding 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 il- legal rubber plants. The malefactors had been U.S. Arriving jets leave traces of rubber at Nashville International Airport. Because they must not fail, airplane tires are usually made with natural rubber, which is stronger, more flexible, and better able to withstand vibration than synthetic rubber.