Sustainable forest management in natural rubber smallholder communities
10 October 2022 News
The dual concepts of sustainable management of forests and agroforestry - in which a commodity crop, such as the rubber tree, is grown amongst fruit trees, vegetables, timber, or even livestock - are not entirely new to smallholders in Thailand. In reality, community and indigenous management of forests by ethnic groups have been practiced in Thailand for centuries. With the introduction of the rubber tree into Thailand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these practices largely continued. However, primarily as a result of government initiatives to intensify the cultivation of rubber in the 1960s and 1970s, monoculture rubber plantations began to expand across Thailand and Southeast Asia, and little thought was given to its impacts on surrounding forest ecosystems and the smallholders who tapped and supplied natural rubber.
Today, smallholders produce the vast majority of the world’s rubber, and many smallholders in Thailand depend on these rubber plantations as the primary source of household income. This may expose smallholders to wildly fluctuating global rubber prices, as there are often no alternatives when prices are low. In addition, the environmental impacts of monoculture plantations have been well established, from the degradation of water and soils to the clearance of natural forest ecosystems, all of which exposes the rubber supply chain and the global community as a whole, to the devastating effects of carbon stock and biodiversity loss, and consequently, the worst effects of climate change.
At PEFC we believe there is a clear mandate to improve sustainability throughout the natural rubber supply chain, from the producer to international buyers and suppliers and onto the consumer. We can achieve this, with the knowledge and training derived from sustainable forest management certification, and it all begins with the rubber smallholder. However, to achieve this, community leadership at the local level is essential to provide smallholders with the necessary administrative and educational tools to management systems to help educate/train smallholders on sustainable best practices to adopt. In addition to local leadership and advocacy, clear, demonstrable examples and case studies need to be provided as a guiding light for rubber smallholders. In this article, we take a look at the nature of smallholder rubber production, with an emphasis on Thailand, and the necessary steps forward to bring true sustainability to the natural rubber supply chain.
Agroforestry: a system for mitigating volatile rubber markets
As mentioned earlier, agroforestry techniques have been practiced by smallholders in Thailand for many generations. Smallholder communities in Thailand often intercropped commodity crops with subsistence crops, and still do to this day. Agroforestry is often proposed as a possible solution for rubber smallholders to resist and endure the volatility of global rubber prices, as when times are tough and rubber prices are low, smallholders will have other commodities to depend on. Studies have shown that rubber smallholders who adopt agroforestry systems benefit from a significantly higher household income and daily nutritional intake than those who use monoculture plantations. Rubber agroforestry systems also sequester significantly more carbon than monoculture rubber plantations and contribute to soil biodiversity, which largely determines the role of land in producing food, storing carbon, and mitigating climate change.
PEFC sustainable forest management empowers smallholders to adopt best practices when it comes to agroforestry techniques through the provision of training and consultations to share knowledge between local, provincial, and national stakeholders. This support can assist rubber smallholders to ‘fill in the gaps’ in not only their livelihood needs but also their sustainability toolkits too.
The empowerment of women in rubber smallholder communities
Women represent roughly half of the labour force in tapping and harvesting rubber, particularly in Southern Thailand. At a subdistrict level, the inclusion of women at the local level is extremely important, as a large percentage of local communities are dependent upon their labour and financial contributions. However, there are still structural and cultural barriers that exclude women when it comes to governance and decision-making, such as selling rubber to a local cooperative for example.
At PEFC, we believe that policies and national standards that aim to bridge the gap between men and women in the rubber supply chain deserve a place on our agenda. That’s why PEFC sustainable forest management standards recognise the contributions of female smallholders and promote the equality and inclusion of women in all aspects of the harvesting, processing, and management of rubber and rubber products.
One of the smallholder co-ops in a subdistrict in Trang, in Southern Thailand, deserves to be recognized for its female leadership in the local community. K.Supawan and her team comprise mostly female leaders, managers, and community influencers, who are responsible for the implementation of the PEFC certification and all aspects of rubber production and management. This is an optimal example of women being empowered to lead, manage and do business commercially.
The vital role of rubber co-operatives
As the national representative body of the natural rubber industry, the Rubber Authority of Thailand (ROAT) supports smallholders by encouraging the organization and expansion of rubber co-operatives. Rubber co-operatives enable smallholders to pool their resources and overcome prohibitive processing and marketing costs, supply a product that meets international market requirements and secure more bargaining power when selling their product. The ROAT actively supports community development and membership of co-operatives amongst rubber smallholders so that the industry can advance collectively, from the bottom-up. Currently, there are over 500 rubber co-operatives in Thailand, representing more than 100,000 rubber smallholders.
One example of this in action is in the southern province of Satun. Satun’s co-op management on a provincial level is effective and empowered by Thailand Forestry Certification Council (TFCC) national standards and the provincial community has demonstrated much progress in building the necessary infrastructure and is ready to meet market demands. Two rubber fund co-operatives, Khuan Kalong and Chalermprakiat, began pursuing the TFCC national standard in 2021, initiated by the Rubber Authority of Thailand Satun with the collaboration of the Thai Industrial Standard Institute, Royal Forest Department, and Thailand Forest Certification Council. The project involves 600 smallholders and more than 2,470 acres of rubber plantation.
However, not all co-operatives are as well developed as those in Satun, due to different geographical locations and different community needs. These other co-operative communities still lack the necessary resources, information, and administrative tools and are looking for strategic partners to grow with. Organizations interested in working with them can contribute to bolstering the capacity of rubber smallholder cooperatives by working with PEFC and TFCC to design collaboration and pilot programs that focus on win-win solutions for multi-stakeholder needs. Working together with existing cooperatives is one of the most direct and streamlined ways to introduce smallholders to sustainable forest management, as this enables PEFC to provide certification coverage to a maximum number of smallholders whilst softening the burden of complying with international market requirements.
PEFC, in partnership with rubber stakeholders at the local, provincial and national levels, has laid the foundation to empower and upskill these smallholder communities by building pilot projects for other communities to explore and learn from. By embracing the principles of agroforestry, bringing women into all aspects of the production and management of rubber, and collaborating with rubber cooperatives, smallholder rubber communities can identify needs and requirements that are suited to their unique contexts within their respective communities. We are now recruiting partner organizations and commercial companies to collaborate with PEFC through our PEFC Collaboration Program, to help scale group certification that enables quality assurance and quality control, and results in an improvement in the livelihoods of the millions of rubber smallholders that work tirelessly to bring this vitally important natural resource into our lives.
If you are interested in sustainable forest management for rubber smallholders, or starting and supporting the PEFC Collaboration Program for Group Certification, please contact shawn.goh@PEFC.org to get more details and start working with our community!
About PEFC: The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is the largest forest certification system in the world, and the certification system of choice for small forest owners, with more than 280 million hectares represented across its 55 national members. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, PEFC is recognized for the role it plays in providing independent assessment, endorsement, and recognition of national forest systems. PEFC has extensive stakeholder relationships throughout Southeast Asia, which is where most of the world’s natural rubber is produced.