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The rough side of rubber

Rubber plantations in Yunnan are destroying China’s richest biodiversity hotspot. But blaming small-hold farmers will not resolve the issue, writes Janet C Sturgeon.

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Over the past couple of years, the government in Xishuangbanna, a prefecture in south-west China’s Yunnan province, has finally woken up to the destructive environmental impacts of monoculture rubber plantations. Problems they have identified include biodiversity loss and regional climate change as Xishuangbanna becomes hotter and drier.

A large sign on the bridge across the Mekong River in Jinghong, the prefecture capital, touts Xishuangbanna as China’s biodiversity treasure. But has the rubber boom put an end to this?

Xishuangbanna has been home to large state rubber farms since the 1960s. Since the dissolution of communes and allocation of land to farmers in the early 1980s, local officials have encouraged ethnic-minority farmers to plant rubber on their own lands. As a result, rubber now seems to be everywhere in Xishuangbanna.

Two years ago, the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden (XTBG), a local research institute, developed government-approved plans to urge ethnic minority farmers to restore their rubber fields to natural forest. But since 2003, with the dramatic rise in world rubber prices, farmers have enjoyed huge increases in household incomes from rubber. They are now understandably reluctant to accept significant income loss from reforestation on their rubber lands.

The problem is not easy to solve, since it pits the needs of local livelihoods directly against those of environmental restoration. The depth of the current dilemma requires us to delve into the history of rubber in Xishuangbanna, the role of ethnic-minority farmers in rubber production and state campaigns calling for farmers to plant rubber. It also raises the question of why reforestation plans target smallholder farmers rather than state rubber farms.

When the west imposed a trade embargo on the new People’s Republic of China in the early 1950s, leaders in Beijing decided that China should be self-sufficient in certain critical goods needed for fighting the Korean War and advancing industrialisation plans. Rubber was among them. Together with Hainan, Xishuangbanna was selected as a production site for rubber, even though the climate was not suitably tropical. Experiments that enabled the successful production of rubber in the region were touted as a “miracle” of science and a testament to revolutionary fervor.

The goal was to plant one million rubber trees in the prefecture. During the 1960s, large state rubber farms recruited Han Chinese workers from elsewhere to staff the state farms. Local minority farmers – regarded as lazy and “backward” – were thought to be unsuitable for the factory-like work. During the 1970s, educated urban youth sent to Xishuangbanna for “reeducation” worked to open land and expand rubber plantations. Clearing the land for state farms removed large tracts of lowland tropical rainforest and subtropical forest, resulting in a rapid decline in biodiversity, say botanists at the XTBG.

When communal land was contracted to individual households in the early 1980s, local government encouraged farmers to plant rubber on sloping lands. They believed rubber would serve the twin goals of feeding latex into China’s rapidly industrialising economy and raising household incomes. Until the 1990s, the state subsidised the price of rubber, providing farmers with a stable, if modest income.

Subsequent state campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s enjoined farmers to plant ever more rubber. Under the “Grain for Green” campaign, intended to promote reforestation in western China, farmers received free seedlings and five-year grain subsidies for planting forest cover on degraded land. And, in Xishuangbanna, the authorities decided rubber trees counted as forest cover. After joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001, China was obliged to follow the world rubber price. Over the last decade prices have tripled, bringing unexpected riches to farmers.

Encouraged by state subsidies and rising prices, farmers planted rubber across any remaining sloping lands, replacing natural forests with what the government calls “economic forests”.  Research carried out by the US-based East-West Center shows that ethnic minority families buy modern houses, drive the latest car models and send their children all the way through school, and sometimes to university. These farmers regard themselves as succeeding on China’s own terms. They have become progressive entrepreneurs whose well-educated children will contribute to China’s modernisation.  

But along with economic benefits, rubber plantations have taken a toll on the environment. Replacing natural forests with rubber has led to rapid biodiversity loss, depleted water resources (rubber trees suck up huge amounts of water) and even regional climate change as Xishuangbanna becomes measurably warmer and drier. Scientists fear that the hotter, drier climate may eventually limit the amount of rubber that Xishuangbanna can support.

In response to these concerns, researchers at XTBG have developed plans to turn certain rubber areas into natural forests. Potential sites include roadsides and sensitive watersheds on village lands. They are also engaged in projects to establish biodiversity corridors between the prefecture’s nature reserves and to connect them with a nature reserve in neighboring Laos. In order for plans to be effective, these experts argue that farmers must be compensated for their loss of rubber income. One PhD student at the institute is developing a sophisticated model to calculate how much farmers should be paid.  

But farmers report that no efforts have been made to consult them on their willingness to reforest, their choices of sites for forest restoration or the species they would prefer. Farmers know where streams used to be and what kinds of forest used to be where, and they are aware of the reduced availability of water for lowland crops. Many farmers are willing to participate in environmental-recovery activities, but they are wary of state promises. Numerous times in the past, they have been promised reimbursement that has never appeared, or reimbursed at a fraction of the value of land or other resources. Farmers ask what other crop could provide as much benefit as rapid-growing rubber, which can be tapped for latex after seven years.  

In recent visits to Xishuangbanna, I have heard nothing about efforts to reforest state rubber farms, other than a proposal to reforest one site on a state farm as a model for farmers to emulate.  Partly privatised in 2003, the state farms have not fared well in a competitive market. They are in financial trouble and may be broken up. Meanwhile, there is little acknowledgment of the environmental damage caused by the expansion of state farms. According to the state, the problem is caused by “backward” ethnic-minority famers, rather than “modern” state rubber farms.

The history of rubber in Xishuangbanna makes it clear that farmers planted rubber in response to multiple state campaigns over many years. They are now reaping the benefits, but are unfairly blamed for all the environmental problems resulting from monoculture plantations. Any plans to reclaim farmers’ land for reforestation or environmental recovery should start by including farmers in the discussion. Their input is critical to deciding where to plant, what to plant and how to reimburse farmers for long-term income loss. This kind of participatory planning and implementation, largely lacking in Xishuangbanna, is crucial for resolving the conflict between livelihood and environment in a prefecture touted as having the richest biodiversity in all of China. Does it still? Should it? And if so, who should bear the cost?


Janet C Sturgeon is assistant professor of geography at Simon Fraser University in Canada.  Her research focuses on ethnic groups, forests and land management in China and Thailand.  

For more information on the spread of rubber in Xishuangbanna and adjacent areas of south-east Asia, visit the East-West Center’s
research project.

Homepage image from cria.org.cn

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alternativeview

橡胶?还是木纤维?

云南地区小型农户生产的橡胶的价格之所以如此吸引人,是因为中国一直在推动汽车产业的发展,而汽车必然要使用橡胶轮胎。这项政策不仅对国际承诺(保证现在的平均温度相比工业化之前高出不超过2ºC)视而不见,同时也将依靠化石燃料(生物燃料)的机动车可替代能源矿藏量的巨大缺口跑到脑后。
这片文章没有提到另一个对云南地区生物多样性和居民的威胁,那就是来自林场管理团队的威胁(其中最大的管理团队来自沿海地区)。在政府官员的协助下,这些团队企图获取当地人民的土地管理权,在上面种植短轮伐期的木本植物,为中国的木制品产业提供原材料(其中很大一部分都用来出口),也帮助当地政府完成政绩目标。从前的土地使用者们永远的失去了他们赖以生存的家园。

Rubber versus wood-fibre

Prices for the rubber produced by smallholders in Yunnan are so attractive particularly because China is continuing to promote its automobile industry (and its use of rubber tyres). That policy ignores not only the globally agreed obligation of governments to ensure average temperature does not exceed 2ºC abov epre-industrial levels but also the insufficiency of reserves of the minerals needed to make substitutes for vehicles which are powered by fossil fuel (and agro-fuel).

The article does not mention another threat to the biodiversity and peoples of Yunnan – that from timberland management groups (the largest of which are incorporated offshore). With government officials, these groups have or are negotiating rights to take over those peoples’ land in order to grow short-rotation wood plantations – to provide raw material for China’s wood-based products industry (a large proportion of whose output is exported) and help local government meet its targets. The previous land-users loose their livelihoods.

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iseastars

环境人类学

大规模单一橡胶品种种植有害生态环境的事实是不容反驳的。橡胶单一栽培(高化学成分单一品种种植)开发于40年代,而其作用在文革时期的毛氏农业改造中被完全体现出来,从此也开启了西双版纳生物多样性的破坏,其大量细节在朱迪斯·夏皮罗所写的《毛泽东的反自然战争》一书中所提到。

从文中我们可以了解,农民需要橡胶的替代品,但若没有针对乡镇社区的关注和规划,开展造林及新式农业的希望是渺茫的。农民目前视利益大于可持续发展,这都是政府引导的!中国政府应退后一步并重新审视在西双版纳生活了几百年的布朗及Akalozi(或有误)少数民族的可持续式农业手段,得到环境保护的最佳答案不一定是通过科技,而是通过对生态人文学的透视。多从人类学的角度考虑考虑吧!

Environmental Anthropology

There is no counter-argument to the fact that large swaths of single-crop rubber plantations have deleterious impacts to the environment. Rubber monocultures (chemical intensive single crop plantings) were pioneered in the late 40s and championed through Mao's agricultural reforms in the Cultural Revolution. This lead to the decimation of biodiversity in XSBN. Judith Shapiro's book: Mao's War Against Nature describes this in great detail.

As we see in this article, farmers need an alternative to rubber, but the lack of community centered oversight and planning leaves little hope for reforestation and alternative agricultural methods. Farmers now seek profitability over sustainability, a direction they were lead in by the Chinese state! It is not right to blame the victim of propaganda and botched agricultural reform. The Chinese State should take a step back and examine holistic farming methods of the Bulangzu and Akalozi (spelling) minorities who have lived sustainably in XSBN for hundreds of years. The answer to conservation may not be through technocratic science but rather through the lens of ecological ethnography. Think anthropologically!

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timquijano

“先进的企业家”链接

这个链接有问题。

progressive entrepreneurs link

this link is broken.