The strip-mine leveling of the Alleghenies for coal, burning of Nigeria for oil, asteroid-size pitting of lands everywhere for metal, irreversible biodiversity corruptions -everywhere again, and for everything, are all consequences of one human
phenomenon and one alone -overpopulation.>BR>
In more ways than we think, we humans are very much of the same primitive mentality and genetics as the 'warm-blooded four-footeds' and nearer anthropoid apes of our origins. As best as we can, 'We have a good life and try to make a
mark': 'Take care of ourselves, get along with others, raise a family and die'. It's called 'Democracy in action' -the same as that of our origins. The difference, however, is our uniquely human deliberative
capability that has made it possible for us to use the planet-whole resource/environment as our econiche -ways completely superceding the sameness of genetics and primitive mentality.
Simply stated, when our ancestors hit an econiche wall of unsustainability, they settled into some kind of dynamic stability and evolutionary process continued to move on -natural selection, whatever. We, on the other hand, live well
beyond simple 'genetic limitations' -'The earth (god says?) ours for the taking' -insanity!
Science 31 July 2009: Science Magazine
Addicted to Rubber
A rising tide of rubber plantations is eating away at Southeast Asian ecosystems. Can an ancient forest crop help wean the region off its monoculture habit?
Charles C. Mann*
BAN NAMMA, LAOS—When the man from Huipeng Rubber visited, most of the village's men came to meet him. They hunkered down in sandals and worn T-shirts on the bare ground in front of the village headquarters, as the company agent, dressed in a
sports coat, distributed cigarettes. Then the rep used a stick to sketch in the dirt the next step in the company's plan to remove 540 hectares (ha) of village forest and fields and replace them with rubber trees.
Ban Namma is at the edge of the Golden Triangle, the mountainous, thickly forested intersection of Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and China. Long infamous for heroin, opium, and other poppy products, the region is now becoming known
for another plant: Hevea brasiliensis, the Pará rubber tree. China has spread rubber across as much as 300,000 ha of Yunnan, replacing most of the southern province's lowland tropical forest. But now the nation is running out of land warm and wet enough
for H. brasiliensis. In response, according to a 2008 report by economist Weiyi Shi for the German nonprofit development group GTZ, smallholders with Chinese connections and, more recently, Chinese companies have begun to clear large swaths of Laos for
rubber. A single holding company, China-Lao Ruifeng Rubber, plans to cut and plant 300,000 ha; a second company, Yunnan Rubber, plans to convert 167,000 ha. As the tide of rubber sweeps from China into Laos, says Tang Jianwei, an ecologist at Yunnan's
Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), the entire region is being transformed into an "organic factory"—with alarming environmental consequences.
Where the rubber meets the land. Morning fog hangs over a hillside cleared for rubber in Laos's Luang Namtha Province (right). Fog dissipates earlier in the day than in the past in the Golden Triangle, altering the area's hydrology. Young rubber
trees in Xishuangbanna (left).
CREDITS (LEFT AND RIGHT): CHARLES C. MANN
Natural rubber is found suspended as minute particles in latex, a saplike substance made in hundreds of plants. Only a few, though, produce rubber suitable for human use, and the most important by far is the Amazonian tree H.
brasiliensis. Rubbermakers tap the trees and—in a process reminiscent of making maple syrup—boil down the latex to draw out rubber. A problem, say ecologists, is that large-scale latex extraction is draining the water table in Yunnan's southern
foothills. "Already, streams are running dry," Tang says. "Villages are being forced to move because they've lost their water supply."
Also alarming, rubber trees in China and Laos are mainly drawn from a small pool of parent stock, which means that their genetic diversity is low. In the 1930s, Henry Ford created huge rubber plantations in the lower Amazon, part of H. brasiliensis's
home range, only to have them wiped out by a fungal disease, South American leaf blight (Microcyclus ulei). Studies have indicated that Asian rubber plantations, including those in China and Laos, are vulnerable to leaf blight. In the age of jet travel,
the fungus should eventually find its way to Asia. "An outbreak could effectively strip the forest bare," says Horst Weyerhaeuser of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute in Vientiane, Laos. "It would take years—maybe decades—to
Putting the brakes on H. brasiliensis will not be easy. Southern Yunnan has vastly profited from its production; in a 2006 XTBG study, rubber sales increased one typical township's income almost 10-fold between 1988 and 2003. The region
will continue to benefit; some forecasters believe that by 2020, global demand for natural rubber will outpace supply by as much 1.4 million metric tons (MT). (Total 2008 consumption was 9.9 million MT, according to the International Rubber Study
Rubber in the Golden Triangle has been a classic standoff between economics and ecology: Monocultural plantations are so much more profitable than any other lawful agricultural system in these hills that they have inevitably prevailed,
no matter the environmental cost. But in a forthcoming article, Nicholas Menzies of the Asia Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that at least some smallholders have found out how to both make a living and restore forests to a
healthier state. Surprisingly, their way forward is a return to one of the region's most ancient products: tea. Not only that, they are growing tea in a way that until recently was derided as backward and inefficient—in the forest, under the canopy of
"Tea forests aren't pristine tropical ecosystems," Menzies says. "But they are far more diverse—and probably far more stable—than gigantic monocultures of rubber."
Although synthetic rubber has existed since World War I, natural rubber is superior—and much cheaper—for high-stress purposes. Only natural rubber can be steam-cleaned in a medical sterilizer, then thrust into a freezer—and still adhere flexibly to glass
and steel. Jet and truck tires are almost entirely natural rubber. Militaries are major rubber consumers—which is why the United States imposed a rubber blockade on China during the Korean War. The blockade helped persuade the Chinese to prioritize
growing rubber in 1951. Among the few areas in the nation warm enough for this tropical species is Xishuangbanna prefecture, at the southern tip of Yunnan.
Xishuangbanna prefecture has long been China's most biologically diverse area. Although it comprises just 0.2% of the nation's landmass, it contains 25% of its higher plant species, 36% of its birds, and 22% of its mammals, report
biologists at Yunnan's Kunming Institute of Ecology. In the 1950s and 1960s, the People's Liberation Army turned this richly forested area into a rubber haven. The plantations became, in effect, army bases; labor was provided by more than 100,000
workers, many of them urban students. As the Cultural Revolution ground on, student workers were awakened every day at 3:00 a.m. and sent to clear the forest, one recalled to anthropologist Judith Shapiro, author of Mao's War Against Nature: "Every day,
we cut until 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., then ate a breakfast of rice gruel sent by the [Yunnan Army] Corps kitchen. We recited and studied Chairman Mao's ‘Three Articles’ and struggled against capitalism and revisionism. Then it was back to work until lunch
break, then more work until 6:00. After we washed and ate, there were more hours of study and criticism meetings."
Scoffing at botanists' admonitions as counterrevolutionary, the youths repeatedly planted rubber trees at altitudes where the trees were killed by storms and frost. Then they planted them again in the same locations—socialism would
master nature, they insisted. The frenzy laid waste to parks, exacerbated erosion, and destroyed streams. But it didn't yield much rubber.
When China began its economic reforms in the late 1970s, the educated young people fled back to their home cities, precipitating a severe rural labor shortage. Yunnanese villagers were finally permitted to establish rubber farms.
Between 1976 and 2003, the area devoted to rubber expanded 10-fold, shrinking tropical montane forest in that time from 50.8% of the prefecture to 10.3% as Xishuangbanna planters learned how to adapt to hostile conditions at the edge of rubber's
geographic range. According to Hu Zhouyong of the Tropical Crops Research Institute in Jinghong, the prefecture capital, the relatively cold climate forces them to select for exceptionally robust trees. "Xishuangbanna is ahead of everywhere else in the
world in terms of productivity," Hu says.
Even as China became the world's biggest rubber consumer, its rubber producers were running out of space. They began to eye Laos, which has about 6 million people in an area the size of the United Kingdom. A few villages in northern
Laos had begun planting on their own as early as 1994. But the real push didn't begin until the end of the decade, when China announced its "Go Out" (zou chu qu) strategy, which pushed Chinese companies to invest abroad. Beijing had already changed the
old military farms into private enterprises—corporations with abundant clout. As part of Go Out, the central government announced that it would treat rubber-growing in Laos and Myanmar as an opium-replacement program, making the former Yunnan military
farms eligible for subsidies: up to 80% of initial costs for companies to grow rubber across the border, as well as the interest on loans and exemption from most tariffs for imported rubber.
Companies and smallholders flooded across the border. Most northern Laotian villagers live in hamlets without electricity or running water; schools and hospitals are a distant dream. Seeing a chance to improve their material conditions,
villagers jumped on the rubber bandwagon, cutting deals with Chinese companies and farms. "In China, they were as poor as us," the village head of Ban Namma told Science. "Now they are rich—they have motorcycles and cars—because they planted rubber. We
want to have the same."
Partly backed by funds for opium eradication, Chinese investors provided Lao farmers with seeds, fertilizer, and training for growing cash crops. "The most important by far was rubber," says Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Honolulu, who is
working with colleagues to evaluate rubber's impact in Southeast Asia. "It just exploded."
According to anthropologist Yayoi Fujita of the University of Chicago in Illinois, in 2003 rubber covered about 1 square kilometer in Laos, all near the border. It covered 45 km2 in 2006. The Laotian government has estimated that by
2010, rubber will cover 1800 km2 of the nation. Although the global economic crisis has slowed the pace of clearing, most researchers believe it will accelerate in the long run—along with the ill effects of that clearing.
Rubber, hit the road?
Although the Golden Triangle receives as much as 254 cm of rain a year, three-quarters of it falls between May and October. The rest of the year the forest survives largely on dew from morning fog. "Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there
was still fog at lunchtime," says XTBG ecologist Tang. "Now it's gone by 11:00"—a symptom, he says, of a profoundly altered hydrological regime.
Tang and others blame rubber. In 2006, XTBG ecologist Wu Zhaolu and colleagues from Yunnan University and Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve showed that converting tropical forest to rubber plantations increased surface water runoff
by a factor of 3—which in turn jacked up soil erosion by a remarkable factor of 45.
The greatest effect may be underground. H. brasiliensis usually sheds its leaves in February, and new leaves begin budding in late March, at the peak of the dry season. The leaf loss means that the forest has lower albedo and fewer
surfaces to retain dew. To propel growth, according to a 2007 study, the roots suck water from 1 to 2 meters below the surface. Tapping begins as new leaves appear and continues until they fall. To replace lost latex, the roots suck up still more
water—annually, roughly 5000 kilograms per hectare, according to XTBG estimates. The result is to lower the region's water table. Rubber, Wu and colleagues argue, is making the forest both gather less moisture from the air and lose it—and soil
Beginning to heed ecologists' worries, Xishuangbanna effectively banned new rubber planting in 2006 by freezing all land rotation. The scheme is unlikely to have much effect, Shi notes, as it seems to violate China's newly reformed land
laws. But even if Xishuangbanna farmers were to stop planting H. brasiliensis tomorrow, its area would keep rising as rubber trees invade remaining forest (Science, 21 March 2008, p. 1604).
Rubber's economic benefits may offset the ecological risks—but not if leaf blight arrives. Because rubber trees are grafted from high-yielding specimens, the great majority of plantation trees are clones. But as the area of rubber
increases, it becomes an increasingly inviting target for M. ulei. For a century, isolation has spared rubber plantations, but a recently opened highway now links Singapore and Kunming, Yunnan's capital. If and when M. ulei appears, this corridor will
In the rubber tree's native Brazil, diversity protects the species from leaf blight; H. brasiliensis is usually widely dispersed throughout the forest, surrounded by other tree species. Ecologists have long argued that the best way to
protect rubber plantations is to situate them in a larger, more diverse forest. That would require persuading some rubber planters to turn to something else.
Menzies argues for an alternative to monoculture plantations as a cash crop in these areas. In a forthcoming article in The Social Life of Forests, the proceedings of a May 2008 restoration conference, Menzies notes that Xishuangbanna
was until recently best known for "big-leaf" tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), of which the most famous variety is pu-er. When the Communist era began, farmers were pushed into "people's communes" and instructed to create massive monocultures of
short, clipped bushlike tea plants on terraces. Traditional methods were dismissed as primitive and backward.
Beginning in the 1990s, Menzies says, upscale tea fanciers, lured by tales of old-style pu-er tea, have sought out the remnants of ancient plantations of tea trees. Farmers have rebuilt them, creating a new market for what high-end
merchant Peet's sells as "ancient trees organic pu-erh." The price of shade-grown tea rose from about 20 yuan per kg in the early 1990s to 1200 yuan (about $175) per kg in 2007, Menzies says.
Because forest tea is grown beneath a variety of other trees, it promotes more tree diversity than a typical tea or rubber plantation. And because it grows relatively tall, it can tolerate more understory plants than a monoculture,
which is generally kept as free as possible of other plants.
Neither the central government nor Yunnan authorities have endorsed shade-grown tea as an alternative to monoculture plantations. Moreover, Menzies cautions, C. assamica cannot grow at very low altitudes, which means that tea could not
be readily substituted for rubber across the lowlands. But in his view, "the rise of green markets and niche markets shows that traditional methods can economically compete with intensive, high-volume production." Tea is not a perfect replacement for
rubber, Tang agrees. Still, he says, "every tea plant in the forest is one less rubber tree."
* With reporting by Josh D'Aluisio-Guerrieri.