A new study has found that deforestation for rubber cultivation has been “substantially underestimated” with devastating consequences for the biodiversity crisis. Crucially, it identified that forest destruction is two-to-three-times higher than generally assumed.
The new study was released on Wednesday 18 October in the journal Nature. It suggested that corporations and smallholders have deforested more than four million hectares since 1993 for rubber plantations. Moreover, it revealed that they have planted rubber in areas that are key for biodiversity.
Deforestation for rubber plantations
Scientists said the study compiled the first detailed accounting of deforestation for rubber production in Southeast Asia. Notably, the region accounts for most of global production. Specifically, there, companies and smallholders cultivate more than 90% of global rubber.
However, scientists have found the scale of the problem hard to quantify. This is because smallholders cultivate most rubber in plots that scientists have found difficult to pick out in imaging. They have therefore sometimes estimated figures based on national reports of crop expansion that are inaccurate or incomplete.
The Nature study used newly available, higher resolution satellite imagery and compared it with historical imagery analysed by a computer programme.
The analysis was possible in part because of the rubber plant’s distinct characteristics. In particular, the crop loses and regrows foliage at different times from tropical forest plants.
Rubber plantations in biodiversity hotspots
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, world leaders agreed to end deforestation by 2030.
Vast numbers of species call them home and they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, to name but two of their many gifts to the rest of the living world.
Now, the new study has specifically underlined the dangers to biodiversity posed by deforestation for rubber. In particular, the analysis found mature rubber plantations covered 14.2 million hectares in Southeast Asia in 2021. These were mostly in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
It suggested that companies cleared an estimated 4.1 million hectares for rubber between 1993 and 2016 alone.
Significantly, it found a million hectares of rubber plantations in regions nations had designated Key Biodiversity Areas. Specifically, this applied to biodiversity hotspots that governments had earmarked as of 2021.
Study limitations, yet dire deforestation figures
The researchers acknowledged that their calculation of deforestation is based on the conversion of any planted area to rubber. As a result, areas converted from agroforestry or other crops to rubber plantations were also counted as “deforested”.
Overall, however, the researchers believed their count is likely to be an underestimate of the total area companies had planted for rubber. Partly, this is due to limitations in the research. For example, cloud cover on satellite images complicates calculations. Moreover, capturing all cultivation from space posed a challenge.
The researchers also highlighted that they only examined rubber plantations that were still functioning in 2021 for signs of previous deforestation. Rubber plantations abandoned before 2021 were not counted. Of course, plantations prior to this date might also have caused deforestation.
What’s more, the study only covered Southeast Asia. Of course, companies cultivate rubber outside this region, such as in parts of Africa and South America.
EU rubber consumption driving deforestation
Nonetheless, the researchers argued that the study showed that policymakers need to place more focus on rubber as a driver of deforestation. In particular, it underscored the importance of rubber in new legislation that the EU and other nations are developing.
Specifically, it highlighted that:
Around 70% of the global natural rubber production is used in tyres with a few main companies accounting for most consumption
Moreover, it stated that since only a handful of companies account for most of the natural rubber consumers use globally:
it should be assumed that main importers of rubber such as the EU are substantially exposed to rubber-related deforestation
In November 2022, the EU reached an agreement on a key new deforestation law. The new law bans the import of high-risk commodities where companies have caused deforestation or forest degradation after 31 December 2020. Notably, the EU has included rubber in this list of products. On June 29, the EU put the new regulation into force. Evidently, the success of the new legislation is vitally needed to prevent further loss of the world’s biodiverse forest ecosystems.
Feature image via Vis M/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
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