Natural rubber plantations emerged as a significant source of deforestation, land grabs and human rights abuses in the first decade of the 21st century.
Three quarters of the world’s natural rubber production goes to manufacturing tyres for cars, trucks and aircraft. The many other applications for natural rubber include medical supplies, latex gloves, conveyor belts, mattresses, footwear, water-proof clothing and condoms
Rubber production's impact on deforestation
Natural rubber cultivation expanded quickly from the mid2000s onwards, linked to rising rubber prices and demand from China. A consultants’ report for the European Commission (2018) attributed three million hectares of forest loss in the Mekong region directly to the increase in rubber cultivation since 2000.
As well as forest loss, rubber growing increases biodiversity loss and soil erosion, hazardous waste, chemical smells and pollution linked to the processing of natural rubber.
Rubber production's impact on human rights
The increase in rubber cultivation has been linked to social conflict and human rights abuses in some areas where large industrial scale rubber plantations have seen rapid expansion, notably in Cambodia and Laos. Problems have included land grabbing, coercion, violence, eviction and loss of livelihoods for rural communities.
Recent NGO reports have exposed social injustices and environmental problems stemming from the development of industrial scale rubber plantations in some countries that are not yet major rubber producers, for example Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
EU is a key consumer
The European Union (EU) is the destination for 25 per cent of rubber exports. Ten per cent of global natural rubber production goes to four individual EU Member States: Germany, France, Italy and Spain. The EU is also a large importer of manufactured products that contain natural rubber. Moreover, large European companies play an influential role in the supply chain through their purchasing choices.
Fern is calling for an EU Action Plan to ensure imports of forest-risk commodities, including rubber, are legally sourced and ecologically viable.
This is the fifth in a series of background notes on agricultural commodities.
Briefing notes in this series: