Rubber meets the road

Cultivating a natural resource without deforestation

Trekking between remote villages and corporate boardrooms, WWF’s forest experts have worked for decades to halt deforestation.

“It erases everything—forest diversity, carbon stocks, overall biodiversity, and tiger and elephant habitats,” says Michael Stuewe, a biologist and senior advisor on the WWF-US Forest team.

Clear-cutting for agriculture is the largest driver of forest loss the world over, and converting land for palm oil, paper, pulp, and other commodities is hitting mainland Southeast Asia especially hard.

By 2013, WWF’s work to protect forests had begun to bear fruit. In Indonesia, for example, after a multi-pronged, decades-long effort to raise public awareness of agriculture’s impact on forests and wildlife, the giants of the paper and palm oil industry publicly committed to zero-deforestation policies that, among other things, called for not degrading important wildlife habitats.

But public commitments mean little without verification systems that ensure compliance. So Eyes on the Forest, a consortium of Indonesian nonprofit groups including WWF-Indonesia, started using satellite imagery to identify changes in forest cover inside and adjacent to corporate concessions (lands granted to corporations by the government for a particular use). The imagery revealed troubling new clear-cuts, including some from another commodity: rubber.

“Suddenly there was a whole new set of operators cutting down the forest we had been trying to protect from paper and palm oil for years,” says Stuewe. “Rubber had never even been on our agenda.”

It was clear that WWF needed to learn more about how the industry worked—and what could be done to influence it.


A threat revealed

Meanwhile, publication of a groundbreaking report had served as a wake-up call for another region: the Mekong. Produced by the nonprofit Global Witness, the report, Rubber Barons, showed that Vietnam’s two largest rubber-producing companies had clear-cut huge swaths of forest in Cambodia and Laos, grabbing land and driving off people who depended on those forests for survival.

Understanding that rubber may be the big new threat to priority conservation landscapes in the region, the WWF team began analyzing the rubber industry’s impact across the Mekong region of Southeast Asia. The results were sobering. “We found that rubber production was hammering most of the conservation landscapes where WWF works,” says Stuewe, “and that it was being driven by what many believed were artificially high, speculative prices on the Shanghai commodities exchange. People saw rubber as the new cash cow in town, and deforestation for rubber began in a very big way.”

Although used in a variety of products, about 75% of all natural rubber goes to make tires for cars, buses, semis, motorcycles, bicycles, and airplanes. And the world’s fleet is projected to double by 2040. In addition to the climate-changing emissions and other troubling environmental impacts of all those new vehicles, a lot more rubber will be needed to make tires for them, potentially fueling even more deforestation.

Intent on changing that trajectory, WWF has been working with some of the world’s largest rubber-consuming companies, rubber farmers, government leaders, and other nonprofits to promote more forest- and people-friendly ways of doing business. Things like not planting in prime wildlife habitat; improving rubber quality and yields on existing plantations to reduce the need for more rubber acreage and to increase income for farmers; and recognizing and upholding human and workers’ rights.

With seven of the world’s top tire makers and three of the world’s top auto makers—a group that includes Michelin, Pirelli, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Continental, Yokohama, Sumitomo, and Hankook—now on board, that work holds the promise of transforming an industry—and sparing tropical forests in Southeast Asia and beyond.


Turning the corner

Natural rubber begins as latex, a sticky white fluid that runs through spiraling vessels just under the bark of the rubber tree, providing a natural barrier to insects. Latex is also found in hundreds of other plants—it’s the milk that drips from a broken dandelion stem. But commercial natural rubber comes almost exclusively from the Hevea brasiliensis tree. Native to the Amazon, the tree has long been cultivated in mainland Southeast Asia, the epicenter of the natural rubber industry today.

Natural rubber is unusual among commodities in that its collection remains a labor-intensive, human endeavor. The vast majority of it, about 85%, is still produced by farmers who cultivate just a few acres of land, their rubber trees often growing alongside other crops and native vegetation. There are some 6 million of these rubber farmers, called smallholders, worldwide. Ninety percent live in mainland Southeast Asia.

To collect the latex from which natural rubber is made, tappers go out during the cool hours of the night, when the trees retain moisture and the latex flows freely. Under the light of headlamps, tappers go from tree to tree, making a shallow cut in each, out of which the latex seeps like glue, down the trunk and into a collecting cup.

Though synthetic rubber can be manufactured from petroleum byproducts, tire makers rely heavily on natural rubber. It’s essential to tire performance, especially braking and handling, says Joe Serafinski, global commodity manager for automobile giant General Motors (GM), which has committed to sourcing sustainable natural rubber. “You can’t design natural rubber out,” he says.

As the rubber saga was slowly becoming public knowledge, staff at tire manufacturer Michelin, the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber, had begun to evaluate the company’s corporate social responsibility. Michelin went into the exercise presuming rubber to be “green”—a renewable natural resource—says Edouard de Rostolan, an agronomist who has worked for the company in many rubber growing regions over the last few decades. But he thought that someday people might want the details. The tire industry may have never faced the public-awareness campaigns that the paper, soy, and palm oil industries have, but he remembers thinking, “Let’s work on it right now, to be ready when the questions come.”

When the Global Witness report came out, it served as “an accelerator,” says de Rostolan. In 2015, Michelin approached Jean Bakouma, of WWF-France, and asked if WWF would help the company improve its sustainability. Bakouma began discussing the issue with WWF-Indonesia and eventually helped forge a partnership with the company on one condition: that Michelin and its partners commit to a zero-deforestation policy for natural rubber. In 2016, Michelin became the first major tire maker in the world to do so.

WWF took that commitment and ran with it.

WWF has been working with some of the world’s largest rubber-consuming companies, rubber farmers, government leaders, and other nonprofits to promote more forest- and people-friendly ways of doing business.

“When Michelin came out with their natural rubber policy, WWF brought it to our attention,” says Serafinski at GM, which purchases many of its tires from Michelin. “They were basically telling us that there are a lot of environmental, ethical, business, and human rights concerns in the rubber value chain.”

So GM took things a step further, asking the rest of its major tire suppliers to match Michelin’s commitment. It was a move that rattled the industry and really set the rubber sustainability wheels in motion.

“The tire industry started to see the writing on the wall,” says Kerry Cesareo, vice president for Forests at WWF-US. “They wanted to get ahead of it rather than wind up in a reactive position.” In short order, GM’s public request eventually helped trigger six more of the world’s biggest tire makers—Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear, Pirelli, Sumitomo, and Yokohama—to commit to sustainable natural rubber sourcing policies.

“There was a real opportunity for WWF,” says Amy Smith, the WWF-US deputy director for Forests. “We had extensive experience working on a number of commodities that impact forests. We could bring that expertise to the table to support industry in agreeing on the standards for sustainable natural rubber—and implementing them.”

Bringing more companies to the table—more tire makers and auto companies, as well as those that use rubber to make products like shoe soles, surgeon’s gloves, condoms, balloons, and hoses—is one next step to increase leverage. But most important is working with rubber farmers and national and local governments to guide how sustainability commitments play out on the ground.


From tappers to tires

Today WWF is engaged in natural rubber projects in several targeted sites around the world, helping to protect forests by demonstrating how to translate broad policies into sustainable products.

In Sumatra, for example, WWF is involved in a project with Michelin and Indonesian conglomerate Barito Pacific. The companies have promised to develop a socially responsible and wildlife-friendly plantation adjacent to Thirty Hills National Park and the Alam Bukit Tigapuluh conservation concession, which are home to Asian elephants, tigers, and orangutans. The area is plagued by illegal deforestation and poaching. The idea is that a sustainable natural rubber operation could provide a buffer zone for wildlife and income opportunities for local communities, hopefully discouraging deforestation and poaching.

While the Sumatran project is still nascent, many at WWF are hopeful about the industry-transforming potential of another on-the-ground project—in Myanmar.

The Dawna Tenasserim Landscape in southern Myanmar and western Thailand includes one of the largest intact forest blocks in Asia. Named for the two mountain ranges that define it, it boasts the largest population of tigers in the Greater Mekong region and is a refuge for Asian elephants. Many think Myanmar is one of the world’s last hopes for sustaining these species into the future.

At the same time, the region faces the very threats that have destroyed so many of Southeast Asia’s forests, says Smith. “The Dawna Tenassarim’s forests in Myanmar are now the frontier where the Mekong region’s future rubber development is expected to go.”

While Myanmar is not currently a major rubber producer, yielding less than a quarter of what Michelin alone buys every year, the government’s ambitious national export strategy aims to make the country a natural rubber powerhouse—but one committed to sustainable production.

To help realize that commitment, WWF is facilitating the protection of natural habitats alongside rubber plantations, and encouraging companies to build programs that would help local rubber communities improve yield and quality. Experts predict that with the right interventions, income from rubber in Myanmar could triple without clearing any more forested land.

To improve yield, quality, and profitability on smallholders’ existing rubber holdings, WWF-Myanmar’s Gaurav Gupta, a former investment banker from India, is encouraging smallholder rubber tappers to form cooperatives.

“There has to be a smallholder-based solution,” says Gupta, “if local communities are to enjoy economic benefits and true sustainability.”

Modeled after successful cooperatives in his home country, these co-ops allow tappers to pool their money to invest in better equipment and to share best practices, such as which clones to plant, and where and how frequently to tap the trees to achieve the highest income. Due to the volume they produce, cooperatives can also negotiate better deals with traders.

Gupta is also working on creating reliable demand for Myanmar’s rubber by brokering agreements with companies to buy from participating smallholders and smallholder groups.

“All the pieces are in place,” says Smith. “We believe this landscape is one of the places with the greatest potential for a successful integration of sustainable natural rubber production into a conservation landscape.”

The work is critical beyond Dawna Tenasserim as well, says WWF’s Cesareo. “Success,” she says, “means tires made with sustainable natural rubber. But more importantly, it will mean the end of rubber-driven deforestation in tiger and elephant habitat.”


Forging cooperation

Illustration of tires in a forest

Successfully nurturing sustainable natural rubber production in places like Southeast Asia is crucial. Equally so is being able to trace rubber from a tree in Myanmar, for example, to a tire in Detroit or Shanghai.

That’s why some of the world’s top tire and auto makers and nonprofits, including WWF, have been working to set global guidelines for policies and sustainable practices for natural rubber production. They also are working to ensure rubber supply chains are traceable and properly monitored and that companies are transparent about what they source.

That cross-industry collaboration is no small feat, says Serafinski: “The rubber industry is as competitive as Pepsi and Coke.” Making commitments is one thing, but “really driving a high-level approach to company-specific policies and purchasing requirements is still difficult,” he says.

WWF’s Stuewe cites the same dynamic in palm oil’s history: “Companies were afraid of giving up perceived competitive advantages,” he says. “We saw everybody pursuing their own solutions, reinventing the wheel, taking a lot of time, and spending a lot of money.

“The rubber industry needed to learn from this,” he adds, “to find the best and most cost-effective solutions together, and to implement them individually. To achieve this in a pre-competitive way, we began talking to company lawyers from the beginning.”

Exactly how natural rubber commitments and on-the-ground projects will play out for forests and smallholders is still emerging. Spurring progress, Stuewe says, is the growing list of auto companies, now including BMW and Toyota, and other natural rubber users such as Timberland (think boots) that have joined GM in demanding sustainable natural rubber for their products.

“Every new committed buyer,” he adds, “means more pressure on suppliers, and has to result in more opportunities for small-scale farmers, to get the job done.”

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