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.”