Riding Rubber’s Boom
by Bill Hayes
In Riding Rubber’s Boom, National Geographic looks at the exploding market for rubber and its environmental impact on the planet.
[R]ubber today is grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, because the region has a unique combination of suitable climate and infrastructure. Despite all the ups and downs in the global economy, the demand for tires continues to grow, which has created something akin to a gold rush in Southeast Asia. For millions of people in this poor part of the world, the rubber boom has helped bring prosperity; Chin does not have the only new pickup in Tung Nha Noi. And rubber has helped end the region’s isolation. Brand-new “rubber highways” — the last finished in 2013 — now connect previously remote plantations in Southeast Asia to tire factories in northern China.
But the consequences of the rubber trade are not purely economic. Southeast Asia’s legions of Chins have set off what Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Hawaii calls “one of the biggest, fastest ecological transformations in human history.” In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar rubber farmers have cut or burned down forests and planted row after row after row of H. brasiliensis. In the process, they are converting one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems into a monoculture as uniform as a Kansas wheat field, potentially threatening the basic ecological functions of an area inhabited by tens of millions of people. Each of the five tires on Chin’s truck — one on each wheel plus a spare — is like a small patch of tropical forest, stripped and compressed into a glossy black ring. So is every tire on my car and yours.
Monocultures are intensely productive — and intensely vulnerable. Just ask Henry Ford. Giant among industrialists, control freak extraordinaire, brilliant but possibly illiterate, Ford ran his own iron and coal mines, built his own power plants, logged his own timberlands. His River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn, Michigan, had a deepwater port, a steel foundry (the world’s biggest at the time), and a hundred miles of interior railroad. Every type of material needed to manufacture automobiles was made at River Rouge save one: rubber. In 1927 Ford acquired nearly 4,000 square miles in the Amazon Basin, original home of H. brasiliensis. [more]