By Dr. Lakshman Rodrigo If someone asks which climate is the best for rubber cultivation, everyone would say the ‘wet tropics’. Being introduced from Amazon rain forests, there is no doubt about this answer; hence, rubber cultivation was initially confined to the wet zone of Sri Lanka. Even in other rubber growing countries, the situation [...]

Sunday Times 2

Rubber a fortune in time of misfortune: Eastern cultivator


By Dr. Lakshman Rodrigo
If someone asks which climate is the best for rubber cultivation, everyone would say the ‘wet tropics’. Being introduced from Amazon rain forests, there is no doubt about this answer; hence, rubber cultivation was initially confined to the wet zone of Sri Lanka. Even in other rubber growing countries, the situation is the same. At present, rubber cultivation dominates in the Kalutara, Ratnapura and Kegalle districts in Sri Lanka. You may have heard that there had been lots of widely spread rubber lands even in the Colombo and Gampaha districts though at present, this crop is just confined to the boundaries of these districts. Being closer to metropolitan areas, rubber is gradually disappearing from these districts with the increased demand for lands. These lands are highly subject to fragmentation for settlements and other economic ventures. With that, the livelihood of rubber growers and plantation workers has also changed a lot. Rubber growers in these traditional rubber growing areas are mostly the absentee landlords or part-time famers who depend heavily on hired workers for key plantation activities such as tapping rubber. Therefore, lack of latex harvester (so called tapper shortage) is an adverse effect of labour migration to other economic ventures in these areas.

A rubber plantation

The rubber product manufacturing sector in the country has been well developed and almost all rubber produced in the country is converted to value added products such tyres, gloves, toys etc. This sector will develop further with megapolis though it will have a negative effect on the rubber lands in the traditional growing areas. To fill the gap, rubber needs to be grown in new areas. Catering to a single segment of the economy does not address the key national issues. Therefore in such a move, poverty alleviation with the improvement in rural livelihood and sustenance of the environment by increasing the tree canopy cover is also targeted.

The story today is to show how rubber cultivation helped to ease the hardship of resource poor farmers in very remote areas after such introduction. Rubber was successfully introduced to the Eastern Province in the recent past and some rubber fields have come to the stage of latex harvesting by now (32 ha in tapping with 48 farmers). We visited Komana village in the Padiatalawa Divisional Secretariat in the Eastern Province recently to develop a programme on rubber based farming systems for poverty alleviation. This happened to be the first village to plant rubber in the Eastern Province. The first two farmers to cultivate rubber in this region, Mr. Attanayake and Mr. Dayananda, were also with us. We had a workshop to identify the resources owned by individual farmers. At this event, a young energetic man came forward to praise rubber saying rubber is his saviour. After listening to him, I realised that he should be the best witness to show the importance of rubber to the peasant community where livelihood is indecisive with faltering income from rain fed agriculture in drier climates.

He is Mr. B.M. Dharmadasa and was not hesitant to disclose his name and other personal details in public in promote the rubber tree. He was initially a mason and also engaged in farming on a part-time basis. He was married to a lady from the Monaragala district. Their marriage took place in 2001 on a proposal made by a relative. He is 37 years old and his wife is 34. He has schooled up to Grade 10 whilst his wife was able to learn up to the GCE O Level. They have had a content married life with two children; the eldest daughter is now in grade seven and the son in grade one. Despite being reasonably paid, no continuous demand was experienced for masonry work so he cultivated seasonal crops on an extent of 4.5 acres. After seeing others who cultivate rubber in the village, he initially planted rubber on one acre of land in 2006 and another two acres in 2007 and 2008, one acre each year. Busy with masonary work and ignorant of its importance, he paid less attention to rubber. The rubber he planted in 2008 was totally devastated by the drought and even on the other two acres, only about 250 plants were left.

Tragedy struck in 2012 when he was returning home in a rickshaw with the family after visiting relatives in Monaragala. The vehicle was travelling fast and skidded at a bend, turning upside down. Whilst the others had minor injuries, Mr. Dharmadasa’s condition was quite serious. His left arm broke into three and he also broke his collarbone. First, he was rushed to Bibile hospital and then to the Badulla and Kandy hospitals. Although his surface wounds and fractures healed, his left arm was totally numb. With the help of Ven. Panadura Ghanwansa Thera, an incumbent of the Lunubokka temple nearby, he had gone to the neurology unit of National Hospital in Colombo where he underwent two surgeries for relaxing and grafting nerves. Though sensitivity improved a little, his arm is still not working and he is now on physiotherapy; for how long more no one knows.

The biggest issue was feeding the family when the sole bread winner became disabled. Fortunately, his rubber field had the answer as the trees had reached the stage of bearing. His wife was trained in tapping rubber by the Rubber Development Department and since then, the couple have been on the go! Trees were open for tapping. On average, about 10 sheets of rubber (5 kgs) are produced on each tapping day and with about 12 tapping days, about 60 kgs of rubber are produced each month. This allows the family to earn about Rs.20,000, their principal source of income at present. Though a life saver, yields are on low side due to poor management at early stages of growth. Now Mr. Dharmadasa regrets his past negligence and feels that if he had looked after the rubber fields well, he would have trebled his income. In addition to the income from rubber, they earn about Rs.3,000 a month by selling childrens wear sewn by his wife. If he had not planted rubber early, what would be their source of income? His left arm does not allow efficient farming of any crop, no masonry work could be attended to and wife’s stitching work is still not remunerative enough to make both ends meet. How would he feed his wife and children and meet other expenses? In addition to general expenses, he spends Rs. 1,220 every month just as bus fare to come to the Colombo National Hospital for physiotherapy and another Rs. 1,600 for ayurvedic medications. His bike needs about Rs. 4,000 worth petrol to cover family transportation. He says rubber is a fortune during his time of misfortune. Since he and his wife handle the family expenses carefully, they proudly live with no debt entanglements.

The day-to-day work pattern of Mr. Dharmadasa’s family demonstrates how early rubber field are to be tapped in the drier climates and their courage to meet life’s challenges. They get up at 3 o’ clock in the morning and prepare meals for both breakfast and lunch. Then by 4.45 am, both of them go to the rubber field which is about half a kilometre away from their home, for tapping. His wife taps the rubber trees whilst he assists to remove scrap and clean utensils. By 6.30 am, they return home and get the children ready for school, Komana Mahavidyalaya situated about three kilometres away from home. He takes the children to school on his motorbike which has been slightly modified by changing the clutch lever to the right hand side enabling him to ride it. Then, he goes to back to the rubber field by 9 am with wife to collect latex. They return home by 11 am and prepare the rubber sheets for drying. Then he does another two trips to the school on the bike to bring their children. In the afternoon, he goes again to the field for sundry work depending on the necessity, whilst his wife is engaged in spinning and stitching to prepare kids’ wear as a cottage industry. Being disabled he does no masonry work; however two or three times a month, he goes door to door selling garments stitched by his wife.

Apart from educating their children, he has two more ambitions to build his family economy. One is to open a small shop to sell childrens’ wear prepared by his wife. The next is nothing else but to have another piece of land to cultivate rubber in a perfect manner, his most honourable crop!

This is only a case study elaborating one example of this kind. Most farmers in this region are rather poor and with rubber cultivation, their livelihood has improved a lot. Upgrading houses with new facilities, providing higher education to children and providing personal health care have been some obvious improvements which took place after rubber cultivation. Social recognition is another constituent in rubber cultivation, ‘changing from farmer to planter’. To name a few, Messrs Attanayake, Dayananda, Ariyapala, Kiribanda and Gunasekera in this village, have come to this stage with rubber cultivation. As a blessing to the peasant community in the Eastern Province, a special project (STARR) has been launched by the Ministry of Plantation Industries to promote rubber based farming systems with entrepreneurship development in this region. In addition to the direct financial support to the poor, it is scientifically well proven that rubber cultivation provides environmental benefits showing a decline in ambient temperature (over 3oC) and conservation of soil moisture. Therefore, rubber in the Eastern Province will provide a comfortable environment to live in future. Turning back to Mr. Dharmadasa’s family, they need some more help to stand alone. For the time being, we wish this courageous family success and speedy recovery from his disability.

(The writer is an Additional Director at the Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka.)

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