On February 7, something peculiar happened silently in the hamlet of Nedunkulama in Vavuniya district. In the morning Secretary to the Ministry of Plantation Industries, J.A. Ranjith handed over a tapping knife to farmer Chamath Bandara to commence the rubber harvesting in his land amidst blessing of Pirith chanting and birds’ chirping. For the first [...]

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Wonder tree from Amazon rain forest, now flourishing in Sri Lanka’s dry zone


On February 7, something peculiar happened silently in the hamlet of Nedunkulama in Vavuniya district. In the morning Secretary to the Ministry of Plantation Industries, J.A. Ranjith handed over a tapping knife to farmer Chamath Bandara to commence the rubber harvesting in his land amidst blessing of Pirith chanting and birds’ chirping.

Chamath Bandara, the first rubber farmer in the North, taps the rubber tree

For the first time, a rubber tree in the Northern Province was tapped to harvest latex. This was witnessed by some farmers in the area and also government officials in the local administrative system and then the representatives of the rubber plantation industry. Obviously, this was a very simple event with no celebrations but would be the gateway to another development path in the  entire Northern Province, why?

First we need to see the general importance of rubber to answer this question. It is not a food item for direct consumption but has become an essential commodity in the present day context. At a global average, a person consumes about 3.5 kg of rubber annually. With the development in the world, this figure would increase further. For instance, use of surgical gloves was not much in the  past; use of tyres shows exponential increase with the economic growth of a nation. Natural rubber (NR) has a share of about 40 per cent of total rubber consumption in the world. The rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) which is principally used to obtain NR, originally grew in the wilderness in the Amazon basin of South America. You may have heard that it was initially introduced to Sri Lanka in 1876 and then to other rubber growing countries in Asia, thanks to Sir Henry Wickham, father of NR. It had been a plantation crop throughout in the wet zone of Sri Lanka confined to large estates; however at present, it is in the hands of smallholders with more than 40 per cent of rubber produced in the country from lands below two acres. So, it is a crop helping the poor to stand up and be independent.

Resembling the climatic conditions in Amazon forest, the motherland of the rubber tree, the wet zone (WZ) having more than 2500 mm of well distributed annual rainfall had been predominantly targeted for rubber cultivation. Being heavily populated and closer to metropolitan areas, the WZ is subjected to urbanization and industrialisation and lands are moved to more lucrative economic ventures other than agriculture.

Despite the initial dominance with rubber cultivation, this crop has presently been confined to the interior borders of the Colombo and Gampaha districts and also, extent of rubber cultivation in key districts like Kegalle, Kalutara and Ratnapura in the WZ is diminishing. On other hand, the rubber product industry in the country is booming adding value to in-country raw rubber production. Of course, one could argue that the rubber product industry could be developed with only raw rubber imports; however, in-country rubber cultivation assures an uninterrupted supply of raw materials, particularly with required quality. Further, rubber cultivation provides several environmental benefits depicting manmade forests.

Master plan

According to the Rubber Industry Master Plan of Sri Lanka, an over twofold increase in raw rubber production is expected to meet the demand in the near future. Whilst improving the productivity in existing rubber lands, rubber is expected to be cultivated in new lands to meet this target. The issue is that there is  no more land for rubber in the traditional WZ. Then the only hope is to cultivate rubber in drier climates; can this be done? If so, where?

With the initial success in the areas under the intermediate zone (IZ) in Monaragala and Badulla districts where annual rainfall is in the range of 1500-2500 mm, rubber cultivation was expanded to the Eastern Province. The amount of rainfall received in the initially rubber cultivated areas in this region (i.e. Padiyatalawa) is comparable to what was received in Monaragala but shows unimodal rainfall pattern with a distinct dry period of over 4-5 months. Latex harvesting in Padiyatalawa in the East began in 2010 and the success was multifaceted; in addition to the direct agronomic success, rubber is seen uplifting rural livelihoods by providing permanent and consistent income-empowering farmers to refurbish houses, provide additional education support to their children, purchase vehicles and attend to other family and social commitments. Benefits to the  environment are evident from the decrease in average day temperature on sunny days in rubber lands by 3.20 C from the values recorded outside. Such overall sustainability has led to an accelerated expansion programme of rubber in the East with a special project, STaRR.

Having seen the above mentioned tri-faceted benefits and with the end of terrorism, the Ministry of Plantation Industry directed the Rubber Research Institute to assess the initial feasibility in establishing rubber in the North. With the positive signs for success and sufficient technologies available, rubber cultivation began in a limited extent of lands as a joint effort of Rubber Research (RRI) Institute and Rubber Development Department (RDD). With little experience on perennial crops, the persuasion of farmers towards rubber cultivation was not easy. Unfortunately, some farmers gave up the rubber cultivation mid-way. Being courageous to cultivate 10 acres of rubber successfully, Mr. Bandara has become the first rubber farmer in Northern Province. This victory belongs not only to Mr. Bandara but also to the entire farming community in the North. As evident in the East, other farmers in the North will be catalyzed to cultivate rubber by seeing the economic benefits reaped by Mr. Bandara and associated livelihood improvement. Further, positive changes in environment could be expected in long-term with more farmers accepting rubber.

More in the North

The success on rubber cultivation with Mr. Bandara can firstly be attributed to the dedicated staff at both the RRI and RDD. The devotion of Dr. S. Iqbal in this effort is to be applauded though he has retired from RRI. Encouragements and contribution given by the Ministry in terms of fund allocation helped to achieve this success. This is an ideal example to show the success in cohesive actions of sister organizations to reach the expected destination. The rubber tree is flourishing in the dry zone after 143 years of initial introduction to Sri Lanka. We wish more farmers in the North will understand the significance of rubber soon and reap the benefits.

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