Natural rubber production in Sri Lanka has been declining at an alarming rate from 135,000 Mt produced five years ago to 82,600 Mt in 2019. It is pathetic to note that Sri Lanka with over 140 years of proud history as the pioneer rubber grower in the world outside South America, was in the forefront [...]

Business Times

Improved rubber prices should see increase in production


Natural rubber production in Sri Lanka has been declining at an alarming rate from 135,000 Mt produced five years ago to 82,600 Mt in 2019. It is pathetic to note that Sri Lanka with over 140 years of proud history as the pioneer rubber grower in the world outside South America, was in the forefront (fourth place) in the world as a NR producer in the late 1960 has dropped to the 12th position, overtaken by countries which entered into growing rubber cultivation much later such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

It should be particuarly mentioned here that the rubber industry in Cambodia and Myanmar was developed with the expert assistance given by Sri Lankan scientists. With that technical support, they were able to increase their rubber production by three to four fold within a matter of six years. During this half a decade, the productivity of rubber lands in Sri Lanka has dropped down to 829 kg/Ha/ Yr from 1300 Kg/Ha/Yr produced a few years ago.

One of the cardinal reasons for this rapid decline in the local rubber productivity was the poor prices of rubber which prevailed in the world market and which was mostly below the cost of production over the past few years. Hence, mainly regional plantation companies (RPCs) and even smallholders totally neglected their plantations without maintainance. Some smallholders completely refrained from tapping during the past few years. Hence, the productivity of rubber lands in Sri Lanka has dropped drastically. Further no significant replanting has been undertaken by most of them over the past few years.

During the past few years rubber farmers did not even bother to use rain guards for which full subsidy payment was offered by the Rubber Development Department (RDD) to mitigate the crop losses caused by rain interference. As a result of the rain interference, annually over 70 days of tapping are lost in rainy rubber groving districts, namely Ratnapura, Kalutara and Galle thereby lowering the productivity further.

Some of the RPCs reverted to unrecommended rash tapping techniques using stimulants thereby causing tapping panel dryness (TPD) to make those heathy trees useless for latex extraction. Sadly, those TPD trees cannot be converted back to yield latex.This is mainly because they felt that the rubber industry is a “Sunset industry” and the rubber prices will never improve to a reasonable level for the plantations to survive again and they even made attempts to diversify their rubber lands to other crops which are harmful to the environment of the country.

At present, the contribution from the rubber industry to the total export value of Sri Lanka is only 5 per cent of which Rs. 4.8 billion comes from the export of raw rubber particularly in the form of Latex crepe rubber. Income from rubber finished product exports is US$864.4 million (Rs. 152 billion). Hence all attempts must be made now to produce more raw rubber and convert them to value added products particularly examination gloves for the demand is fast improving due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for export to improve the economy of the country which is in a sad state at present.

Productivity of rubber plantations depends mainly on the following points:

  • Planting RRI (Rubber Research Institute) recommended high yielding clones
  • Maintaining a stand of 500 healthy rubber trees per hectare at the time of tapping
  • Regular weeding and manuring according to RRI recommendations
  • Following correct exploitation techniques recommended by the RRI
  • Using rain guards to minimise rain interference on tapping

In order to get the maximum potential yield of those top clones recommended by the RRI, all the above requirements must be fulfilled. Just planting high yielding clones and neglecting the other four requirements will not help the plantation to yield over 2000 kg of rubber per ha per year.

The RRI has been able to recommend over five clones yielding over 2500 to 3000 kg/ha/yr if maintained properly. Recently they revised and updated the clone recommendations introducing a few newly developed high yielders. They do not recommend stimulation of virgin panels of trees to extract more latex. Even on renewed panels stimulation is recommended under carefully controlled conditions taking precautions to avoid TPD formation.

It is absolutely essential that in order to extract latex constantly over a period of 24 years, tapping must be done carefully without exhausting trees. Essentially, it has to be emphasised that there is no clone developed anywhere in the world to tap on a daily basis. The most recommended exploitation frequency recommended all over the world is s2d2 where only one half of the spiral is tapped every other day. Any effort taken to exceed this frequency or to stimulate trees to extract more latex will end up in a disaster. However, there is a low frequency tapping system introduced by the RRI to minimise the problem of tapper shortage called s2d3 where half spiral of the bark is tapped once in three days with light Ethrel stimulation recommended by the RRI. Whichever the tapping technique followed, the maximum amount of rubber you can get from a well-looked after healthy tree is 5 kg per yer. But, the average yield given anywhere today under normal conditions is about 3 to 4 kg per tree per year.

Regular manuring is essential with the correct fertiliser formula at the correct time when the soil is wet. That is at the beginning of the monsoon or towards the end of it. Weeding is essential to ensure nutrient loss caused by the weeds.

Even then, the yield one can get from a well maintained rubber farm is 2,000 to 2,500 kg/ha. If we achieve this norm, the rubber production in Sri Lanka today could have achieved a formidable target of over 180,000 Mt. But the above mentioned low production of 74,700 Mt has been because of the total neglegence of rubber farms by the RPCs and smallholders, mainly due to the low prices they got for the production during the last few years.

Six months ago, some of the smallholders refrained from tapping and neglected their plantations because there were no buyers for their latex in the field. Even those who bought little quantities paid them only about Rs. 90 per kg. But, with this sudden demand increased for rubber, they get almost close to Rs 400 per kg; recording a four fold increase. Hence, there is no doubt that the rubber farmers would put their maximum effort during next few months to follow agricultural practices recommended by the RRI and get the best benefit from this price improvement, which will be continued for few more months or years at least.

However, it should be recorded here that those who ruined their trees by trying to over extract latex totally neglecting the recommendations of the RRI will have to regret. In RPCs and in the smallholder sector, there is tremendous interest now to replant neglected areas to reap benefits of this price improvement. If that is the case not only the economy but even the environment of the country will improve making this country a comfortable place to live. It is universally accepted that the contribution from natural rubber (NR) plantations to the environment is equal to the contribution from natural forests. NR plantations help to minimise Green House effect by sequestrating 10 Mt of Carbon dioxide gas per hectare per year unlike other agricultural crops. The final message I want to drive into the rubber growers is to take the maximum benefit of this enhance price-benefit and convert their plantations to profitable venturers.

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