The Resilience of Rubber

Uduh Abungai (76), one of the oldest members of the village, said he first planted 70 rubber trees on his 0.5 hectare plot in 1960. All of the tree seedlings came from Kalimantan. And like other residents, Pak Uduh continues to plant rubber seedlings every year. He says the new trees can be tapped for latex after seven years.

Pak Uduh, a Dayak elder from Central Kalimantan, is an experienced rubber grower

Fire is an acute hazard for those who grow rubber trees on peat, as it burns through the soil surface, causing the trees to collapse. Pak Uduh’s village has been hit by severe flames three times: in 1997, 2007, and 2015. These man-made fires destroyed many of the rubber trees they had planted.

Despite these setbacks, his community has maintained its interest in growing rubber and harvesting latex. And sixty percent of the village still relies on the sale of rubber as their primary source of income. Because of the large extent of their smallholdings, the rubber farmers in Pilang can tap latex every day. Depending on the size of their plots, the average smallholder can produce 100 kg of wet rubber per day.

Low maintenance requirements

Pak Uduh says that rubber is the primary source of income for the villagers living in Pilang simply because it has been around for a long time and has served as a stable source of income for the village over many generations.

He says that one of his reasons for sticking to rubber is that it is quite easy to plant rubber trees, and that the plots do not need much care – other than cutting the grass around the rubber trees. As a long-time rubber smallholder, he is also quite accustomed to intercropping – growing jengkol (Archidendron pauciflorum), rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), gelam (Melaleuca sp.) and other species within his plots. However, he says that some trees do get infected by Kulat tepas (Rigidoporus microporus) and must be cut down right away so that it does not spread.

A low-maintenance rubber plot on shallow peat - retaining a high level of biodiversity
High levels of latex production

Through ‘learning-by-doing’, Pak Uduh has arrived at his own understandings about rubber production: “In my opinion, it is not so much about the number of rubber trees you may have, as about how much latex is being produced from each tree,” he said.

Despite the low level of maintenance, some ‘jungle rubber’ plots still produce high volumes of latex

Sharing his experience further, he went on to say that rubber trees grown straight from seedlings can produce latex for up to 50 years, whereas trees resulting from grafting stock can only produce latex for 30 years.

Aside from paying careful attention to seedling selection, he also considers it very important to out-plant the seedlings correctly – as this will greatly influence the amount of latex produced. He said that many villagers do not provide enough distance between their trees, which is a very important factor, especially on a large rubber plot. According to him, all trees should be planted with a regular grid spacing of 7 x 7 meters.

Stable market demand

Another reason that rubber plantations remain appealing to the people of Pilang village is that the market demand is quite stable. They say that they do not bother transporting their rubber out of the village because collectors will visit their houses to buy it. Furthermore, because they only sell wet rubber, no additional processing is required.

Nonetheless, local rubber prices are extremely volatile, and farm-gate prices frequently fall very low. Whereas the lowest price offered in the last three years was Rp 5,000/kg, the price did also reach as high as Rp 21,000/kg within the same period – showing the tremendous need for a better pricing and delivery mechanism for smallholders.