A new study has found that deforestation for rubber cultivation has been “substantially underestimated” and could be three times higher than assumed.
It also argues that greater focus should be placed on rubber as a primary driver of deforestation – with critical EU deforestation failing to address the problem.
Published in Nature, it reports that four million hectares of the forest area have been lost since 1993.
It alleges that rubber has been planted in areas crucial to biodiversity and conservation.
Led by Yunxia Wang from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, global scientists have used satellites and cloud computing to produce the first detailed account of deforestation in South East Asia, which accounts for most of the worldwide rubber production.
However, the authors warn that estimates could be an undercount due to limitations with cloud cover.
“Our direct remotely sensed observations show that deforestation for rubber is at least twofold to threefold higher than suggested by figures now widely used for setting policy,” the scientists said.
Over 90% of rubber cultivation occurs in South East Asia through smallholders, with the crop leading to regional deforestation.
Smallholders face various challenges that affect their productivity – with industry sources telling Wood Central that landowners require greater access to R&D, carbon farming and market access to drive sustainable rubber practices.
The study found that mature rubber plantations covered 14.2 million hectares and included substantial plantations in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
It found that at least 4.1 million hectares were cleared between 1993 and 2016 alone, including 1 million hectares of area declared “Key Biodiversity Areas.”
However, the scale of the problem has been hard to quantify, with figures estimated based on national reports of crop expansion that are all too often unreliable.
The study found that the EU was ‘substantially exposed’
In May, the European Parliament approved a new law which mandates that companies prove their products do not originate from deforested or forest-degraded lands, or they may face substantial penalties.
Known as the European Union Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), the new laws ban the sale of coffee, cocoa, cattle, palm oil, soy, wood and rubber connected to deforestation.
However, scientists argue that more focus is needed to account for rubber deforestation and have warned that the EU has underestimated the problem.
They say only a handful of companies account for most of the natural rubber consumed globally, “it should be assumed that main importers of rubber, such as the EU, are substantially exposed to rubber-related deforestation.”
Rubber plantations are growing across the world.
Last week, Wood Central reported that all Formula 1 cars will use “certified tyres” on the grid from next year.
In a media statement, FSC said its rubber plantation has increased within countries producing certified rubber, including Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Guatemala, whilst certified rubber is increasing in Vietnam, China and Colombia.
“Rubber is truly embedded in the automotive industry, and more companies must follow the movement towards sustainability through FSC certification, which confirms that forests are managed to strict environmental, social and economic standards,” according to Fabian Farkas, Chief Commercial Officer at FSC International.
Wood Central understands that the tire industry uses more than 70% of the rubber produced. As car sales continue to increase with rising income levels, the pressures on forest owners will also multiply.
Like FSC, PEFC is also growing its reach within the rubber industry.
“Despite how essential natural rubber is, few people realise that almost all of it is produced not by large companies, but rather by more than six million smallholders,” according to PEFC International.
According to PEFC and FSC, the challenge is to reward smallholders who commit to forest certification to ensure the total supply chain for rubber products carries a chain of custody.
Scientists acknowledge the limitations of the study
On islands in Southeast Asia, different climate conditions and seasonality mean that rubber trees lose and regrow their leaves at different times from elsewhere in the region, making it harder to distinguish them from other plants.
Accordingly, the scientists acknowledged that their calculation of deforestation is based on the conversion of any planted area to rubber.
“So areas converted from agroforestry or other crops to rubber plantations were counted as “deforested”,” they said.
Overall, however, the scientists believe their count is likely to underestimate the total area planted for rubber and the effect of rubber cultivation on deforestation.
That is partly because of the challenges in capturing all cultivation from space and because only rubber plantations still functioning in 2021 were examined for signs of previous deforestation.
Rubber plantations abandoned before 2021 were not counted, even though they might have caused deforestation.
The study only covers Southeast Asia, though rubber is cultivated in parts of Africa and South America.