Originally published at: http://humidtropics.cgiar.org/better-management-of-rubber-plantations-to-reduce-environmental-impacts-in-china/
According to the recently released Humidtropics Situational Analysis report for Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan, China, the region was an area of extreme biodiversity and cultural diversity, although much of that biodiversity has now been lost to monoculture rubber plantations. The Situational Analysis summarizes the situation of rural development, agriculture and environment as it is perceived by expert opinion and literature evidence, as of 2014/2015.
This report is the second Situational Analysis to be completed in the Central Mekong Action Area. It was conducted during the stages of the Xishuangbanna Research for Development (R4D) Platform initiation, and will be shared with all Platform partners, in the local language. Since the Platform inauguration meeting in September 2014, the topic which has attracted the most interest is improving the management of monoculture crops, particularly rubber. Two one-day discussion Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation Systems (RAAIS)* workshops have been held on this topic since, and a number of informal collaboration and planning meetings have been held. At present, all partners are looking for funding opportunities in order to carry out the work which has been identified through this Humidtropics process.
Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, Southwest China, is a small area of land (20,000 km2) which historically had extremely high cultural and biological diversity, and is one of only two places in China which are considered to have a tropical climate. The region is renowned for producing high quality tea, but it is the rubber boom which has caused the greatest impacts on the landscape and economy of Xishuangbanna. Rubber has been planted since 1955, but during the late 1990s rubber prices boomed and smallholder farmers began to plant rapidly increasing amounts of rubber. Now the natural forests of the lowlands (altitude 500-700m) have been almost completely replaced by rubber plantations, more than half of the mid-elevation land (700-900m) is planted with rubber. Land at higher elevations still supports mostly forest cover, tea and other farming systems, but rubber has encroached in recent years, despite expert doubts about the yield potential.
The environmental impacts have been high, although not well quantified by academic literature. Habitat loss and biodiversity loss are obvious, and there are numerous reports of reduced water availability, increasing water pollution, soil hardening in some of the older plantations, and generally declining soil fertility (probably due to erosion and excessive agrochemical use). The economic impacts have also been great, with those farmers who manage successful rubber plantations making unprecedented profits for this region.
In recent years (since 2012) the price of rubber has crashed to about 50% of its peak value. This has led many farmers to question whether or not they should continue with rubber as their main crop; although for now most farmers have chosen to wait and see if prices rise again. The other major popular cash crop is banana, which requires greater upfront investment, offers greater profits and causes even greater environmental impacts.
The institutional context is in some ways very strong, but there are some crucial gaps which hamper progress. There are some excellent agricultural research facilities and groups operating in the region, and the government departments are well funded. There is also a well-functioning market system for major crops and companies can access most areas. The governmental style of leadership has moved on from ‘command and control’ towards individual decision making by every smallholder. However, the communication between smallholders and ‘experts’ is still unidirectional and sporadic. There is a vital disconnect between those with the knowledge and power to implement changes and those who manage the land through their small holdings.
Generally, the living conditions and quality of life are better than average for rural people of the Mekong region. The average income for a rural person in Xishuangbanna is approximately $1,100 USD per year. However, there is great variation between the wealthiest areas ($3,000 per person per year) and the poorest areas ($600 per person per year). The people living at the high elevations tend to be poorer and less educated, and in some cases practice more mixed and traditional farming systems.
The main challenges faced in Xishuangbanna at present are how to convince the large number of smallholders to manage their rubber plantations for reduced environmental impact; how to cope with the rubber price crash; and how to aid the development of those peoples living in the higher elevations without further compromising ecosystem services.
Download the Situational Analysis report in English. A Chinese language version will be available shortly.
Download the RAAIS workshop report in Chinese.
Blog by James Hammond, Agro-Ecosystem Researcher, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Blog edited by Valérie Poiré, Communication Officer, Humidtropics. Photos by James Hammond, Zhuangfang Yi, Benjamin Custer, Timothy McLellan and Jiawen Zhao.