With the Rubber Authority of Thailand (RAOT) and Royal Forest Department (RFD), we have developed guidelines to integrate agroforestry – agriculture incorporating tree cultivation – in rubber plantations. It is the first guideline of its kind in Thailand, developed primarily for application in Surat Thani Province.
In Thailand today, 1.7 million smallholders grow over 3 million hectares of rubber. While an important cash crop for farmers, the expansion of rubber plantations has harmed forests and biodiversity.
Between 2006 and 2013, the area of rubber plantation in Thailand increased by 1.2m hectares, creating an oversupply of natural rubber that now exposes farmers to depreciated market prices. Based on our estimates, the average farmer in Thailand earns about $14 a day. If a tapper is employed to harvest latex from the tree, the farmer’s income reduces to $7 a day after having paid the tapper. This is $3.50 less than the minimum wage in Surat Thani Province.
This places immense economic pressure on farmers in Surat Thani, disincentivizing them from investing in their plantations and cultivating rubber. Unable to cope, almost half the farmers in the province with rubber plantations ready for replanting have converted their plots; planting fruit trees or oil palm instead.
We believe there can be a different story for rubber farmers and the industry – one that preserves smallholder livelihoods, promotes agricultural practices that protect the environment and meets international standards for responsible sourcing. In 2019, together with our partners, we created a localized resource called the Blueprints for Agroforestry (BRA) to develop rubber-agroforestry systems (rubber-AFS). Such a resource was not previously available for farmers, authorities or the private sector.
“I don’t expect (the) price (of rubber) to rise that high (again). Agroforestry rubber is the way I manage to create more value on (my) rubber farm. You can either make use of your trees for your own consumption or sell it with no rush. The longer you keep the trees, the more you gain.”
- Mr. Sumpan Heetagsorn, rubber farmer
Agroforestry systems based on rubber are not new and offer an effective solution to sustaining smallholders and regenerating rubber-producing landscapes. Rubber-AFS provide proven biodiversity benefits without reducing yield, diversify farmer incomes, sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide, support the management of high conservation value areas and reduce the need for hazardous chemicals including chemical fertilizers.
With such clear benefits to farmers, the environment, and the industry, in early 2019, our Rurality programme began to explore opportunities to scale-up rubber-AFS for smallholders. This led our collaboration with the Rubber Authority of Thailand (RAOT) and the Royal Forest Department (RFD) in Surat Thani Province.
For the RAOT, rubber-AFS represented a smart way to reduce the oversupply of rubber in the market and combat the low prices farmers are receiving, aligning well with recent plans to offer replanting subsidies to rubber farmers for other crops. With national targets to increase forest cover from 32 percent today to 40 percent, the RFD were already giving away free native tree seedlings to farmers with land titles; making them another valuable partner.
The outcome of this collaboration was the BRA, a technical guideline for integrating agroforestry in rubber farms during replanting or mature plantations; thus providing benefits throughout the lifecycle of the plantation. Developing the BRA involved extensive collaboration with experts and farmers, primary data collection, research and analysis, documentation of existing lessons learnt, stakeholder input and review.
The guideline will be useful for farmers and authorities supporting smallholder rubber agroforestry, notably within the RAOT’s rubber replanting subsidy programme for integrated rubber systems in Surat Thani Province. It will also benefit the Agriculture Land Reform Office (ARLO) and the Provincial Farmer Council of Surat Thani.
“RAOT redirected me to EF when consulting on agroforestry rubber. I plan to apply (the) replanting subsidy from RAOT in 2020, and chose to go with agroforestry rubber, for 4.8 hectares of land. With the agroforestry blueprints and valuable advice from EF, I could communicate and plan well with RAOT.”
- Mrs. Chuenjit Suwannasarn, farmer
To build momentum behind rubber-AFS in Surat Thani, we organised a stakeholder workshop on December 24, 2019 to launch the new guidelines. The workshop was attended by 53 representatives from 18 stakeholders comprising government bodies, local authorities, farmer councils, research institutes, businesses and local lead farmers. The workshop, held at the Diamond Plaza Hotel in Surat Thani, began with a morning session to present the BRA and discuss the role of agroforestry for rubber farming.
In the afternoon, the group visited three rubber agroforestry plantations to observe different agroforestry models and learn how farmers can apply these in practice. Following the workshop, we anticipate more organised efforts in improving the sustainability of natural rubber; using agroforestry as an innovative tool for change.
Through our Rurality programme, we have been working with rubber farmers in Thailand since 2016 in the supply chain of global condom manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser. Rurality was launched in 2015 to drive transformation and innovation at the farmer level; with the mission of empowering farmers to create, tap into and own mechanisms to strengthen their resilience and improve their livelihoods.
If you are interested to learn more about how your company can support rubber-AFS for smallholders in your supply chain, contact Earthworm Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org.