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The importance of rubber in daily living is indubitable, thus, making natural rubber production a vital industry. Hevea brasiliensis, simply called "rubber tree," belongs to the family Euphorbiaceae. H. brasillensis is a quick-growing plant, perennial, and attains a height of about 25-30 meters. Its bark is thick, with straight trunk, and the leaves are trifoliate with long stalks. Its sap, known as latex, is collected from the bark and is the primary source of natural rubber.
However, as with any industry, producing natural rubber is not without its problems. One in particular involves the South American Leaf Blight or SALB, caused by an ascomycete fungus. Although not typically found in Southeast Asia and Africa, it is still a potential threat for the aforementioned regions, which now account for over 98% of world rubber production.
Historical impact of SALB on rubber production
The dire consequences of SALB occurrence can be seen in its impact in Brazil's history in relation to rubber production. For some time, Brazil was considered a major player in rubber production. From the website of the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers, Inc., a document likened the history of rubber in Brazil to that of the Gold Rush experienced in the USA. For close to 50 years-from the latter half of the 19th century up till the second decade of the 20th century-natural rubber was a significant part of the development boom in Brazil. The Hevea output reached 42,000 tons a year, with Brazil in the lead, dominating the global natural rubber market (IISRPI). However, when the British smuggled out rubber-tree seeds to the botanical gardens in London, they developed more resistant varieties, through grafting, that were later sent to British colonies in Asia where massive rubber plantations were established. Brazil was left unable to stand the competition.
US industrialist Henry Ford tried to come to the country's rescue with a massive project, but said Ford project succumbed to the hostile environment of the Amazon rainforest and was a huge loss. In spite the considerable investment, part of the problem lay in the successive SALB epidemics that forced the Ford Company to surrender unsuccessful plantations to the Brazilian government. From 1947 to 1983, Firestone participated in SALB resistance breeding programs and germplasm exchanges with other institutes in Latin America. From these South America breeding programs, only a few clones could be issued and recommended for large-scale planting in Latin America (Garcia, 2004).
Rubber clones here and now
The Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) recently held a seminar series, particularly one that discussed the significance of rubber and its production in the future, including the potential of rubber clones. Part of the discussion disclosed the advantages and successes of Hevea breeding. Said discussion included the use and breeding of rubber clones. According to Dr. Abdul Aziz S.A. Kadir, secretary general of of the International Rubber Research and Development Board who was one of the presenters that focused on rubber production, yield can be increased from 400 kg/ha/year to more than 3,500 kg/ha/year with the use of new clones.
In Eastern Visayas, under the Eastern Visayas Integrated Agricultural Research Center of the Department of Agriculture- Region 8 (EVIARC), a project was proposed and implemented with the general objective of promoting the commercial production of rubber in the Eastern Visayas region with the use of five recommended varieties: RRIM 600, PB 235, USM 1, PB 217, and PB 260. It is noteworthy to mention that USM 1 is the first rubber clone developed in the Philippines and comes from the University of Southern Mindanao (USM). It has a dry rubber yield of 2,498.15 kg/ha/year which is 18.81% higher than that of the standard RRIM 600 clone from Malaysia.
The proponents of this project noted that the International Rubber Research and Development Board (IRRDB) had asserted that both food and horticultural crops could be intercropped between immature rubber plants with no effect on rubber growth. Another institute, the Rubber Research Institute of Vietnam, also reported that proper intercropping, either with or without the presence of cover crops, had no significant effect on the growth of immature trees. In certain cases, it was even apparent that intercropping helped rubber trees to have better growth due to better maintenance of plantations. In our country, the Philippines Industrial Crops Research Institute in Kabacan, Cotabato, has successfully developed rubber-based farming systems for small holders.
It is with these observations that the proponents became interested in establishing a rubber-based farming system among local farmers of six municipalities along the Pacific coast of Southern Leyte. This was created through the initiative of Southern Leyte State University (SLSU) San Juan campus-from which one of the proponents Dr. Remojo is affiliated with-including local government unit (LGU) of Hinunangan researchers and extension specialists, collaborating agencies in this project.
The project has four proponents: rubber budwood establishment, on-station adaptability trial, on-farm technology demonstrations, and capability building and enhancement.
The adaptability trials included new rubber clones and promising rubber varieties for the region, initially RRIM 600, USM 1, PB 260, and series 2000 procured from the USM. An additional two recommended rubber clones, PB 311 and PB 330, were purchased as budded seedlings. 100 seedlings each for RRIM 600, USM 1, and PB 260 in February of 2010, and another 100 seedlings each for PB 311 and PB 330 were planted in December of the same year. By April 2011, PB 260 had reached the greatest height with approximately 44-106 m, followed by RRIM 600 with 1.3-4.2 m, PB 311 with 0.9-1.95 m, PB 330 with 0.85-1.5 m, and USM 1 with 0.4-1.3 m.
The technology demonstration involved selected component technologies in rubber production and village-level rubber sheet processing including the improvement of the then rubber nursery management and plant material propagation practices as well as the harvesting and tapping methods. The on-farm techno demo on rubber production also introduced the recommended and appropriate planting density particularly for new farms.
Promotion of commercial rubber production was to be implemented through trainings and other capability-building activities. Three orientation and appreciation seminars on rubber technology were conducted including training on rubber production nursery management technologies for members of the local association, as well as regular meetings and field consultations. The SLSU project staff initiated the packaging of a leaflet on the care and maintenance of rubber trees. Rubber organizations and groups were formed, such as the Southern Leyte Rubber Growers Associations with 26 members and composed of professionals, government employees and local farmers. The Upper Bantawan High Value Crops Farmers Association was also created, with 37 members, mostly consisting of upland farmers and agrarian reform beneficiaries in St. Bernard, Southern Leyte.
The latest progress report states that another 15 individuals have since joined aside the initial 26 members. These members come from Hinunangan, Silago, and Libagon in Southern Leyte, as well as Abuyog, Leyte and Ormoc City. A welcome development is that a private individual, Mr. Fenix, owner of New Pulp Tech based in Tacloban, has expressed interest in investing in about 1,000 ha for planting rubber intercropped with abaca in Southern Leyte. The initial arrangement states that planting materials and initial operational cost shall be provided by said investor to interested farmers, after which all produce will be bought from them by the aforementioned individual.
Although rubber latex production is already widely developed in Mindanao and in countries like India, Thailand, and China, it is considered a rare economic opportunity for the people of Eastern Visayas. With the success of this project, along with the rising demand and price for rubber, the future looks promising for the Pacific towns of Southern Leyte and the whole region in general.
1. International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers, Inc. (n.d.) Brief history and introduction of rubber. Available at: http://www.iisrp.com/WebPolymers/00Rubber_Intro.pdf
2. Garcia D., Mattos C.R.R., Gonçalves P.D.S., and Le Guen V. (2004) Selection of rubber clones for resistance to South American Leaf Blight and latex yield in the germplasm of the Michelin Plantation of Bahia (Brazil). Journal of Rubber Research 7(3)188-198.
3. The University of Southern Mindanao (n.d.) USM 1, a new rubber clone. Available at: http://www.usm.edu.ph/picri/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=132:usm-1-a-new-rubber-clone&catid=78:technologies-generated-articles&Itemid=48