The number of rubber tree plantations in Colombia has increased tenfold in the past 10 years to 25,000 acres, driven by the demand from emerging economies for cars and tires, Cleveland.com published Sunday.
Raul Nizo, business manager of the 1,200 acre Mavalle plantation in Los Llanos flatlands, 150 miles east of Bogota, said that the price of rubber, which has doubled since 2007 to around $2.25 per pound, has been driven up by the demand for cars, especially in emerging nations like China and India. Currently, 70% of the world’s rubber resources are used to produce car tires.
The rise in plantation areas means that Colombia’s rubber production is steadily increasing, hitting 3,200 tons in 2010. This figure is expected to grow further to 35,000 tons by 2020.
Despite this, in relation to the 11 million tons of rubber that were harvested worldwide in 2010, Colombia’s market share is minimal with 94% of rubber still being produced in southeast Asia. Increasing this share has also been made difficult recently, with pests and poor weather conditions making cultivation of last year’s crop challenging.
However, today, the region’s rubber growers are doing all they can to avoid crop infestations, particularly the fungus known as South American leaf blight which decimated the Henry Ford’s Fordlandia rubber plantation in Brazil in the 1930s. This avoidance is being achieved by planting in areas with the right mix of humidity, rainfall and temperature conditions said Anibal Tapeiro, a plant pathologist with Corpoica, the Colombian government sponsored agricultural research agency in Villavicencio, the capital of Meta department.
Lime is also being added to the soil of Los Llanos to make it more fertile, which is stimulating the production of other crops such as soy, rice, corn and sugar.
Nizo still warns that there is plenty of risk in cultivating rubber. Newly planted rubber trees take seven years to become productive, so investors must be patient. The region is also vulnerable to drought, and the soil, despite the advancements in technology, can degrade easily.
The biggest challenge Nizo states however, will be how to overcome labor shortages as the rubber is grown in a lightly populated area. Oil firms in the region pay fives times more than farm workers can expect, which is why Nizo entices recruits by providing benefits such as free childcare, education and access to microloans to start small-scale businesses.
Cauchopar, a company starting a 1,600-acre rubber plantation in San Teodoro in the eastern Vichada department, is so concerned about securing enough reliable help that it is offering ownership to prospective rubber tappers. Workers for the company would have the option of buying a 25 acre plot after seven years of production.
“We are creating a time bomb, which is the very high demand for workers. But no one is thinking about how to supply it,” said Cauchopar executive Rodrigo Echeverri. “Offering workers the option to buy in is the only way to guarantee a source of labor.”