Rubber bounces back in Indonesia

May Kinya

Alternative rubber agroforestry systems are raising incomes, retaining biodiversity and increasing rubber production in Indonesia. A new booklet Rich Rewards for Rubber tells of the transformation that has taken place since the mid 1990’s when the World Agroforestry Centre launched its research on rubber agroforestry.

Rubber is one of Indonesia's most important crops as most Indonesian farmers gain some or all of their income from growing and selling the product. Rubber production in Indonesia began in the early years of the 20th century, but now after around 25 years, the rubber gardens have become progressively less productive, greatly affecting farmers.

Indonesia in the past few decades has seen a dramatic change in the way land is used. Large areas of jungle rubber have been converted to more intensively managed rubber and oil palm plantations. Numerous agencies have spent millions of dollars promoting high-yielding monoclonal rubber plantations.

“The monoclonal plantations gave famers much higher yields than jungle rubber gardens, and therefore better incomes,” says World Agroforestry Centre economist Suseno Budidarsono. “But there are also some disadvantages as these plantations require considerable capital investments which most households could not afford.”

The removal of jungle rubber was causing a significant loss in biodiversity and this prompted the World Agroforestry Centre and its partners to come up with alternative systems of rubber agroforestry that would improve smallholder yields and incomes, and at the same time retain some of the biodiversity typical of jungle rubber.

“The Centre’s main consideration was selecting technologies that would be suitable for smallholders who had little cash, limited family labor, small land holdings, and little or no access to high-yielding planting materials and other inputs,” recalls Ratna Akiefnawati, a scientist at the Indonesian Rubber Research Institute.

In 2010, a study revealed that in villages where the alternative rubber agroforestry systems had been introduced, the number of households adopting them had increased tenfold. Surprisingly, the rates of adoption in villages where the project had not been active were almost as high. Reasons for this included the fact that smallholders in Indonesia had heard of clonal rubber varieties and their advantages and that the World Agroforestry Centre was a key source of information about clones for farmers who were not associated with present or past projects. This suggests that the dissemination methods using local languages had been effective. In addition, the government and development agencies had actively promoted the use of new clones.

It is still likely that the area under jungle rubber is likely to decrease further as farmers convert their land to more profitable uses. As the new booklet reveals, scientists are looking at the possibility of establishing a reward system that would encourage farmers to retain their jungle rubber and the important ecosystem services they provide. This remains a work in progress.