For the last nine weeks of our internship, Ross and I have been researching the rubber industry in Cambodia and the greater Mekong region. We have studied the history of rubber plantations and the current production numbers; we have looked at the plantations themselves and the processing of latex; we have examined the laws and policies affecting the rubber industry; and we have analyzed the trends and the potential social, economic and environmental implications of rubber expansion in the region. All of this has been done from our perch on the fourth floor of ODC’s office in Phnom Penh.
This past weekend we had the opportunity to see the focus of our research firsthand. It was decided that we would head to the rubber growing areas in the north of Cambodia, where we would photograph and geotag the many rubber plantations and extensive land clearing along the way. Once there, we planned to talk with local contacts in order to gain an insider perspective into rubber cultivation and to find out their thoughts about the expansion of the rubber industry in the area and the impact it has had on their villages. Along with a driver and an experienced field worker, we set off from Phnom Penh for the northeastern province of Ratanakiri, stopping in Kratie and passing through Stung Treng on the way. Armed with a regional map depicting where economic land concessions were and a tablet with GPS tracking, we made our way north, taking pictures of the extensive rubber plantations that we passed and the signs of companies and factories operating in the region. Having done the research, I knew that there was a lot of rubber in the area, however, none of that research prepared me for how overwhelming the reality is. The rubber is everywhere, in perfect rows, these spindly trunks with their poofy tops, stretching on for as far as the eye can see. It is easy to recognize, and in no time at all we could spot the rubber trees in all stages of growth as we drove past. As interesting as it was to see our subject matter up close and to visit new regions, it was also incredibly depressing to witness the deforestation in the area. Less than five years ago, much of the area was still covered in dense, natural forests, but now that forest has been replaced by cleared plains, cassava and rubber trees.
Friday mainly consisted of drive by photo taking, but on Saturday we had the opportunity to meet with a number of people around Ratanakiri and ask them about their experiences with rubber. The first person we talked to was from a local NGO and was able to provide an overview of rubber in the area, such as the fact that it was mainly smallholder rubber (individual farmers) and information about where it is sold. We also met with an indigenous community, and though they were not able to provide any insight into rubber, as that was not one of the crops they grew, it was an interesting opportunity from an anthropological perspective. In the afternoon we meet with another farmer, and though he grew rubber as one of his five crops, it was not a significant one for him. He was, however, able to provide some information on how much rubber is tapped a day and the going price. On the way back to Banlung (the provincial capital) later in the day, we had the opportunity to stop by a couple of smaller plantations and observe the workers actually tapping the trees. Besides getting to see the process up close, we were able to speak with the tappers and find out a little more information, such as how many trees they are able to tap a day and what their monthly wages are.
After spending so much time researching in the office, it was nice to get out in the field and observe the industry firsthand. And as an added bonus, we got to see our fellow W&M student, Rosemary, and spend an enjoyable evening together, before returning to Phnom Penh for our final week of work.