Current trends of rubber plantation expansion may threaten biodiversity and livelihoods

TitleCurrent trends of rubber plantation expansion may threaten biodiversity and livelihoods
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsAhrends A, Hollingsworth PM, Ziegler AD, Fox JM, Chen H, Su Y, Xu J
Secondary TitleGlobal Environmental Change
PublisherElsevier Ltd
Key themesEnvironment

The first decade of the new millennium saw a boom in rubber prices. This led to rapid and widespread land conversion to monoculture rubber plantations in continental SE Asia, where natural rubber production has increased >50% since 2000. Here, we analyze the subsequent spread of rubber between 2005 and 2010 in combination with environmental data and reports on rubber plantation performance. We show that rubber has been planted into increasingly sub-optimal environments. Currently, 72% of plantation area is in environmentally marginal zones where reduced yields are likely. An estimated 57% of the area is susceptible to insufficient water availability, erosion, frost, or wind damage, all of which may make long-term rubber production unsustainable. In 2013 typhoons destroyed plantations worth US$>250 million in Vietnam alone, and future climate change is likely to lead to a net exacerbation of environmental marginality for both current and predicted future rubber plantation area. New rubber plantations are also frequently placed on lands that are important for biodiversity conservation and ecological functions. For example, between 2005 and 2010 >2500 km2 of natural tree cover and 610 km2 of protected areas were converted to plantations. Overall, expansion into marginal areas creates potential for loss-loss scenarios: clearing of high-biodiversity value land for economically unsustainable plantations that are poorly adapted to local conditions and alter landscape functions (e.g. hydrology, erosion) – ultimately compromising livelihoods, particularly when rubber prices fall.


Available for download



Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This paper provides a critical analysis and overview of the expansion of rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, placing a particular focus on the threat to biodiversity and livelihoods. The implication is that the so-called expansion of rubber plantation through land conversion bears potential for a loss-loss scenario. For example, the clearing of high-biodiversity land for economically unsustainable plantations that are poorly adapted to local conditions and alter landscape functions (such as in hydrology or erosion). This ultimately compromises livelihoods, particularly when rubber prices fall

Key Themes: 
  • Land and the environment: pollution, deforestation, climate change, conservation zoning - Rubber plantation expansion has been the driving force for land conversion in many Southeast Asian nations. This conversion includes a variety of natural and cultivated lands, forest areas, protected areas, and biodiversity zones. In addition, there are environmental risks as a consequence of covering areas with rubber, including climate change, water reduction, loss of forest cover which makes the areas susceptible to natural disasters like typhoons, and drought. Local livelihoods might also be affected where the plant does not provide long-term sustainable yields and income
  • FDI and land access: economic land concessions, contract farming, short term and long term renting - Increasing world demand for rubber and price booms are found to be the two main factors driving the expansion of rubber plantations
  • Land policy and land law - Demand for rubber has motivated governments in many Southeast Asian countries to place rubber plantation expansion on the development policy agenda, thus leading to the enlargement of plantation sizes throughout the region
Research basis: 

The analysis in this very paper is derived from qualitative data based on literature from government reports, NGO publications and local news sources, and on quantitative data on the levels of rubber tree mortality and average annual yields in relation to environment. The report was also put forward for critical reviews by experts in the field before being published. (Provided by Kruy Phearak)