A guest post by George L Mathew
The rubber tree known as hevea brasiliensis originially came from the Brazilian rainforest. This is the most commercially exploited tree for extracting rubber. Many other plants have sap which is similar to rubber sap, but none of these have been used commercially to date. Whenever the price of rubber goes up, scientists come up with many possibilities for using other plants in a commercial application for extracting rubber.
Cultivation and extraction of rubber is highly labor intensive and can be done only when reasonably priced labor is available. The rubber plantation industry is highly concentrated in Southeast Asian countries–among them India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. These countries have the ideal climate for cultivation of hevea brasiliensis and they also have cheap labor when compared to developed countries.
As manufacturers of products from rubber, we at Cocolatex will be happy if new trees and plantations are developed. This will help the industry to improve and also supply value added products to consumers. But we find that the scientific research and cultivation activity tends to fade away when rubber price falls beyond a point. Today, Asian countries’ economies are developing quite quickly and the demand for rubber–especially for automobile parts such as tires–is growing at a tremendous pace. This is why the price of rubber has reached a record level once again.
The material most often substituted for natural rubber is synthethic rubber, which is extracted from petroleum products. Of course, that is another story, with many implications. The dominant mattress industries in many parts of the world use synthetic latex, or at times, blends of synthetic latex with small amounts of natural rubber.
George L Mathew is director of Coco Latex Exports, Ltd., and has seen the latex rubber industry from the inside for the past 35 years.