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Life and Livelihood Among Rubber Trees

Worker collecting sap from the rubber tree
Collecting latex sap from the rubber tree

In Kerala, tropical southern India, most rubber tree farms are very small—a typical holding is less than 20 acres. These are not rubber plantations with thousands of acres of land. Kerala-based Cocolatex, which supplies natural Dunlop latex for Savvy Rest organic mattresses, is a small company, privately owned and operated. I visited Cocolatex recently and was fascinated by what I learned.

The rubber tree, or hevea brasiliensis, grows at higher elevations with good drainage, and does not lend itself to mass cultivation. The farmers take great care in planting the trees to ensure their health. In more open areas, pineapple trees are inter-planted among the rubber trees. In hilly regions, companion shrubs are added to shade the soil and maximize the water available to the trees’ roots.

Rubber trees have three “skins” that are somewhat delicate. When tapping a tree by hand, it’s easy to cut too deeply. The idea, which involves much practice and skill, is to create a long, slanted opening in the bark at just the right angle. Although the farmers are kind to visitors and may even allow one to try the knife, one can sense their collective sigh when an amateur injures the bark. Fortunately, an experienced farmer will swiftly reshape the cut so the serum will run properly. The cuts heal over in about an hour.

Farmers start their day around 5 a.m. because rubber sap runs most freely in the early morning. Walking from tree to tree in the shade, they finish the daily collection around noon. At its peak, each tree yields just one to two cups of serum per day. Older trees produce less, and the latex runs more slowly toward the end of the tree’s annual cycle. Years ago and in some locations still, farmers use halved coconut hulls to collect the serum. They combine the output from many trees one at a time into steel buckets, then pour the contents into drums that are sealed before being moved to the factory.

Farmers regularly replant their holdings, setting in new seedlings. They treat the trees with great respect and care. For the first seven years, young trees are left to grow robust and remain untapped. A tree can produce usable latex for up to 20 years, then it is cut and sent to a mill to be made into furniture. Rubber wood is one of the most sustainable woods, and is growing in popularity in the United States. It is also widely used in local economies, such as in making office desks for Cocolatex.

The Cocolatex facility employs 80 skilled workers in various roles whose livelihoods depend on the remarkable utility of the rubber tree. They produce foam rubber on a daily basis—emptying the drums into giant mixers or centrifuges, testing and correcting the liquid mixture, filling molds, steam-baking and washing the finished layers, and inspecting their final quality once they have dried. The finished sheets are stacked, then double-wrapped in plastic and a puncture-proof material.

From the factory the latex is delivered to a loading facility where more workers load the giant stacks into shipping containers. After a five-week passage the ship arrives at the destination port – for Savvy Rest, the port is nearby Norfolk, Virginia. A commercial transporter then picks up the cargo and delivers it to our Central Virginia facility.

Just as the renewable serum yielded by tapping a tree is transformed into many kinds of important products, the rubber industry itself provides livelihood and comfort for many individuals and their families. These include:

  • Owners of small farms
  • Farmworkers in rubber holdings
  • Skilled workers at several factories
  • Dockworkers, merchant sailors, shipping personnel
  • Savvy Rest local staff
  • Business owners and employees who sell Savvy Rest
  • Savvy Rest’s customers
  • Furniture makers

While the deep interdependence of humans and trees often goes unremarked, the stately rubber tree is one of the most durable, renewable and dependable resources for human manufacturing.

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