The Times of India report, “Bleak future for Rubber Board” (Mar. 25, 2016) describes the results of ill-conceived programs by governments in Kerala. The report says, “The research staff were forced to pay for their own expenses while traveling to far off plantations, says a senior scientist.”
While one can sympathize with the plight of the staff, the current situation is culmination of earlier mistakes and years of neglect.
Rubber is not a native tree to Kerala. It was introduced in Kerala in 1902 by the British. Processing of rubber is environmentally damaging. And it has displaced cultivation of other crops such as tapioca, cashew and coconut. None of them generate the pollution similar to that generated during natural rubber processing. Other environmental impact include micro climate change, negative hydrological change/ drought, nutrient/ sediment run off, eutrofication and poisoning of rivers, and severe loss of species and extinction of local species. Kerala’s natural vegetation cover has reduced from 44% in 1905 to 14% in 1984. Rubber plantations are the main culprit.
Due to higher cost of natural rubber, search for synthetic rubber alternatives started as early as 1925. Now, industrial scale synthetic rubber production dwarfs natural rubber production.
In addition to these problems, most of the farming in Kerala is small scale, and cannot compete with efficiencies possible with large scale industrial farming. So it is high time Kerala woke up to the realities, instead of continuing to do what has been done in the past and expect different results.
The smart choice with the current “rubber crisis” [2, 3, 4] will be to use it as an opportunity to formulate and implement sustainable eco-friendly agriculture programs in Kerala. Being naturally fertile, there is no shortage of plants and crops that can be cultivated in Kerala. With small scale farming, the logical choice is to concentrate on high-value cultivation. Replanting cashews is a natural choice. Other choices include spices such as cardamom, pepper, ginger, turmeric, etc. In addition, commercial scale flower growing may also be feasible. Another worthwhile effort will be to implement large-scale reforestation to recapture the green cover that has been lost. Many small plants need or are helped by the green cover provided by trees. Besides, increasing green cover and increased biodiversity have obvious long term benefits.
Planning and implementing these programs require visionary leadership, which is sorely lacking in Kerala.
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