Is Northern Luzon suitable for large-scale rubber tree farming?
By Pablito P. Pamplona, Ph.D.
Earlier this year, this author was among those invited by Dr. William Medrano, the Executive Director of the Cagayan Valley for Agriculture and Resources Research and Development Consortium (CVARRDC) to share views in a one-day Business Forum in Tuguegarao City on the potential of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) farming in Northern Luzon and the new and innovative techniques in rubber farming. Over 150 political, academic, and business leaders attended this forum, all with a common question: Is Northern Luzon suitable for large-scale rubber tree farming?
During the flight from Manila to Tuguegarao City, the skies were clear, allowing for a view of the landscape on the way to Tuguegarao. Noticeable were the thousands of hectares of denuded and degraded mountains and sloping fields practically devoid of vegetation. The author was told that this situation causes a high rate of soil erosion on the mountainsides and slopping uplands.
In turn, the eroded soil causes the increasingly high siltation of the Cagayan river, the longest and the biggest in Luzon. It also brings about extensive flooding on the plains during strong rains, causing damage to crops like rice, corn, legumes, and tobacco. The ground temperature in Tuguegarao City during summer is high—among the highest in the country.
Decades worth of efforts by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), local government units (LGUs), other government agencies, and non-government agencies (NGOs) to reforest the mountains and sloping lands were not successful. The reforestation initiatives using traditional forest trees failed to provide sustainable vegetation, aggravated by poor establishment. There is also the rampant cutting of trees even before they are big or mature enough by poor upland dwellers in need of charcoal and fuel due to the lack of livelihood opportunities.
While in Tuguegarao City, this author travelled to various mountainous areas and sloping lands accompanied by Hon. Secretary Manuel Mamba, a Presidential Legislative Liason Officer with the rank of a Cabinet Secretary, and other key leaders of the region. This author noted that the soils, though eroded, were still highly suitable for rubber farming.
The Mifgration of Rubber Cultivation
1. During his discussion at the business forum, this author presented the history of the cultivation of rubber in Asia. The crop was traditionally cultivated near and along either side of the equator in countries like in Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern area of Thailand, and Mindanao in the Philippines. The assumption then was that the rubber trees were suitable only for the tropics, which were practically free of typhoons. That assumption was proven wrong, and in recent decades, the cultivation of rubber trees has expanded to include places in countries located north of the equator which are affected regularly by typhoons.
More than 80,000 hectares (ha) of rubber trees have now been successfully grown in the Hainan and Yunnan provinces of
China. The latex yield of rubber trees in these areas are as high or even higher than those in many areas of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. The typhoon visitation rate for the Hainan island province of China is almost the same as Northern Luzon, yet rubber tree farming is commercially viable there.
The crop is also successfully grown in North Vietnam; many typhoons that pass over Northern Luzon reach that part of
Vietnam. Large plantations of rubber are also found in Cambodia and India, which lie even higher to the north than North Luzon, and which have long pronounced dry seasons. These are Northern Luzon.
Mitigating the Effects of Typhoons on Rubber Trees
Recently, strategies have been developed and/or identified to mitigate the effects of typhoons on rubber trees. Among these strategies are:
(1) top pruning or maintaining the height of the trees at 18 ft. to reduce the impact of strong winds;
(2) planting of sturdier, fast-growing, and high-yielding latextimber hybrid clones;
(3) planting of trees in elevated silt beds on the plains to increase rooting for better anchorage of the rubber trees, thus making the plant more tolerant to lodging;
(4) guying of the rubber trees, similar to the techniques being used in commercial banana plantations; and
(5) planting of windbreak trees such as eucalyptus at strategic places or at the boundaries of the rubber plantations to reduce the impact of strong winds on rubber trees.
Opportunities in Rubber Farming
This author pointed out several opportunities in rubber tree farming during the business forum. It’s the best, if not one of the best, tree varieties for use in reforestation initiatives.
Rubber trees which are budded from fast-growing and high-yielding clones provide a year-round high income to uplanders who would rather extract latex from the back of the trees every other day for a regular income source rather than cutting the trees for charcoal—an unsustainable one-time source of income. The income from rubber farming is high, and is more than enough to enable a small farmer to buy enough food for his family’s needs, thus providing household food security.
Rubber farming also generates year-round rural employment and livelihood activities. This is better than the seasonal employment provided by planting crops like rice, corn, tobacco, and the like. Jobs are generated in the rubber nurseries, field planting, maintenance of the plantations, and latex extraction or tapping. Every two ha of rubber trees employs one tapper. Additional jobs become available when crop-livestock integration is included in rubber tree farming for additional food and income.
Rubber trees also generate quality lumber and can lead to the emergence of a furniture industry in the area where they are planted. Europeans prefer to buy furniture made from renewable rubber trees instead of those made using traditional forest trees like molave and narra. Moreover, rubber trees are expected to help reduce the ground temperature in Northern Luzon—which is among the highest in the country during the summer—once rubber forest cover becomes available. It will also contribute significantly to the worldwide effort to mitigate climate change.
A North Cotabato Study Tour
Encouraged by the insights gleaned from the business forum on the opportunities in rubber tree farming in Northern Luzon, a study tour to Cotabato was carried out on May 21 to 24, 2014 under the leadership of Dr. Aleth M. Mamauag, president of Isabela State University and chairman of the CVARRDC. A total of 28 participants, which included a university president; municipal mayors; academics from state universities; key DENR officials; and business leaders headed by Charles T. Lim, president of the Southern Isabela (Northern Luzon) chapter of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI). Other participants included Vicente Mamauag, William C. Medrano, Pedrita N, Medrano, Dr. Teodorico Solsoloy, Lilia Abel, Enrique Pasion, Ramon Fabros, Melva Fabros, Emmanuel C. Pereda, Frederic L. Yang, Ilarde C. Viernes, Mayor Glenn D. Prudenciano, Patenciano Balao, Chong Ken Foo, Melinda Kiat, Nenita M. Agustin, Marcos D. Baccay Jr., Michael Joseph G. Kiat, Manuel B. Ignacio, Loreta Aguilar, Maru Joy Cadabuna, Socorro S. Hermosura, Chester Limyuen, Rachel Limyuen, Pamela Tan, Cloududo Firme, and Fortunato Paz.
The participants were familiarized with the various operations and opportunities in rubber farming. Among the places visited were rubber agro-reforested rugged and mountainous lands in the municipalities of Carmen, Kidapawan City, Magpet, and Makilala, all in the province of North Cotabato.
At the University of Southern Mindanao (USM), they were welcomed by the faculty members headed by university president Dr. Francisco Garcia and his wife, Dr. Adeflor G. Garcia, dean of the College of Agriculture. A demonstration on rubber tapping or the extraction of rubber latex was carried out by Dr. Romulo Cena, director of the USM Agricultural Research Center (USMARC). They also visited the rubber plantation of Triple P Farms and Nursery (TPFN) in Magpet, Cotabato, where they were amazed by the fast growth of the new high yielding latextimber recommended clones from Malaysia: PB 350, RRIM 2025, and RRIM 3001. Trees of these clones attained the ideal stem size for tapping of 50 centimeters (cm) at 1.5 meters (m) above the ground only three years after field planting. The participants also visited the DAVCO rubber processing plant of Honesto Cabacungan in Makilala, Cotabato.
Models of Agro-Reforestation
The study tour participants returned to Northern Luzon with hopes that a part, if not all, of the bald mountains and denuded sloping lands of Northern Luzon will, in few years, look similar to the TPFN rubber forest plantation (Fig. 5) or the agroreforestation rubber plantation in Malaysia. Indeed, Malaysia provides excellent models the Philippines can emulate in techniques that allow both the environment and its people, particularly the upland poor, to thrive.
Two decades ago, while this author was on a plane from Jahor (which shares a border with Singapore) to Kedah (which shares a border with Thailand), the sight of bald mountains and grasslands similar to those found in Northern Luzon today was common. Now, these are covered with luxuriant rubber or oil palm trees, thanks to the Malaysian government’s successful gro-reforestation program. Small landholders in these Malaysian agro-reforested farms earn an income four to five times that of a typical upland Filipino farmer…in times of prosperity.
1. Promote on-farm tree planting for demos of high-yielding, early-maturing latex-timber clones. The author recommends massive and strategic on-farm trials of the recommended rubber clones from neighboring countries which will soon become available through the clonal exchange program of the International Rubber Development Board (IRDB). These clones are high yielding, early maturing, and have high timber yield.
Meanwhile, as the new Malaysia recommended clones—which include PB 350, RRIM 2025, RRIM 2023, RRIM 928, RRIM 929, and RRIM 3001—are now available, on-farm trials/demos of these should be carried out. In Malaysia, during intensive field trials carried out in many places—some with conditions similar to those of Northern Luzon—these new clones gave yields that were twice those from RRIM 600, PB 260, and PB 330.
Initial results for the on-farm trials of TPFN in the provinces of North Cotabato and Agusan del Sur showed the superiority of the new Malaysian recommended clones over the traditional Philippine recommended clones in term of faster growth rate and higher latex yields. The field trials of the new clones in strategic places of Northern Luzon may be carried out side by
side with the traditional low-yielding Philippine recommended clones, especially given that these traditional clones (RRIM 600, PB 260, PB 330, and others) were not previously evaluated in Northern Luzon, but only in Mindanao.
With the exception of USM 1, these traditional recommended clones were introduced to Mindanao from Malaysia by the multinational rubber companies like Firestone, Goodyear, and Goodrich long ago, during the pre-agrarian reform years. They are no longer recommended in Malaysia, as their yields are only 50% of the yields of the new Malaysia recommended clones.
2. Intensify R&D in rubber. In addition to the massive on-farm clonal testing and demos, other phases of rubber R&D should be carried out to help accelerate the growth of the rubber industry in Northern Luzon. This can be done by way of implementing Republic Act (RA) 10089, the law which created the Philippine Rubber Research Institute (PRRI), and to include the putting up of a regional research center in Northern Luzon following the Thailand model. Thailand is now the world’s leading producer of rubber, surpassing in volume of production both Malaysia and Indonesia. Thailand has five regional research centers for rubber catering to the needs of its various agro-climatic zones. It is hoped that the national leaders in Northern Luzon can convince officials of DA and Malacañang to implement the PRRI to the country’s benefit, particularly Northern Luzon.
3. Stop the field planting of rubber seedling trees. The field planting of rubber seedlings in Northern Luzon should be stopped. The latex yield of seedling trees is very low and therefore, the trees are of limited commercial value. They are not better than the traditional reforestation trees except that the rubber woods produce better charcoal. The low yield and income from seedling trees does not provide an incentive for farmers and indigenous peoples (IPs) to plant and maintain them. This in turn will tempt IPs to cut down the trees for charcoal when there is no other source of income and they lack food. This happened in Indonesia, and the mistake is now being corrected in that country. The mistake should therefore not be repeated in the Philippines, particularly in Northern Luzon. Malaysia once tested the planting of selected clonal seeds from high yielding clonal trees without the benefit of budding. The result was discouraging as the yield was very low; the trees were not worth maintaining and therefore, the project was stopped. To ensure early, high, and stable yield, only budded plants of the high latex and timber yielding clones should be planted.
4. Promote the establishment of community-based rubber nurseries. To fast-track rubber tree planting in various places, municipal community clonal gardens and nurseries should be established in strategic places. This activity requires the funding support of the DA, the DENR (through the National Greening Program), LGUs, and NGOs. Side by side with the establishment of clonal gardens is the establishment of community-based rubber nurseries on a massive scale. As much as possible, each municipality should have a rubber budwood garden to supply budsticks to various barangay nurseries for budding. DENR should also establish several budwood gardens, nurseries, and model plantations for farmers to follow.
5. Assist poor farmers in planting rubber. The LGUs and NGOs in Northern Luzon should support the poor farmers in planting rubber on a plant-now-pay-later (PNPL) scheme. Moreover, plant distribution should be coupled with effective extension services, similar to what is being implemented in the province of North Cotabato. In the training of rubber technicians and farmers, the strategies to mitigate the effects of typhoons should be emphasized.
Providing poor farmers with the planting materials and techniques for high and sustainable yield can help reduce the high incidence of poverty. The technique of using rubber farming to overcome poverty in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and many other countries may serve as a model for the national and local governments in Northern Luzon.
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2014 issue.