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November 13, 2019

Can we bring Myanmar’s white gold back to life?

Latex being collected from a tapped rubber tree.   Rubber sheets are sold by local farmers in Mon State. PHOTO: KUN (WIN PA)
Latex being collected from a tapped rubber tree. Rubber sheets are sold by local farmers in Mon State. PHOTO: KUN (WIN PA)

“Rubber leads to white gold,
It supports the family,
Makes a base for national
economy,
Now it wishes to rise again,
Planning, dreaming, hoping,
Oh, dear white gold…”

BY Kun (Win Pa)

The development of a nation depends on how good the socioeconomic status and living standards of its citizens are. The current economic status of Myanmar has made rubber, once glorified as ‘white gold’ among the lips of rubber cultivators, fade away into memory with its production at an abysmal low.

Myanmar’s rubber situation
Myanmar’s terrain and weather make planting rubber ideal in almost all its lands and the profitable rubber market from years gone by were more than enough to feed cultivators and their families. But the rubber market has since declined, due in part to inferior quality and standards that make the price unstable.
A few years ago, some of the rubber production and entrepreneur associations throughout the states and regions tried to revitalize the rubber industry by setting projects, organizing training courses on harvesting rubber, and sharing technology and information on rubber agriculture across the country.
And while there were sounds of advanced rubber filtration factories and economic zones, the rubber market has not risen an inch yet. Plantation owners big and small saw their businesses fall and chose to either sell off their farms, use their land for other purposes, or sell all their rubber plants as lumber or firewood.
Gaining suitable price to meet modern standards
In Thaton Township, a local rubber plantation owner from Winpa Village said he has been waiting for the rubber market to gain traction for two to three years. The amount of rubber produced by the trees are low and the price for them are just as low. He said he has to sell them to a third middleman who lowers the price because of the supposed low quality.
There is also a shortage of skilled workers for extracting the rubber sap, so plantation owners have no choice but to pay them as demanded. Some workers ask for pay on the number of plants they extract while others split the profit with owners in half. Then they have to offer incentives such as rice, cooking oil and salt to make them stay.
If the worker is skilled, the plant will be fine, but an unskilled worker can damage or potentially kill the rubber plant. Some of them cut the plants indiscriminately to get more sap and more profits. The plantations are also rented out during the rubber extraction season and this can severely damage the plants, making them produce less sap the next year. This is because some people use chemicals to make trees produce more sap.
Businesswise, large plantation owners feel fewer repercussions from the declining rubber market than the small ones. The trees do not produce enough sap, there isn’t enough skilled labour, the cost of everything is rising and workers are demanding more wages.
Our plantation owner friend from Thaton said he is unable to get any skilled labourers this year, so he will make do with anyone, get as much sap as they can and sell it all. He said there is no use in being glum. He needs six workers but so far he only has two. He says it’s enough if he can get a suitable price based on the market.
Good produce requires good crops
There are three main reasons why most rubber plantations cannot produce sufficient sap. The first is simply because they don’t have the right variety of the plant. Secondly, they may not be able to afford saplings from good stock. And finally, they may be swindled with low-quality crops having a part of a good one grafted onto it. The general difference between having good and bad crops is a worker (who gets paid between K1 lakh to K1.5 lakhs per month) will be able to gather 15-20 lbs from a plot of three hundred trees from good stock but only gather 6-8 lbs from bad stock.

Supply going strong
The recent price for a pound of rubber on 11 October is K740. While it is a little lower than previous years supply is currently high, with sales of three to four thousand pounds a day. People mostly purchase the sun dried rubber slabs and they are exported to Mandalay, Mawlamyine, Yangon and other big cities. Small towns like Thuwunna Wadi have lots of retailers for rubber.

Taking out loans
At the Thaton Institute of Agriculture on 6 December last year, the State Rubber Sector Development Committee organized a meeting with small rubber plantation owners of Thaton District. They discussed for the emergence of laws related to rubber cultivation and loan acquisition. The committee’s chairman U Saw Aung Myint Khine, who is also State Kayin Ethnic Affairs Minister, led the meeting.
The committee’s secretary U Kyi Soe, State Agricultural Department Director, sought to set a fixed price for rubber products but the major rubber businesses were not keen on the idea. They wanted rubber sales to be free and the result is the price of rubber is vastly different in different parts of Myanmar.
Authorities make field checks for requests to cut down old rubber trees but owners need to submit applications and receive approval from higher-ups to use the land for other purposes, said U Kyi Soe.
There is a glimmer of hope in the form of loans from Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank. U Kyaw Swar Hlaing, manager of the Mon State branch, said small plantation owners can take out a loan from K50,000 to K100,000 per acre. He said the list of plantations have been submitted to the local government and loans can be expected around August.

Interest plummets in rubber farming
Rubber cultivators and small plantation owners can fall into two categories. Some may not be aware they can take out loans while those who are aware may not have all the necessary documents to do so. The coming rubber extraction season also brings with it an unstable price and incompatibility between income generation and expenditure. All of these factors may contribute to a reduced rubber sap supply.

Last hope for rubber trade
The State Rubber Sector Development Committee states that there are 494,840 acres of rubber plantation in Mon State and 325,972 acres of those are for extracting sap. It would seem the only means to bring Myanmar’s ‘white gold’ sector back to life is through a systematic approach by the Union Government and collaboration between relevant ministries and the various associations for sale and production of rubber products in the nation.
Translated by Pen Dali

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