Suttipong Angthong（平和共生・生存基盤論講座）「The Men behind the Tree: The Story of Rubber Farmers in Thailand」
When we think of the word “rubber,” we may imagine only a small piece of rubber used for erasing pencil marks. However, rubber has played an enormous role in our everyday life. For example, at school, children play with a ball which is made from rubber; parents drive cars to pick up their children at school that are equipped with tires made of rubber; and when these children get sick, doctors would use rubber-gloves to inspect them in the hospitals. It can be said that rubber makes our modern life possible.
However, how many of us know where we get the rubber from? We only know rubber in the form of finished products which hide from us the life of the people who work behind the rubber trees and who serve the needs of a society where rubber makes life ever so convenient.
In order to understand the livelihoods of rubber farmers or “the men behind the tree,” I spent my almost two-month fieldwork in rubber-producing-villages in the south of Thailand, which helped me to gain an insight into their life and challenges.
The livelihoods of rubber farmers are different from other farmers, especially as regards their working time. Ordinary farmers start their work in the early morning and finish before it gets dark. In contrast, rubber farmers begin their job by tapping the rubber trees at midnight and must finish before sunrise. The scientific reason behind this practice is that latex can effectively come out from the bark of a rubber tree when the temperature is low, especially at night time.
To experience the reality of being a rubber farmer, one night, I followed them as they went to tap the rubber trees in the rubber field. What I found is that there were many dangerous animals on the plantation such as centipedes and poisonous snakes. While it was to be expected since we walked into the field at night, I realized that being a rubber farmer is not an easy job but rather a high risk one.
In addition to the safety issue, they also face the dangers of market volatility as the rubber is a commodity product which is highly affected by global factors, leading to income uncertainty. To manage the market-related risk, rubber farmers have made the younger members of their family work in the non-farm sector instead of staying on their farms. At present, their income relies on the non-farm sector for more than 50 %. Many of them told me that “if the rubber prices continue to fluctuate this much, I may have to give up working at rubber plantation and think of growing some other crops.”
This leads to the big question about the future of the rubber sector. Will rubber farmers really abandon their rubber plantations? Or will they just keep running their plantations and turn into part-time farmers as has actually happened in many developed countries in the world?
Since rubber is already a part of our daily life, it is very important to understand the conditions of the rubber sector, especially the future of rubber farmers. Therefore, I hope to return to my field again and find out the answers to the above questions.