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The 11-member inter-government Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries (ANRPC), which accounts for 92 per cent of global production of natural rubber, has a new Secretary-General – Dr Nguyen Ngoc Bich, the nominee of Vietnam. The veteran rubber scientist will be coordinating the policies member governments of Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. In this interview he explains how he wishes to steer ANRPC to achieve the goals set by its members


What is your major agenda as the new Secretary-General of the ANRPC?

My priority is to seek the support and cooperation from member governments of ANRPC to enable the organisation to meet its objectives and fulfil its commitment to rubber producers across countries. This is because the strength of the organisation depends on the cooperation among member governments in addressing common issues concerning rubber production sector.
In the short term, it is essential to reinforce the existing system to enable the organisation to gather the most updated and authentic information on current status of global rubber industry and analyse emerging developments. Rubber is a crop having long gestation period and much longer economic life span; and for that reason framing of policies for the development of this sector requires advance planning by taking into account potential developments for several years ahead. ANRPC’s findings and recommendations in this sphere are valuable inputs to member governments to frame appropriate policies and identify suitable strategies for the development of natural rubber industry in the respective countries.
In the long term, my agenda includes establishing linkage with NR producing countries which are outside ANRPC. Although they contribute only 10% of the global production of NR, information pertaining to these countries can add value to ANRPC’s information services. Moreover, in the attempt to reinforce its industry monitoring system, ANRPC will strengthen its cooperation with other international rubber organisations, including industry bodies representing rubber-consumers.

You have assumed office at a time when natural rubber is facing increasing competition from SR and advancing threat to NR in the form of alternatives such as guayule and Russian dandelion. What is ANRPC’s strategy to protect and promote Hevea rubber?

Although there is a limited extent of substitution between NR and SR, we think the two types of elastomers are largely complementary to each other. Both NR and SR are needed for the manufacture of various rubber-based products. In addition, the proportion of NR and SR in a product is largely decided based on the expected performance of the product rather than relative prices.
Of course, certain properties of NR need to be further improved to match with changing requirements from consuming industry. Development of more modified forms of NR is another necessity to widen the application base of NR. These have been the priorities of rubber research institutes both from within ANRPC member countries and outside. ANRPC closely associates with the International Rubber Research and Development Board (IRRDB) which is the apex by of about 25 rubber research bodies across countries.
The commodity domain of ANRPC is not confined to natural rubber produced from Hevea alone. It includes natural rubber produced from other plants. However, guayule and Russian dandelion are not expected to make any considerable presence in global NR sector in the immediate future due to technical, environmental and economical issues at the moment. ANRPC has already initiated a project to study the potential and viability of these plants as alternative sources of NR.

How will you address criticisms that the spread of NR farming in Asian rubber growing nations is jeopardizing the environment? These concerns might affect the livelihood of many small-holder rubber farmers.

Various environmental concerns pertaining to rubber plantation industry had been subjected to serious research and scientific deliberations. There are several points that I wish to mention in this context:
Rubber plantations purify the atmosphere by absorbing CO2 and releasing O2. Based on a research undertaken by rubber research institutes in five countries, it has been established that a hectare of rubber plantation annually sequesters as much as 30 tonnes of CO2 from atmosphere which is near to that of the Amazonian base.
NR plantations are a good source of timber. Annually, about 100,000 to 200,000 hectares of rubber trees are cut down to be replanted with improved clones. Bulk of this timber goes into furniture industry thereby protecting large extent of forests from being logged every year. Secondary branches of the rubber trees go into the fibre board industry and small twigs are used by the rural people as a source of firewood, both indirectly saving forests.
Rubber plantations contribute to sustainable soil productivity. Soil productivity has not deteriorated in any of the traditional rubber growing countries which have the history of growing rubber for more than 100 years and already completed 3-4 rubber plantation cycles. Rubber cultivation is a sustainable agricultural practice.
One of the key factors which had adversely affected food crops production in the last couple of years was climate change. In fact rubber plantations offer solution to this as they help balancing carbon level in atmosphere.
Rubber is no longer a mono crop. Several food crops are grown along with rubber plants in all NR producing countries. The concept of raising rubber plantations as agro-forestry is being promoted. It is common among rubber farmers to maintain a portion of their land for other crops. Moreover, rubber holdings provide sources of ancillary income through activities such as horticulture, fishery, honey-bee, goat farming, etc.
In view of the above points, we hardly think that the spread of NR farming is jeopardising the environment, except only for some extreme cases. Moreover, ANRPC does not encourage ecologically harmful practices in cultivation or primary processing of NR. Good agricultural practices are being recommended and implemented in ANRPC’s member countries.

In your inaugural address you have said ANRPC would try to guarantee the global supply of NR with the best quality that matches the changing needs of every industry. Can you elaborate on some of the key steps that you are taking in this regard?

In one step, ANRPC member governments generally do not encourage abandoning of rubber area or crop shifting from rubber in response to low rubber prices. Rubber being a crop having long economic life span, planting and removal decisions should take into consideration the prospects of the crop for about three decades in future.
Member governments also promote among farmers suitable practices to generate alternative sources of income from rubber holdings. In another step, research and development programmes have been carried out in ANRPC’s member countries, especially in plant breeding, to enhance the productivity of the rubber tree. These measures can help farmers to improve income even without expansion of area.
Furthermore, ANRPC member countries promote application of technical procedures, standards and management activities to ensure the quality of raw materials from the field to the factory.

How do you plan to reinforce the collaboration among ANRPC members as most of them have compelling different issues to resolve at home? Most of them are dominated by marginal farmers and at the mercy of weather and vagaries of global rubber market.

Due to differences in terms of structure and size of the rubber plantation industry, issues and priorities may vary across member countries. However, it is a fact that they have at least one thing in common which is the prime focus on livelihood of rubber farmers. It is on this common focus area that member governments cooperate through ANRPC. We provide a forum for NR producing countries to come together, deliberate on common issues and frame appropriate policies for the well-being of farmers and sustainable growth of the NR industry.

Do you have any formula to resolve the constant friction among NR producers and the rubber goods industry, particularly tyre manufacturers?

Rubber goods manufacturing industry is an inevitable part of the very existence of natural rubber production sector. It is because of the existence of a vibrant consuming industry, especially auto-tyre manufacturing industry that the global NR production sector grew over years.
ANRPC cooperates with industry bodies of rubber consumers, particularly auto-tyre manufacturing industry, and tries to understand their changing requirement for NR. This helps ANRPC member governments to reorient their producing practices according to the changing needs of the consuming industry. Moreover, ANRPC encourages member countries for value addition of raw rubber by strengthening manufacturing base within each country.

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