How Mounting Demand for Rubber Is Driving Tropical Forest Loss

The elephants are gone. The trees are logged out. The Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary in central Cambodia is largely destroyed, after being handed over by the government to a politically well-connected local plantation company to grow rubber.

In West Africa, the Luxembourg-based plantations giant Socfin has been accused in recent weeks of deforestation and displacing Indigenous people around its rubber plantations in Nigeria and Ghana.

Meanwhile, on the heavily deforested Indonesian island of Sumatra, tire multinational Michelin and a local forestry company raised $95 million worth of green investment bonds on the promise that they would reforest bare land with rubber trees. But the NGO Mighty Earth has found that much of the plantation went ahead on land from which natural forest had been removed as recently as a few months before by a subsidiary of the local company.

These are just three examples among hundreds of one of the biggest, but least discussed, causes of tropical deforestation. The spread of rubber plantations is driven primarily by our demand for more than 2 billion new tires each year. The full devastating impact of this has been exposed by a new analysis of high-resolution satellite images that can, for the first time, distinguish rubber plantations from natural forests.

But even as the true environmental cost of the ubiquitous rubber tire is being exposed, the damage could be about to escalate sharply. The new culprit is electric vehicles. Being substantially heavier than conventional vehicles, they reduce the life of a tire by up to 30 percent, and so could raise demand for rubber by the same amount.

A new international analysis published in October has for the first time used high-resolution imagery from the Sentinel-2 earth observation satellites, launched by the European Space Agency, to accurately identify rubber plantations. “The results have been sobering,” says lead author Yunxia Wang, a remote-sensing specialist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

She has found that between 10 and 15 million acres of tropical forests, an area larger than Switzerland, has been razed in Southeast Asia alone since the 1990s to feed our hunger for rubber. This is three times more than some previous estimates used by policymakers, she says. It makes the crop a worse deforester than coffee or cocoa and closing on palm oil for the top spot.

Natural rubber is used widely in everything from condoms to sportswear and toys to industrial machinery. But more than 70 percent makes the 2.3 billion new tires the world buys each year. With ever more cars on the roads, demand continues to surge.

Warrern-Thomas believes controlling demand is just as important. Recycling of used rubber tires could help, especially by turning them back into new tires, rather than current lower value uses such as bouncy playground surfaces. But the highest priority should be reducing our reliance on the car through improved public transport, she says. “Cars use much more rubber per-person-kilometer than buses.”

And a transition to electric vehicles could make that difference even greater. So if we simply accept the idea that e-vehicles solve all our environmental dilemmas over transportation, we run the risk of unleashing a new round of deforestation.