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Half of rubber trade agrees to new policies to cut deforestation, human rights abuses from supply chains

Growers, tyre manufacturers and automakers have agreed to a new policy framework that aims to support smallholders in the sustainable cultivation of rubber. The framework is a major milestone for an industry beset by environmental and social issues in tropical grower countries.

Majors players in the natural rubber trade have agreed to work towards stronger sustainability commitments that weed out deforestation and human rights abuses from their supply chains.

Making up about half of the rubber industry by volume, they include tyre manufacturers and automotive firms as well as growers. Under a new framework, they will establish or strengthen sustainability policies for their rubber supply chains.

The framework was devised by the Global Platform for Natural Sustainable Rubber (GPSNR), a non-profit for sustainable rubber cultivation that has garnered 90 members since it launched in November 2018. It was announced at a general assembly on Wednesday (23 September).

Although some companies such as tire firm Michelin—the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber—and carmakers General Motors and BMW already have rubber sustainability commitments in place, the new framework represents a major elevation of sustainability standards for the sector as a whole, which is largely unregulated and exposed to a range of environmental and social issues.

Rubber has, like other major commodities grown in the tropics, been a major driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia and Africa. Business-as-usual cultivation practices could mean an additional five million hectares of forests are lost to rubber plantations by 2024.

The sector is also blighted by human rights issues. Migrant labourers deployed to grow and tap rubber are exposed to poor working conditions and meagre pay, while Indigenous communities have been pushed off their land by plantation developers. Since 2003, 15,000 hectares of land has been seized by rubber companies.

GPSNR’s new standards include: respecting labour rights and land use rights of Indigenous communities; using the High Conservation Value and the High Carbon Stock Approach and avoiding peatland development or the use of fire; supporting decent living conditions for workers; and boosting production efficiency.

Members must also show how they intend to implement the policy with targets and milestones, and work to engage the full supply chain. They have six months to comply with the requirements, with a six-month extension if they show that they’re actively making progress towards meeting the requirements.

An assurance system and grievance mechanism is being set up to red-flag members that do not stick to their commitments.

The inclusion of smallholder farmers, which account for 85 per cent of the rubber trade, is needed for the framework to be effective. GPSNR has set up a working group to identify how to share the responsibility and cost of sustainably cultivated rubber, to ensure that smallholders do not bear the burden of switching to sustainable practices.

The higher cost of sustainable production has slowed the adoption of better practices in other sectors such as palm oil. Clearing land using fire, which is a major cause of the annual haze fires that choke Southeast Asia annually, is much quicker and cheaper than more responsible land preparation methods.

GPSNR director Stefano Savi said the framework was a “big first step” for sustainability in the natural rubber sector that would require a lot of work to take effect, as it involves a large number of companies and impacts the lives of 7 million families that depend on rubber production.

Savi said the framework was a “tremendous milestone” achieved despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit the natural rubber trade hard.

According to data from the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries, demand for natural rubber was expected to grow by almost 3 per cent this year, but is projected to shrink by almost 6 per cent as trade withers amid the coronavirus crisis. 

The pandemic has also affected rubber sustainability programmes, with growers reporting delayed research studies and training workshops for smallholders due to lockdowns.

Environmental campaign group Mighty Earth welcomed GPSNR’s new framework, but said the “the proof will be in the pudding” and would depend on how well the grievance mechanism works to hold companies to account.

Julian Oram, senior director at Mighty Earth, said on the organisation’s blog: “Companies need to work together in partnership with smallholder farmers to develop plans to implement these policies quickly so we can end major deforestation and human rights abuses.”

“Demonstrating commitment to the implementation of these policy components will ultimately determine whether or not GPSNR succeeds,” Oram said.

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