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The rubber industry was established in South and Southeast Asia at the end of the 19th century after the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, was introduced from its native South America. Rubber plantations around the world presently cover some 9 million ha, with almost 95 percent in Asia and more than 75 percent in the three largest producer countries Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Further Asia-Pacific producers include China, India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, which together account for another 18 percent. Increasing tendencies are observed in Indonesia, Thailand, China and Vietnam, while declines are experienced in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

Rubber trees are generally grown on large estates or in smallholdings, the latter often in rubber-based agroforestry systems. Smallholdings dominate Asia, with shares of 96, 86 and 84 percent in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. Only in Vietnam, China and Papua New Guinea do estates account for more than half of the total area. Estate rubber areas have been declining throughout the region, a trend that will likely continue in the medium term, largely because of the higher profitability of other crops, such as oil palm. Due to its susceptibility to insect and fungal attacks, rubberwood has to be processed shortly after the trees are cut. Many experts have argued that rubberwood cannot be economically produced from remote and fragmented smallholdings, even though smallholder resources are usually included in projections.

Rubberwood has traditionally been used for fuelwood and charcoal in rubber processing, steel industries, tobacco curing and brick manufacturing. Most rubberwood has been burned at the clearing site, except in the wood-scarce countries of South Asia. Although there exists a large number of rubber tree clones with different properties, they are generally replanted after 25-35, when they yield 100-200 m3 per hectare, the lower ranges being more typical for smallholdings.

Large-scale industrial utilization started with sawnwood production in Malaysia and Thailand during the 1980s. Malaysia has promoted the development of its downstream rubberwood industry with the institution of an export quota and in 1994 a complete ban on sawnwood. Consequently, Malaysia has the most diversified rubberwood industry with various types of wood-based panel plants and furniture mills.

Ready and low-cost availability, light color, easy machining and staining properties have all contributed to the establishment of rubberwood as an important wood product. However, residual PCP content limits certain uses in scrupulous markets. Today, aside from the traditional uses, rubberwood is used primarily for furniture, furniture parts and wood-based panels.

Rubberwood stumpage prices have generally been very low or negative when compared to other wood species, due largely to the fact that rubberwood is an agricultural by-product. Poor quality logs, distance to processing facilities, seasonality and rubberwood traders' opportunism has contributed to these low prices. The price differential between rubberwood logs/sawnwood and other species is narrower, but the former is still cheaper in many places. However, localized shortages and variable qualities have translated into considerable price ranges.

Detailed, recent and accurate information about rubberwood utilization is not regularly collected. The most recent comprehensive study was carried out by the International Trade Center in the early 1990s. Consumption of rubberwood logs in 1991 was estimated to be about 2.5 percent of Asian tropical log production or 4.6 million m3, most of which was used by sawmills. In 1993, the wood-based panels sector used some 1.1 million m3 of rubberwood, in large part because of the rapidly growing MDF sector. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1994 had a total of 12 MDF plants, out of which six were based on rubberwood. Six more were planned for the following three years.

There has been a consensus that rubberwood is under-exploited. Indonesia's estimated use during the early 1990s was a mere 27 percent of its available resource, while Malaysia's was 62 percent and Thailand's 83 percent. The rubberwood processing industry has also been suffering from low recovery rates (15-35 percent), partly due to the use of poor technology.

In secondary processing, the main use of rubberwood has been in furniture manufacturing, mouldings and joinery. Rubberwood's physical characteristics mean that it can substitute for many other species, including ramin, meranti, teak oak and pine. Rubberwood furniture exports accounted for some 70 percent of the combined Malaysian and Thai furniture exports in 1995.

Annual consumption of rubberwood products (sawnwood and furniture) during the early 1990s was around 240,000 m3 (product volume). It was estimated that this market would grow to 350,000 m3 by 1996. Most rubberwood is traded in the form of finished furniture (55 percent) and furniture parts (17 percent). Trade in rubberwood sawnwood was small and mainly confined to exports to Taiwan Province of China and Japan.

It is very likely that all of the above figures have increased since the early 1990s, although the 1997 Asian financial crisis and its aftermath have probably somewhat dampened rubberwood's advance. According to various estimates and projections, today's combined rubberwood log availability in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia alone is more than 6.8 million m3.

Factors contributing to a positive outlook for rubberwood include:

· Rubberwood's properties, particularly its light color and easy machining will continue to make it a popular substitute for wood from increasingly scarce natural forest trees. Modern heat/steam/vacuum systems have largely mitigated the problems associated with the wood' latex content.

· Environmental concerns in consumer markets will increasingly shift preferences to wood products obtained from plantations. This will give rubberwood an advantage over some of the more traditional tropical woods used in furniture and wood-based panel manufacturing. Recent strides in rubberwood plantation certification confirm this development. On the other hand, rubberwood has to be able to compete with increasingly abundant softwood plantation species, particularly New Zealand pine.

· Where rubber tree planting programs are effective and economically accessible, rubber plantation areas can be maintained, as in Thailand, secure rubberwood supplies can provide the investment security necessary for expanded rubberwood utilization. In Thailand, for instance, potential sawlog and sawnwood availability is projected to increase from 2.8 million m3 to 4.18 million m3 and 0.84 million m3 to 1.25 million m3 from 1997 to 2012, respectively.

Obstacles to increased rubberwood utilization comprise:

· Rubberwood's susceptibility to insect and fungal attacks will continue to make it economically unviable for the majority of rubber producers. Increased accessibility will only come with general socio-economic development, particularly in the transportation sector.

· Trends in the ownership structure indicate that smallholders will produce an increasing share of rubber. Their difficulties in profitably utilizing rubberwood will likely bring about shortages where demand outstrips what estates can supply. In Malaysia, for instance, where both estate and smallholding areas have been declining since the 1980s, sawlog availability is expected to decrease from more than 1.3 million m3 in 2000 to less than 0.5 million m3 in 2010 and sawnwood availability from more than 300,000 m3 to just over 100,000 m3. In Indonesia, estate areas have declining as well, but improving current underutilization may compensate for the smaller volume of mature trees available to 2010.

Localized supply shortages and associated price developments may end rubberwood's comparative advantage over other wood species. Since rubberwood comes in small sizes, it is suitable for the wood-based panel industry. If Malaysia's OSB trials become applied at larger scales, for instance, competition for rubberwood between furniture and panel manufacturers may lead to further price hikes.

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