Our recent Guns, Cronies and Crops exposé revealed the human toll of the rubber industry in Myanmar, where firms colluded together with the former military junta to seize huge tracts of land from farming communities. Two years before we showed how citizens in Cambodia and Laos had lost property to the rubber plantations, with consequences on lives and livelihoods. Stories like these abound across the Mekong area, where large-scale rubber plantations are one of the drivers of deforestation and land catches.
The launch of the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative this spring offered expect that the sector was beginning to respond. A initiative, it’s aimed at promoting the development of best sustainability practices in the rubber industry including by conserving protected forest regions, and respecting human and labour rights. The criteria set out from the Initiative published draft coverage contain worrying holes and anomalies.
Critically, the Initiative’s stated principles fall considerably short of industry-led standards for similar commodities such as timber and palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, as an example, demands that members obtain the approval of local communities in an attempt for any operations that could impact them. Agribusiness giant Olam has incorporated this provision in its policy for sustainable rubber, demonstrating it could be done – however the matter is ignored by the Rubber Initiative entirely. The Initiatives’ recognition of rights is limited to labour rights, disregarding human rights factors such as the right to food and home.
We also have concerns about the way the Initiative will be implemented. This is a cheap and easy method of promoting sustainability, but since consumers have no way of knowing which products include certified rubber, these systems have positive impact on the ground. This must be replaced by a supply chain, in which it isn’t hard to trace rubber back .
The Initiative’s success also depends on the companies that sign up sharing information internally and with the general public about how they’re meeting commitments – yet another bit missing in the present policy. Without this advice, families who have lost their land to rubber companies won’t have the ability to use its principles to protect their rights. The Initiative also lacks measures for if things go wrong — for instance, what should happen to member companies when they don’t meet its standards, or how communities may submit complaints.
Recent study at the University of East Anglia showed how projected rubber growth is a danger not just to populations but to our surroundings, pointing to catastrophic impacts on biodiversity across Southeast Asia and also a substantial worsening of the extinction crisis.
The Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative needs to do far longer to jelqing and reduce its impact. Global Witness has been working hard with rubber companies and the industry bodies on the other side of the initiative and we think it is an important step to getting the sector on the ideal path. But for communities whose property has been stolen and livelihoods destroyed to make way for rubber plantations, further delays in justice are a wait overly long.
The industry’s response has to be strengthened if its aims to protect peoples’ rights and the environment should be taken.