Monday, April 30, 2018

THE LAST OF THE RUBBER TAPPERS?

In 2008, Pak Man (not his real name), a rubber tapper from Kedah was earning MYR4000 a month—a comfortable living. Today, he earns five times less—MYR800 a month.
The sole breadwinner for a family of nine children, Pak Man is struggling to eke out a living on his 3-acre lot of rubber. On a good day, he can get up to 40 kilos of latex; nowadays in the dry season of January to April, he averages about 15 kilos.
In 2008, a kilo of latex was sold for about MYR7, depending on world rubber prices. Today, Pak Man is selling at MYR1.80 per kilo, almost four times less. Responding to global markets, the price of rubber is volatile—causing large fluctuations in Pak Man’s income.
At the same time, Pak Man says that costs have gone up by more than 50%, in part due to GST. Maintaining rubber trees is no easy task—each of the 700 trees on the lot must have pesticide applied, fertilized, and treated if there are termites. Below is a comparison of prices from 2013 to 2018:
Pesticides (2 barrels per application, 3 times a year): 2013—MYR35 per barrel/ 2018—MYR55 per barrel
Fertilizer (12 bags per application, 3 times a year): 2013—MYR70 per bag/ 2018—MYR105 per bag
As he explains the rising costs one by one, Pak Man sounds increasingly resigned.
“My costs have gone up while my income has gone down. I have to work on others’ rubber estates to earn money on the side.”
For those who don’t know, rubber tapping is very labour intensive, requiring Pak Man to start tapping at 7am till 12pm. Paddy farming is quite different. There are generally two harvests a year—in between which farmers are able to take on other odd jobs.
Even government subsidies have dwindled. 5 years ago, the authorities would provide 24 bags of free fertilizer per year; now, only 19 bags are parcelled out.
Furthermore, those who register late are disqualified from receiving aid.
“Life as a rubber tapper is one of uncertainty. Rubber prices can be very volatile—some months we can live comfortably, other times our entire family of 10 has to share one ‘ikan kembung’ (mackerel) for dinner.”
While this year, it was announced that rubber tappers would be given a one-off incentive of MYR600, for Pak Man, it’s too little too late.
“What can I do with that money? It’s not a sustainable solution.”
“The government should step in and do something for us rubber tappers. This issue has been brought to Parliament so many times already—and still, no action.”
“Uneducated people like myself…that’s why we pay taxes so government officers can help us. What have they done for us?”
Despite his self-effacing talk, Pak Man is extremely well-informed. He’s aware of the movement of global commodity prices, government manifestos for the industry, and of the potential of downstream rubber products.
“We could be so much more. I remember reading former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s plan for Malaysia’s rubber industry. More factories, diversification of products, transforming our tappers to more than just raw material providers.”
Pak Man may be the last generation of rubber tappers in Malaysia. At 60-years-old, he is wondering what will happen to his land, passed down from his father and before him his grandfather.
“One day, there will be all these tall and straight rubber trees planted in orderly lines, and not a soul around them.”
“That would be like a ghost story, wouldn’t it?
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By Karim Raslan

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