I was born in a small village in South Vietnam and “relocated” to America so young that I knew little of Vietnam and it’s rich and sordid history with rubber. So now that I'm back, it should feel like a déjà vu moment except it's not. It should feel like I have come full-circle, except I haven't. Still, I am already nostalgic that these events remembered are here - in the country of my origin.
So, are rubber smallholders farmers? Yes and no. Yes they are almost always family-owned, managed and use family labour. But most smallholders are distinguished in that they cultivate a very small parcel of land, just 1-3 hectares (about 2 acres). And because of that smallholders have higher economic risk and a not so sustainable living.
There are over 264,000 Vietnamese smallholders that together produce over 50% of the total Vietnamese rubber supply. Most are making minimum wages- about $142- $204 (USD) a month as compared to the monthly median salary in Ho Chi Minh of about $782 USD. Yet their collective numbers mean they play a vital role in deforestation-free sustainability efforts (and trends).
Their work is gruelling work and their returns are poor. One hectare is about 500 trees, each of which gets harvested for tree latex every 3-4 days, 6-9 months out of the year. The season varies depending on rainfall and other severe climate changes, making more tenuous their livelihood. So for sustenance, the smallholder needs to work alternative jobs or maintain other income producing crops (palm oil, durian, cashew, rice etc.) or both.
It's simple. If we want sustainable products, we have to be willing to pay more for it, and part of that calculus means investing money, time and effort to understand it and help find solutions. We are here for it.
How can you the consumer and Yulex help make rubber smallholders sustainable? Sustainability in the context of modern consumption means avoiding depleting natural resources to maintain an ecological balance, e.g. sustainable farming. Natural rubber is more sustainable than synthetic rubber (made from oil) but if smallholders here only make ~$2000 USD a year from its production, it's understandable that they would only be interested in sustainable farming practices if it at least covers their cost of producing it. So forgive them if they don't appear to value "sustainability" as we have the privilege of so doing.
Here's what smallholders in Vietnam want: i) to understand how sustainable farming practices will improve their rubber yields; ii) how and whether they might receive financial assistance and training to put sustainable practices in place; and ultimately iii) whether being certified will provide them direct access to markets that will pay more for their rubber.
We listened. We listened some more. We are engaging experts, non-government organizations (NGO), trade associations, certification bodies like FSC and PEFC, policy makers, provincial and village authorities, factory owners, traders, smallholders in different regions, auditors, consultants and as many stakeholders as we can get in front of. We will continue to listen. We will share what we learn.
This week we are spending 4 days in the field visiting more processors and smallholders. In future issues, we will share notes and stories. For now check out our short video (click on the Instagram icon) on Instagram of smallholders selling the day's tree latex at a collection site... on motorbikes of course.