Capturing the Essence of Rubber Production”

- “I might not plant rubber again. It’s just not profitable” - Joy, a plantation owner in Veliyanoor, 2023

Capturing the Essence of Rubber Production”

- “I might not plant rubber again. It’s just not profitable” - Joy, a plantation owner in Veliyanoor, 2023

Rubber plantation
Rubber trees in a private plantation in Ernakulam district. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Rubber undergoes an extensive process of maturation to assume the suitable form required for the production of recognisable consumer goods. Commencing its journey as a sapling, this resilient material requires a period of seven years for growth prior to beginning the tapping process.

The Early Growth Stage

In this captivating photo, we are introduced to a rubber plant that has reached the tender age of two years. The slender trunk, measuring just a few inches in thickness, serves as a testament to the early stages of growth and development. The plant’s branches have already begun to take shape, adorned with lush green foliage that exudes vibrancy and vitality. One cannot help anticipate the forthcoming transformation as these verdant leaves gradually transition to a dignified brown hue. Standing tall at a remarkable height of 9 feet, the tenacious rubber plant stands as a testament to the potential found within the realm of nature.

Rubber plantation
Rubber that is about two years old. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
This image, taken at the same plantation, show rubber trees that are about six years old. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Maturity and Productivity

The lens takes us to a vast rubber plantation adorned with rows of rubber trees. Not yet fully mature, the planters have not commenced the tapping process, which elicits the invaluable latex that serves as the foundation of the rubber industry. Deliberately planted with a spacing of 10 feet between each tree, a strategic arrangement becomes evident, allowing ample room for each tree to thrive and flourish. The photograph captures the orchestrated precision with which the plantation has been meticulously organised, presenting an aesthetically pleasing display of symmetry and order. This harmonious coexistence of nature and human intervention speaks volumes about the thoughtful approach taken in cultivating and nurturing these rubber trees, symbolising the balance between agricultural practices and the pursuit of sustainable resources.

Fully Grown Trees

A fully grown rubber tree with a trunk boasting an impressive diameter of 20 inches, this specimen stands on the brink of being tapped. The tree’s distinct characteristics are apparent, as its light greenish-brown trunk exhibits a unique interplay of colours. The presence of intermittent white spots adds to its distinctive allure, underscoring the inherent beauty of rubber trees.

Rubber plantation
The bottom part of the trunk, the greenish-brown colour can be seen clearly. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
600 millilitres cups placed on a table in a rubber shop for sale. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Latex Collection Cup

Shifting our gaze to a crucial element of the rubber tapping process, we encounter the indispensable instrument known as the latex collection cup. This humble vessel plays a pivotal role in capturing the precious sap derived from rubber trees. The size of these cups may vary, contingent upon the tapping frequency of each tree. In the market, one can typically find cups ranging from 600 millilitres to one litre in capacity. The cup before us, specifically designed to accommodate 600 millilitres of sap, embodies the perfect balance between functionality and efficiency. Its purposeful design enables the seamless collection of latex, ensuring minimal waste and maximum yield.

Silver Coloured Rings

The silver-coloured rings, securing the latex collection cups in place on the tree, are a vital necessity in the rubber tapping procedure. These unassuming yet indispensable rings maintain the cups in an optimal position, preventing latex from inadvertently flowing onto the ground. Typically, a single ring is strategically placed to ensure that the cup remains firmly attached, allowing for a streamlined collection process and maximising the yield of this valuable resource. These simple yet ingenious rings have stayed a constant in the meticulous rubber tapping process, which has been honed over time.

Rubber plantation
The silver-colored rings secure the latex collection cups in place on the trees. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
Silver rings and latex collection cups are placed on a shelf in a rubber shop for sale. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Bark of a Tree

The surface of the rubber tree’s bark reveals a captivating blend of rich brown hues harmoniously interspersed with definitive white spots. As we examine the trunk, its texture reveals a robust hardness, indicative of the tree’s mature state. Delicate, intermittent horizontal lines or fissures traverse the surface, bestowing a sense of character and age upon the tree’s exterior.

Rubber plantation
The bark of a fully grown rubber tree, presently not undergoing the tapping process. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
The bottom part of the tree goes into the soil. The roots of the tree can be seen protruding out of the soil. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Root

The tree’s roots protrude from the terraced soil in various places, offering a glimpse into the hidden world beneath the surface, where the network of roots tirelessly anchors and sustains the towering slender branches above. In this compelling landscape, the juxtaposition of the willowy tree and its exposed roots speaks about the relationship between a tree and its environment.

The Cut

At the point where a leaf is plucked from a branch, the tree reflexively produces latex sap, oozing protective latex from the freshly cut area. This is a unique characteristic of rubber trees, where latex flows abundantly regardless of the specific location where a cut is made.

Rubber plantation
The image shows the latex sap slowly oozing out after a leaf was plucked. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Plastic Sheets

An ingenious method is employed to safeguard the tree section subject to cutting, as well as the sap-collecting cup, from the unwelcome intrusion of rainwater. Two sets of plastic sheets come into play as protective covers, harmoniously working together to maintain the integrity of the collection system. A bright green cover acts as a shield against water droplets, deftly preventing them from falling directly into the latex cup. Meanwhile, an additional sheet, a white cover, redirects any rainwater from the trunk of the tree to ensure that water cascades onto the surface of the green cover. As water affects the quality of the latex sap in the cup, this double protection skillfully mitigates the risk of moisture permeating into the cup through any potential gaps between the trunk and the green cover.

Rubber plantation
The first green colour cover, shielding the cup from rain. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
The second white colour cover redirects rainwater from the trunk of the tree onto the green cover. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
Haridas prepares to attach the plastic sheet to the trunk of the tree. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Glue

Plantation owner Haridas takes the initiative to demonstrate the process of affixing the protective plastic covers to the trunks of the trees using glue. With precision and expertise, he showcases the delicate application of adhesive, ensuring a secure and reliable attachment. His expert demonstration underscores the plantation owner’s vigilant attention to the well-being of the trees and the success of the tapping process.

The Plastic Cover

The protective plastic cover is laid out on the ground in preparation to be affixed to the tree. Resembling the shape of a collar, there is a cut on the left side, which makes it easy to wrap around the tree.

Rubber plantation
Green plastic protective rain cover for the tree. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
A transparent plastic sheet that protects the latex cup from rain. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

A Different Cover of Protection

A different type of plastic sheet is employed to shield the latex cups from water intrusion. Unlike the previously mentioned method involving two separate sheets, some planters have opted for a single sheet that fulfills the same purpose. This alternative approach, while equally effective, offers the added advantages of convenience and efficiency. The single sheet, precisely installed, serves as a reliable barrier, diverting rainwater away from the cups with remarkable simplicity.

The Latex

Latex fluid flows through a deliberate cut made on the lower part of a tree trunk, seamlessly cascading into the waiting latex cup. When a tree is first tapped, the cut is about four feet above the ground. Only one side of the tree is tapped at a time, with subsequent cuts about a centimetre below the previous cut. The cuts on the tree in the picture have reached the bottom, and once this happens, that side of the tree is left to heal, and the other side starts to be cut. A side of a tree can be tapped for about eight years before switching to the other side. While one side is being tapped, the other side is left untouched. Each side can be tapped twice before the tree runs out of sap, and the planter decides to start something called a kadumvettu. In this case, every part of the tree is cut daily to extract as much sap as possible before it is cut down and sold.

Rubber plantation
Latex is being collected in the cup. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
Traces of cuts were made on the tree over time. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Cut Made on the Tree

“Rubber trees are tapped early in the morning as that is when sap flows most freely” – Haridas, 2023.

The cut entails removing a very thin layer of the bark in a slanting manner. As time progresses, these cuts are strategically shifted either above or below the original incision to ensure a consistent and uninterrupted flow of latex sap. The cut is less than a centimetre wide, and subsequent cuts are immediately below the previous cut. The cut is made early in the morning as the lower temperature allows more sap to gather before it coagulates or has to be taken for processing. Second, this methodical approach enables the sustainable extraction of latex while minimising harm to the tree and maximising productivity.

The Broken Latex Cup

Within the expanse of the plantation, a poignant sight emerges, a broken latex collection cup abandoned amidst the trees. This singular cup carries profound symbolism, representing the plight of the surrounding trees that remain untapped. Their dormant state echoes the prevailing market conditions, where the current low price of rubber has rendered tapping economically unviable. The fractured cup becomes a metaphor for the collective state of these untouched trees as they stand silently, a stark reminder of the cyclical nature of agricultural industries, where external factors such as market prices can significantly impact the livelihood of planters and the productivity of rubber plantations. It speaks to the resilience and perseverance required during challenging times as planters navigate the delicate balance between resource management, market fluctuations, and the sustainability of their operations.

Rubber plantation
A broken latex cup found on the floor of a plantation, where the rubber trees are not being tapped. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
This image shows mosquitos breeding in the water collected in the latex cups. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Water Filled Latex Cups

Further evidence of the current state of the plantations comes to light through these latex collection cups, now filled with rainwater accumulated from days past. This stagnant water has unwittingly become a breeding ground for mosquito larvae due to the prolonged inactivity in these plantations. The presence of these tiny pests is the repercussion of the waiting game being played by the tappers and owners as they patiently await a rise in rubber prices.

The Rubber Shed

A rubber shed serves as a vital hub for the machinery involved in processing latex sap. It is traditionally situated in close proximity to rubber plants, within the plantations, or within the compounds of private houses. Two rubber machines occupy the interior space of the shed. The shed is a space of convergence of manual labour and machinery, serving as a reminder of the continuous efforts made to improve productivity, ensure quality control, and meet the demands of a dynamic market.

Rubber plantation
Rubber shed situated at the private residence of Joy, a prominent planter in Kottayam district. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
Photograph taken from behind the machine. This is where one would stand if one were to prepare a rubber sheet. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The First Rubber Machine

Inside the rubber shed, we encounter the first of the rubber machines, which converts raw latex sap into a refined form. The rubber sheet formed by mixing latex, formic acid, and water is dried for three to four hours. Once the drying phase is complete, the resulting latex sheet, still retaining traces of moisture, is introduced into the first machine. The latex sheet is repeatedly fed through the first machine to remove moisture. This initial mechanical treatment aids in expelling excess water content, culminating in the production of rubber sheets that are ready for further processing and utilisation.

The Second Rubber Machine

Building upon the initial moisture removal process, while the sheets are passed through the second machine, an intricate interplay of pressure, texture, and precision ensues. In addition to extracting residual moisture, the second machine possesses the remarkable capability to thin the rubber sheets further. Through controlled compression and stretching, the sheets are gradually transformed into a more uniform thickness, ensuring consistency and optimal quality.

This step not only enhances the physical attributes of the rubber sheets but also aligns them with market standards, rendering them ready for sale and use in various industries. However, the journey does not conclude with the second machine. Although water content has been removed, the rubber sheets must go through additional drying methods to achieve market standards. Through these supplementary drying techniques, which include exposure to sunlight or utilisation of specialised drying sheds, the sheets are conducive to long-term storage and transportation. It is through these procedures that the rubber sheets become ready to be utilised in an array of applications.

Rubber plantation
Photograph taken from the front of the second machine. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
The lever is used to turn the wheel which takes the rubber sheet through the machine. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Lever and The Wheel

The lever attached to the rubber machine operates in a consistent manner across both machines, illustrating the standardised working of both machines. The lever, managed by experienced hands, initiates the rotational motion of the wheel, taking the rubber sheets through the rollers. The feeding of the sheets into the machine with one hand while operating the liver with the other requires practice, for the precision of both movements is what determines the controlled rotational force of the rollers, which in turn regulates the texture and thickness of the rubber sheets.

Unused Machines

The rubber machines that have been left dormant for an extended period of time are the unfortunate consequence of the owner’s decision to refrain from tapping his rubber trees. One can’t help but be reminded of the adverse effect fluctuating rubber prices have had on rubber cultivators when looking at the machine’s wheel, covered in green-hued moss. The tarpaulin sheets carefully draped over the second set of machines are purposeful, for the trees that surround the machines are not old enough to be tapped. Yet the machines, which are still present on the plantation, act as a signifier of hope for Kerala’s rubber industry.

Rubber plantation
The moss covered rubber machines in a private home that have not been in use for two years. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
The tarp covered rubber machines in a private plantation. The rainwater collected within the tarp and the dirt shows how long it has been left unused. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

The Barrel

The once-enduring practice of making rubber sheets and subsequent drying techniques has regrettably fallen out of favour among many planters. The prevailing factor influencing this shift is the exorbitant expense associated with this approach. In light of the persistently low prices of rubber in the market, it has become more cost-effective for planters to forego the intricate sheet-making process altogether. Instead, they opt to collect the latex sap in barrels, bypassing the intermediate steps, to sell it directly to rubber shops. This departure from the conventional method is an example of the pragmatic choices made by planters, adapting to the economic realities of the industry and opting for a more streamlined and viable approach to sustain their livelihoods.

Rubber plantation
The barrel is used to collect latex sap. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
A juxtaposition of the old and new methods of rubber processing. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Juxtaposition of Methods

The small blue barrel, once instrumental in collecting sap, now sits idle next to the machines. Each day, this humble container used to be filled, signalling the commencement of the arduous process of transforming latex into rubber sheets. The shift of methods becomes apparent as the traditional labour-intensive process stands dormant, overshadowed by the practicality and cost-efficiency of the contemporary approach.

The Rubber Sheet

Once dried, the rubber sheets are transported to a rubber shop for sale. The shopkeeper accumulates it until there is sufficient quantity to be sold as a batch.
The rubber sheets exhibit varying shades of brown, influenced by the duration and intensity of sunlight or heat exposure during the drying process. The distinct texture achieved after passing through the second rubber machine is clearly visible. The rubber sheets exhibit variations in weight, ranging between 400 grams and one kilogram. This discrepancy in weight is influenced by various factors such as the thickness, moisture content, and specific requirements of buyers. The availability of rubber sheets with varying weights allows for a wide range of options, catering to the specific preferences and needs of customers in the market.

Rubber plantation
The image shows rubber sheets in two different rubber shops. The sheets were sold to the shop after days of drying. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
Rubber plantation
The imprint of the rollers on the second rubber machine can be seen clearly on the sheet. Image: JANAL ARCHIVES, 2023
Rubber plantation
The image shows the weight of an individual rubber sheet. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Sale of Rubber Sheets

The rubber sheets are packed into 50 kg packets and carefully prepared for sale based on market demand. This packaging ensures convenience in handling and transportation while accommodating the needs of potential buyers. These rubber sheets are used to make products like gloves, tires, hoses, and tubes.

Rubber plantation
Rubber sheets packed into packets of 50kg each, ready to be sold. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Rubber Scrap

Scrap rubber is a by-product of latex sap collection. Each day, as the sap is collected from the trees, remnants of dried latex are left behind in the cuts and latex cups. These fragments of dried rubber are collected and sold separately to rubber shops. Unlike rubber sheets, this scrap rubber does not undergo the process of sheet-making. Instead, it finds its purpose in alternative applications, reflecting the resourcefulness of the industry in utilising every valuable component of the rubber harvesting process. Scrap rubber is usually used to make small rubber products like rubber bands.

Rubber plantation
Rubber plantation
The images show scrap rubber accumulated in three different rubber shops. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023