Double Whammy: No Bounce-Back Hopes Here:

By The Indian Express on 20 Sep 2018 | read

For Kerala’s rubber growers, yield losses from floods have added to their woes from falling prices.

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A farmer collecting latex from a rubber tree at his plantation in Kerala’s Kottayam district.

Shorn off their green canopy, the rubber trees stand as mute testimony to the heavy showers received during the first three months of the current south-west monsoon season from June. In Kerala’s main rubber belt, the rains — which were heavier than in most other parts of the state — have reduced vast swathes of plantations into gardens of trees with long trunks and naked twigs that resemble deer’s antlers.

The trees, mainly grown in the midlands of central Kerala covering Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts, have physically weathered the worst floods that the state has seen in nearly a century. According to the state agriculture department, out of the 56,439 hectares of crop area across Kerala to have suffered devastation, only 702 hectares is accounted for by rubber.

However, the abnormal leaf fall from trees due to unabated rains through June-August, coupled with the sudden rise in temperatures this month, is threatening to impact rubber production via lower latex yields. “It (leaf fall) takes place normally when you have continuous rains for 45 days or so. But this time, we started getting heavy showers in May, even before the monsoon’s onset. Most plantations have, therefore, been denuded of green cover, which is bound to show up in lower yields and production,” stated a senior Rubber Board official. He placed the likely loss in rubber output for 2018-19 at one lakh tonnes (lt).

Last year, Kerala produced 6.14 lt of natural rubber, out of India’s total 6.94 lt. The state’s output had plunged from a peak of 8 lt in 2012-13 to 4.39 lt in 2015-16, before recovering somewhat over the subsequent two years. “We were, prior to the floods, anticipating a slight increase this year too. Instead, we now seem headed for a one lt decline,” added the official.

But why should there be production loss from leaf fall?

“For any crop, yields are a function of photosynthesis — the process through which the plant uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. Photosynthesis takes place in the leaves, without which there will be no carbohydrates. In the case of rubber, the carbohydrates synthesised in the leaves travel down to the tree bark, where they get stored in special cells. The conversion into latex (the milky sap, which is extracted from the bark and coagulates into rubber) also happens in these cells,” explained James Jacob, director of the Rubber Research Institute of India at Puthuppally, near Kottayam town.