Where rubber meets the Colombian farm

As Walter Lopez carefully stripped a diagonal ribbon of bark from a rubber tree in eastern Colombia, white latex began dripping down the cut and into a miniature pail nailed to the trunk.

"Being outdoors, you learn how to respect the trees," said Lopez, a longtime rubber tapper at the Mavalle plantation on the Llanos jungle flatlands, 150 miles east of the capital, Bogota. "This is a great way of life."

Until recently, few shared it in Colombia, where pests and poor soil were thought to make rubber plantations unfeasible. Southeast Asia is the source of 94% of the world's rubber supply. The success of the 1,200-acre Mavalle operation was considered an anomaly. Colombia accounted for only a tiny fraction of the 11 million tons of rubber harvested worldwide last year.

But the doubling of rubber prices since 2007 to about $2.25 per pound, along with advances in soil management, are once again spurring interest in the cultivation of rubber in South America. Giant agribusinesses as well as small entrepreneurs are planting thousands of acres in this sparsely populated region, hoping to cash in.

In Colombia, rubber tree planting has increased tenfold over the last decade to 25,000 acres, a figure that could triple again by 2016. Its rubber harvest is projected to grow to 35,000 tons by 2020 from 3,200 last year.

Driving rubber prices higher are brisk car sales in China, India and other emerging nations. That has created a corresponding demand for tires, which soak up 70% of the world's natural rubber production, said Raul Nizo, the business manager for Mavalle, which is owned by Colombian billionaire Luis Carlos Sarmiento.

China is the world's largest car market, with 13.8 million vehicles sold last year -- a 33% increase from 2009. Although growth is expected to slow from that torrid pace, the market continues to expand. SAIC Motor Corp, China's biggest automaker, expects its 2011 vehicle sales to rise 12% to about 4 million units.

Advances in agriculture are aiding Latin American rubber farmers as well.

Henry Ford's fabled Fordlandia rubber plantation in Brazil was devastated in the 1930s by a fungus known as South American leaf blight, or Microcyclus ulei. Today the region's rubber growers are avoiding that scourge by planting trees in areas with just the right mix of humidity, temperature and rainfall conditions, said Anibal Tapiero, a plant pathologist with Corpoica, Colombia's government-sponsored agricultural research agency in Villavicencio.

Another farming innovation -- adding lime to once useless, highly acidic grassland to make it fertile -- is driving production of other crops as well. Millions of dollars are being invested into Llanos soy, rice, corn and sugar farms.

Ecopetrol, the state-controlled oil company, is betting on this area's future as a farm center. Its Bioenergy biofuels unit is planning to start construction soon on Colombia's largest ethanol plant. The $139-million facility will be fed with sugar cane from a newly planted 40,000-acre plantation.

"Since 2007, high-powered investors have been attracted to the plains for the low cost, government credit and improving infrastructure," Tapiero said.

Still, he said, there is plenty of risk. Newly planted rubber trees take seven years to become productive, so investors must be patient. The region also is vulnerable to drought, and the soil degrades easily.

But perhaps the biggest challenge in this lightly populated area is a labor shortage. Mavalle's Nizo said oil firms in the region pay five times the wages that farm workers earn. To recruit, he markets benefits such as free childcare and education and the chance to obtain small loans to start side businesses. Nizo said the other selling points are the tappers' tranquil way of life and a stable work environment.

Cauchopar, a company starting a 1,600-acre rubber plantation in San Teodoro in Vichada state 160 miles east of here, is so concerned about securing enough reliable help that it's offering ownership to prospective rubber tappers.

Workers will have the option of buying 25-acre plots of rubber trees after seven years of production, or 14 years after the trees have been planted.

"With all the development of the Llanos, we are creating a time bomb, which is the very high demand for workers. But no one is thinking about how to supply it," said Cauchopar executive Rodrigo Echeverri. "Offering workers the option to buy is the only way to guarantee a source of labor."

Lopez, the Mavalle tapper, said he has heard about the high wages being offered by oil companies but that for now the 43-year-old is staying put. Six of his family members also work here.

"I'm doing something good for the environment. I can't imagine any other job."



For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 12, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction Colombian rubber: In the April 6 Business section, the caption with a photo accompanying an article about rising global demand for rubber from Colombia erred in saying a plant pathologist was standing before rubber tree saplings in a nursery. The plants shown were sugar cane.
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