The Colombian countryside, rubber and Covid-19
18 April 2020
Covid-19 has increased the daily consumption of many products that previously we used very little of in our everyday lives and were only commonly used by doctors or sick people. Masks were mainly for health professionals. We all use gloves, sometimes in the kitchen to wash dishes, for gardening etc but disposable latex gloves were mainly for doctors. Not any more and this year will see a massive rise in the consumption of latex products. There will be no lack of cynics who will estimate that the time has come to promote the planting of rubber in Colombia, but it is not the case. The rules of the market, the ecological problems, the economic viability for the peasant and the power structure in the market have not changed, nor will they.
In the midst of the crisis, the European governments realised that globalisation had played a dirty move on them. Profitable companies previously had been transferred from Europe to the East, especially China, to generate even greater profits. But amongst the companies and factories that moved were companies that made medical supplies and medicines. It seems incredible that just two countries, China and India produce most of the antibiotics in the world. Europe no longer produces sufficient quantities of products such as masks or latex gloves. The situation is of such concern, that even the neoliberal French president, Macron, said that they had to recover national and European sovereignty in the manufacture of medical products.(1) Lets leave aside that both he and the other criminals who govern in Europe cared little about that sovereignty and its impacts when it was a case of increasing the rate of profit for companies. There will surely be proposals to revive some industries that they now see as essential for any State. How they do that will be the subject of a clash between the European working class and those same companies that now produce essential supplies for the functioning of a health system in China rather than Europe. In the case of gloves, the sovereignty that Macron proposes to recover will always be partial as Europe has neither the climate nor the edaphic conditions to grow rubber. It will have to import it as a raw material and process it in Europe.
Colombia does not have the capacity to produce its own medical supplies, although it could produce, if it wanted basic items such as masks and gloves and the natural conditions for growing rubber trees exists and is already done in various parts of the country. There will be no lack of nefarious personalities such as Francisco de Roux who yesterday told us that African palm was the future for the peasantry and now will come along with a new message that the time for rubber has arrived.(2) First we should clarify that it will not be the first time in history that someone promoted rubber in Colombia as a source of wealth.
Without a doubt, when we have the figures for rubber production and the consumption of finished latex products in 2020, we will see a notable rise in the statistics despite a possible decline in the consumption of some products such as tyres. At the same time there will be a fall in products based on other monocultures such as palm from which the oil is extacted and is used in the manufacture of plastics, cosmetics, biscuits, ice-cream and biodiesel. All these products will see a fall in their consumption and so there will be an excess of oil this year, with its corresponding fall in prices and those who promoted it will say nothing about the issue whilst they preach their new gospel of wealth through rubber.
The proposal to turn Colombia into a rubber producer is not new, but it has failed over and over again. The rubber market is dominated by very few countries.
"The chances of successfully intervening in the international market of natural rubber are not one bit encouraging, as 15 countries dominate 95% of the international rubber market and Colombia at the moment is in 49th place. It has a long road to go. But if we look closer at the figures we can see that of the 15 countries Malaysia and Thailand account for 66.9% of the total world exports of rubber. Furthermore, the top seven countries, with the Exception of the Ivory Coast are Asian countries are account for 89.1% of the total."(3)However, there will be those who talk of producing rubber for the country's internal market. Neither is this new. There have always been those who bent the ear of the peasant with the tale that if he grows rubber he will supply raw materials to the car industry, even though they are aware that TSR rubber is what this industry requires and there is only one plant in the country that can process it. The other plants process rubber to manufacture latex products such as the gloves that we need so badly now.
However, the first problem is that rubber takes between six and seven years to produce its first harvest of latex. Any expansion of the crop now will have to survive in the market at that time and not now. The dominant countries in the industry can also expand their crops and it is highly unlikely that the power structure in the market will change significantly. However, the country could produce rubber for the domestic market as it currently does. What usually happens is that Colombia imports finished rubber products. In 2018, it imported US $8,194,000 in medical / surgical gloves(4) alone and US $13,147,000 of natural latex, out of a total in rubber products of US $ 977,528,000 according to the International Trade Centre.(5) Just in rubber tyres the country imported in the same year US $176,301,000 from just one country; China, out of a total of US $ 644,234,000 spent on tyres i.e. the main market is for tyres imported for the car industry. Colombia does not process that much rubber for that industry and currently lacks the ability to do so. The internal market may be in various types of gloves and they will almost certainly sell us the idea as a fundamental part of our medical security, even though there are no grounds for thinking that this will really be the case.
If it were a necessary product for sovereignty in the production of latex gloves and not to export to other countries and if it really were a question of security, then the cost of the seven unproductive years should be borne by the State and not the peasant through a loan that they must pay back, as currently happens. The processing of rubber should also fall to the State and not private companies. If it really is for our security in the face of future epidemics it should be the State that takes charge of the proper storage, supply and delivery of those products when they are needed. Of course the state is not going to do anything of the sort. The new champions of the rubber monocrop will appeal to a supposed sanitary need as an opportunity to strengthen the internal market, but none of this will be applied, it will be the old market and its formulas where the peasant takes on the costs of production and the usual companies will have a field day speculating with prices in the case of another emergency.
The social aspects to this monocrop will not change, nor will the ecological problems related to its production and use disappear. Covid-19 is precisely a problem that arises due to the assault by capitalism on nature and its methods of agricultural production, amongst other things. Of course, we need rubber and its use in a sanitary setting is widespread around the world, notwithstanding other alternatives for those who are allergic (which bring their own problems). Thus, the current emergency does not place on the agenda the expansion of the rubber monocrop, but rather the complete opposite, an end to monocropping and a more rational production and consumption of all products, whether they are based on natural or synthetic materials. So if some country has to increase its rubber production and increase the size of the land given over to it, then it can be done not as a monocrop but rather as a crop that is associated with other crops and not just one or two, as sometimes even capitalists do that in the first years of growth of any late yield crop, but rather an association with innumerable crops throughout its productive life, i.e. another type of relationship with nature and another kind of agricultural production is required and another style of consumption and a reduction in our patterns of consumption and the frequently unnecessary use of private cars, would reduce the rubber demand for tyres and there would be no need to plant any more trees to manufacture gloves, as the already existing ones would meet that demand.
(1) Politico (31/03/2020) Macron urges massive in local production of local equipment https://www.politico.eu/article/macron-urges-massive-increase-in-local-production-of-medical-equipment/
(2) Francisco de Roux was the director of the Programme for Development and Peace in Magdalena Medio, and as such aggresively promoted monocrops amongst the peasants, particularly African palm, following the murder and desplacement of many leaders. The model he adopted was the same model promoted by the World Bank, an institution that financed his body, and the palm company Indupalma i.e. the Productive Alliance and Associate Work Cooperatives. Nowadays he acts as the president of Colombia's Truth Commission, though it is not expected that he acknowledge his own role in the Colombian conflict.
(3) Ó Loingsigh, G. (2019) Extractivismo y muerte en el nororiente, Bogotá, Equipo Jurídico Pueblos, p. 133 Available at https://www.equipopueblos.com/project/extractivismo-y-muerte-en-el-nororiente/
(4) Although there is a technical difference between medical and surgical gloves the page from which the data was taken does not distinguish between them.
(5) Statistics are taken from the International Trade Centre's Trade Map available at https:// www.trademap.org/Index.aspx