Works cuts rubber tree bark

A worker in Cambodia cuts the bark of a rubber tree, which makes a sticky sap that is a key ingredient of auto and aircraft tyres. Credit: Hemis/Alamy

Conservation biology

Cambodian forests fall victim to global demand for rubber tyres

Rate of nation’s forest loss closely tracks the price of rubber on world markets.

Vast tracts of Cambodia’s tropical forests are disappearing to feed the world’s voracious appetite for natural rubber, which is made from tree sap.

Starting in the mid-2000s, global demand for natural rubber surged, driven largely by the growth of China’s tyre and automobile industries. Kenneth Grogan at the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues used satellite imagery to estimate the total area of Cambodian forest cleared to make way for crops such as rubber and palm oil.

The researchers calculated that 23.5% of Cambodia’s forest cover — more than 2.2 million hectares — was destroyed between 2001 and 2015. Almost one-quarter of the cleared land was used for plantations of a non-native species of rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.

The team’s analysis revealed a strong correlation between the rate of forest loss and the trade value of rubber, which can fetch more than US$6 per kilo. The authors say that Cambodia’s forests will continue to shrink unless its government ends policies that encourage the development of large, commercial rubber plantations.