Rubber or Hevea Brasiliensis in the scientific nomenclature is an eco-friendly tree. The discovery of rubber trees is attributed to the ancient tribes in South America known as the Aztecs. Mayans and Olmecs. They were known to have used the latex sap to carve rubber balls which were then used to waterproof clothes and create shoes. In 1525, Padre d’ Anghieria reported that he had seen Mexican tribesmen playing with elastic balls. The first scientific study of rubber was undertaken by Charles de la Condamine, when he encountered it during his trip to Peru in 1735. A French engineer that Condamine met in Guiana, Fresnau studied rubber on its home ground, reaching the conclusion that this was nothing more than a “type of condensed resinous oil”. The first use for rubber was an eraser. It was Magellan, a descendent of the famous Portuguese navigator, who suggested this use.

In 1876, the British smuggled out rubber-tree seeds from Amazonia to the Botanical Gardens in London. Through grafting, they developed more resistant varieties that were

later sent to the Colonies in Asia where massive rubber plantations were established, particularly in Malaysia, Ceylon and Singapore. Though a few Ceylon estates invested in large acreages of rubber-trees in bearing, it is with surprise that one realises how keenly and thoroughly the methods of collecting, purifying coagulating, drying smoking, and other forms of preparation were practiced in the island.

Through the years, Sri Lanka has established herself as a leading global sourcing destination for natural rubber and rubber-based products since the first seeds of rubber were planted in the island nearly 150 years ago. Rubber plantations were established in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon by the British for extracting latex for the manufacture of raw rubber grades namely, Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) and latex crepe – the starting materials for the manufacture of moulded products such as tyres.

Amanda Weerasinghe, Mananging Director of Almar Trading Company (PTE) Ltd., a leading exporter of natural rubber in Sri Lanka and Chairman of Colombo Rubber Traders Association, the apex body of rubber in the country, relates the trade’s resilience in facing the adverse effects of the pandemic and its future prospects as an industry that has taken the world by storm since its first sapling took root in the paradise isle.

What is the prime grade of rubber in Sri Lanka?

Our prime grade of rubber is the PRIDE of SRI LANKA which is Thick Pale crepe 1X, which is the purest of all natural rubber grades, with very superior properties, produced solely in Sri Lanka.

We also specialize in Sole Crepe, Especially in Honey Sole crepe. We are approved shippers of RSS and crepe to many reputed manufactures globally.

What are some of the destinations rubber is exported to?

We export rubber to many destinations, such as Japan, USA, Japan, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Germany, China, Italy, Spain, UK, Brazil, South Africa to name a few.

What are the main areas related to rubber?

Marketing, Production and Value addition.

In retrospect

Rubber production in Sri Lanka commenced in 1876, with the planting of 1,919 rubber seedlings at the Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens in Gampaha. The total extent under rubber in 1890 was around 150 ha and in the early 1900s it increased to around 10,000 ha. By 1982 the total extent under rubber was around 180,000 ha and the total annual production was 125 million kilogram. However, the total extent under rubber declined subsequently and at present it is around 120,000 ha. Rubber contributes about 0.6% of the total GDP. According to figures published in 2018 by the Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, producing 82.6 million kg in 2018.

In the light of the recent pandemic was the local industry adversely affected?

Initially we were all perplexed with the lockdown which was imposed suddenly but all stakeholders were summoned to Temple Trees for a meeting chaired by the former Minister, Basil Rajapaksha who heard our grievances; one of which being the urgent requirement centered on the Rubber Auctions which unlike the Tea auctions were conducted twice weekly at a central location with 20-30 buyers visually grading around 500 samples. The samples are not sent beforehand, therefore the buyers have to be present in person. Therefore a decision was made to conduct the auction once a week and for broker’s representatives to adorn PPE kits which was a first, while adhering strictly to government directives. This timely decision stood in good stead for the industry to forge ahead amid the pandemic as the export of rubber was classified as an essential service.

This initiative strengthened our resolve and the industry geared up by securing the necessary permits and mobilizing the staff and other stake holders with immediate effect.

Production wise there was minimum impact as in the area of tapping only five percent was totally disrupted. When comparing 2019 versus 2020, the industry as a whole is a notch higher in terms of yield.

This is largely attributed to the weather and the adoption of innovative tapping methods.

The industry’s flexible (pun intended) approach was also instrumental in rising amid the crisis.

Statistically speaking how did we perform?

In terms of statistics, we have earned 786 million dollars in 2020 and 2021 looks equally good when comparing the 1st quarter of 2020 and the 1st quarter of 2021. Pneumatic & Solid Rubber Tyres & Tubes, Gaskets, Washers, Seals made from dry rubber is part of this component.

Liquid rubber products such as Surgical Gloves, and Examination gloves used in the pharmaceutical industry and Industrial Gloves is the balance part of the export component which falls into the value added market amounted to 34,497,799 Kg and that is on an upward trend due to the surging demand worldwide. Therefore, the pandemic has boosted the industry.

The export performance in natural rubber (NR) quantities also shows an increase in figures amounting to USD 30m in 2020 in Crepe Rubber, Sheet Rubber, Latex Rubber, Technically Specified Rubber, Other Natural Rubber and Block Rubber which is  an USD6m increase in comparison to the 2019 export performance which was USD 24m.

Brought to the isle by the British, the rubber tree took root and spiraled into a massive industry earning its place amid the three main exports of the island.

What are the benefits of this industry and the plant per se?

At present the industry benefits around 300,000 individuals from plantation workers to the exporters in total and Industry-wise it is one of three main exports, making it a force to contend with.

The rubber tree is environmentally friendly and beneficial in many aspects; as a renewable timber used as firewood or strong enough for furniture. In plantations it is beneficial for the soil as it retains moisture in the soil and is easier to sustain with replanting occurring every 30 years.

What are some of challenges faced currently?

The importing of chemicals for the sustainability of the industry has been hampered due to the ban imposed added to the restrictions on certain items that are required for pallets and packaging are some challenges faced by the industry during the recent past.

What are the future prospects?

The future for the rubber industry of SL looks surprisingly promising as the global demand is on the rise as the pandemic has served as a blessing in disguise for the industry. Locally, the government has taken measures to increase the extent of land allocated to rubber. With the ban imposed on palm oil, the palm oil plantations are to be converted to rubber plantations.

Going for the billion dollar goal

In a bid to boost exports, the Central bank challenge for the rubber industry of achieving one billion dollars is spurred on by the rise in rubber prices and other factors such as the global demand which makes the goal achievable.

A rich heritage

The Colombo Rubber Trader’s Association is a historically rich 100 year old entity which had its beginnings in the Rubber Committee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce which had looked after the interests of the Rubber Trade since 1891. Noticing the need for a separate body to look into the interests of the Rubber Industry, a meeting was held on the 27th of November 1918 when the Colombo Rubber Traders’ Association was formally inaugurated. The members at this meeting were well known in the business circles of Colombo such as M/s. Hayley, Durrent, Mackwood, Oldfield, Henry De Mel, John Y Tarbat. The British Government knighted the last two gentlemen. The first Chairman of the CRTA was Mr. J. Lochore of Carson & Co. Ltd. The Committee initially had nominees from the sellers and buyers. The Brokers joined the committee thereafter.

The representatives on the CRTA were exclusively European till Mr. S. T. L. De Soysa from C W Mackie & Co. Ltd became the buyer representative on the CRTA Committee in 1945. The first rubber sale was held on 4th of November 1910 before the formation of the CRTA. The war years saw the rubber auction being suspended. The first crepe auction after the war years was held on 2nd June 1950. The first sheet auction was held on the 30th of April 1981, after the termination of the Rubber/Rice pact with the Peoples Republic of China. The First sale of latex by Auction was held on the 24th of January 1997.

Its Mission is to ‘To be the Premier Forum for Rubber Objectives To facilitate efficient and transparent trade between sellers, producers, buyers, exporters & dealers

To assist the growth and sustainability of the Rubber Industry in Sri Lanka.

To assist growth of value addition in the Industry by promoting Rubber based products manufacturing and to support the Industry efforts in moving up the value chain to become closer to consumers.

Promote co-operation among all sectors of the Industry through clustering to create a Synergistic and dynamic Rubber industry.

To assist innovation, investments and productivity enhancements across the Industry.

To promote Sri Lanka’s Rubber and Rubber products in global markets.

To effectively address major issues that affects the Rubber Industry.

To create and lead the Private-Public dialogue relevant to the Rubber Industry Initiatives.

To create and nurture new and productive relationships to harness support for the Rubber Industry.

To play the role of good Corporate citizens by promoting sound environmental norms, business ethics and fair social practices.

To safeguard and promote the common interest of members by taking prompt, legitimate and effective action to satisfy their business and professional needs.

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About Rochelle Gunaratne

I believe that everyone has a story to tell and in turn, I love listening to those stories, attempting to paint a picture to my readers with my words. I may not be an artist or painter, but I believe words can create powerful images in ones mind and it is how we share our stories with others.
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