Rubber Plantation in Beautiful Sri Lanka
Tapping Sap from a Rubber Tree at a Rubber Plantation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, the splendid island of the Indian Ocean is a wonderful country that boasts a rich agricultural heritage. The history of Sri Lanka proves this fact in a way like no other. However, it is no secret that the rule during the colonization era changed the direction of the agricultural journey of this country. In fact, several types of plantations and cultivations began on this land during this period, and the history of the rubber plantation in Sri Lanka also dates back to this era.

However, rubber plantation being a major part of the agricultural sector of this island even at the present, it happens to be a focal point of many who are interested in the field of agriculture. Hence, we thought of focusing this read on the rubber plantation in Sri Lanka. Continue reading and you will know many things about the agriculture sector in the country, rubber plantations, and production, as well as about their impact on the country’s economy.

History of Rubber Plantation in Sri Lanka

The rubber plantation in Sri Lanka is an inheritance of colonization. When the coffee plantations were hit by a blight in the 1870s, experiments of new crops were carried out. The colonial office selected Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to cultivate rubber, considering its geographical features and climate. Thus began the cultivation of a strange seed from the Amazon Valley, and over the years, it became one of the three major agricultural export commodities of Sri Lanka.

What was the First Place where Rubber was Planted in Sri Lanka?

In 1876, Sri Lanka received 1919 Hevea brasiliensis seedlings and they were planted in Henarathgoda botanical gardens in Gampaha. The first tree was ready for tapping by 1881.

Even though trees in Henerathgoda gardens thinned out as years passed by, seeds of these trees were sent to Singapore, Malaysia, India, and Burma. Hence, it is from the mother trees at Henerathgoda gardens that rubber cultivation in Asia sprouted. Today, Asia produces 95% of natural rubber from the total production of the world. And yes, Sri Lanka is certainly a main part of this success as well!

However, the first rubber tree in Sri Lanka is not there in the Henerathgoda gardens anymore. A cyclone wrecked it in 1988.

Who Introduced Rubber to Sri Lanka?

During the transition from coffee to tea, Sir Joseph Hooker recommended Sri Lanka carry out experiments on rubber cultivation. The colonial office, on his recommendation, sent 38 cases containing 1919 rubber seedlings from Kew in order to plant them in Sri Lanka. The seedlings were from rubber seeds collected in Brazil. So, it was with these Brazilian rubber seeds that the rubber plantations on this island were started. Hence, this makes Sir Joseph Hooker the person who introduced rubber plantations to Sri Lanka!

Where is Rubber Grown in Sri Lanka?

Traditionally, Sri Lankans cultivate rubber in tropical lowlands in the wet zone which is below 1400 ft altitude. However, there are two main types of rubber cultivation in Sri Lanka according to the land extent.

Land area less than 8 Ha is said to be small holdings while plantations of more than 8 Ha are called estates. However, smallholders in Sri Lanka own almost 70% of rubber growing lands in the country.

The main rubber growing districts in Sri Lanka are as follows.

  1. Kegalle
  2. Ratnapura
  3. Kalutara
  4. Colombo
  5. Galle
  6. Matara

Currently, 127,500 Ha of land in these districts are under rubber cultivation.

Even though the Sri Lankans used to grow rubber in the wet zone, recently, the Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka introduced several rubber clones that resist dry weather. As a result, planters have considered the dry zone districts such as Monaragala for rubber planting.

Rubber Production in Sri Lanka

In the 1960s Sri Lanka was the 4th largest rubber producer in the world. In the following decades, the rubber industry saw a depletion. However, today Sri Lanka is the 13th largest natural rubber producer in the world. 

Besides, the Sri Lankan rubber industry exclusively produces an odor-free, light-colored, and clean premium quality natural rubber called Lankaprene. Sri Lanka does not just produce raw rubber, but also produces an array of value-added products using natural rubber. Among the value-added products, the following are pioneers.

  • Rubber bands
  • Solid tires
  • Latex gloves
  • Hoses
  • Floor mats
  • Footwear

Moreover, the local industries consume more than 70% of rubber processed in Sri Lanka.

Similarly, Sri Lanka produces the following international brands.

  • Continental
  • Solideal
  • Wonder Grip
  • Mapa

Industrial zones in Katunayaka, Ekala, Biyagama, and Sapugaskanda facilitate rubber manufacturing and other rubber-based industries.

Rubber trees take 5 to 6 years to grow. After completing growth, they can yield for 30 to 35 years. After the economically fruitful days, people have the chance to use rubber trees as timber in the furniture industry. Similarly, anyone can use rubber timber as fuel too. So, all these things are a part of rubber production and they indeed play a major role in the country’s economy, as well as in citizens’ livelihoods.

Does Sri Lanka Export Rubber?

Yes, Sri Lanka exports rubber in both raw and value-added forms. However, the amount of rubber exportation runs around 8000 mT each year. Undoubtedly, the whole world recognizes Sri Lankan rubber for its premium quality and durability.

Sri Lankan rubber and rubber-based products mainly find their market in countries such as the USA, Germany, Belgium, and the UK. In addition, Sri Lanka exports semi-processed rubber to countries like Pakistan, Japan, and Germany.

When considering all rubber exportations carried out in Sri Lanka, the following are the main rubber types.

  1. Ribbed Smoked Sheets rubber (RSS rubber)
  2. Latex crepe
  3. Centrifuged latex
  4. Technically Specified Natural Rubber

Currently, Sri Lanka is the largest exporter of latex crepe which people use to make soles of shoes.

Among the value-adding industries, Sri Lanka prides itself as the largest exporter of solid tires used in industrial, agricultural, and logistics vehicles. Furthermore, as the fifth-largest exporter of latex gloves, Sri Lanka exports an array of different gloves which includes the following.

  1. Household gloves
  2. Surgical gloves
  3. Medical examination gloves
  4. Agricultural gloves
  5. Industrial gloves

All these types of exports contribute immensely to the country’s economy, as well as to the stability of the Sri Lankan export industry. The following section will further explain this fact!

Impact of Rubber Industry on Sri Lankan Economy

The Sri Lankan rubber industry has a history of almost 150 years. The rubber industry soared at the beginning of the 1900s as tea was going through a slump in the world market. However, after the free trade policies adopted in the 1970s, the rubber industry continued to flourish. The infrastructure and service sector of the rubber growing areas elevated owing to the growth of the rubber plantation in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, the rubber plantation in Sri Lanka produces direct and indirect employment for nearly 300,000 Sri Lankans. It is the main livelihood of rural women in the rubber-growing areas. In 2020, rubber and rubber-based products claimed a flattering 8% share of total merchandise exports. So, considering all these facts, we can prove to you that the rubber industry plays an integral part in Sri Lanka’s economy.

Rubber Research Institute in Sri Lanka

The Rubber Research Institute (RRI) of Sri Lanka is one of the oldest organizations established for the development of rubber plantations in Sri Lanka. British rule constructed the Rubber Research Institute in Agalawatte in Kalutara district and it boasts a history of more than 100 years.

The institute carries out research and development projects on all attributes of rubber plantations and processing. Further, the Rubber Research Institute recommends good agricultural practices for optimal harvest and sustainable use of land. In addition, they guide and assist rubber plantations in Sri Lanka by recommending fertilizers based on soil quality, introducing clones, and troubleshooting. Thus, this institution holds a special place in the rubber industry of Sri Lanka.

Challenges Faced by the Sri Lankan Rubber Industry

The Sri Lankan rubber industry flaunts a significant share of the economy of Sri Lanka. However, it is an undeniable fact that the rubber industry is continuing to perish, owing to several factors.

One of the major issues faced by the rubber industry is the shortage of a skilled workforce. The lack of young people getting into tapping certainly makes the future of the rubber industry unclear. In fact, the majority of the rubber tappers are over 60 years old. Of course, it is visible that they do their best according to their strength. Still, the youth joining the process may accelerate the growth of rubber production in the country for sure.

Even though the rubber development board allocates subsidies for growing new plants, the matured rubber trees are likely to be abandoned without tapers. Moreover, the production of raw rubber in Sri Lanka cannot even meet the local demand for rubber. The local value-adding industries tend to import rubber from other Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia at a cheaper price. So, this also happens to be a major problem that this industry faces.

In the same way, the cost of fertilizer is another challenge for rubber cultivators. Matured rubber trees need fertilizers once a year, but new-grown plants require year-round fertilizing. The scarcity of fertilizer and the labor cost of applying fertilizers affect the cost of production. Besides, the cost of production is anyway high for Sri Lankan raw rubber owing to the high cost of labor.

So, it is no secret that the challenges as such slow down the growth of this industry, and demotivates the investors to enter the field. Still, if proper steps are taken, the future of rubber plantations in Sri Lanka would certainly be much better!

Future of Rubber Plantation in Sri Lanka

In 2017, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Plantation Industries came up with a 9-year scheme known as “The Rubber Master Plan”. The goal was to facilitate, develop and expand the market share of the rubber industry. Accordingly, the authorities expect to extend the export income to three billion USD by 2026. The current export income of rubber and rubber-based products is one to two hundred million short of one billion.

However, under the rubber master plan, the government of Sri Lanka expects to increase the land area under rubber cultivation by 3000 Ha. As a result, the government plans to start new plantations in Monaragala, Ampara, Vavuniya, Hambantota, and Puttalam. Also, the authorities are heeding to develop the processed timber industry, from rubberwood.

Besides, the supply of rubber from Sri Lanka is unable to fulfill the demand it has. However, despite the volatile pricing of natural rubber, the market will continue to grow. Due to the pandemic outbreak, these plans may be put off for several years. Nevertheless, the progress of the rubber and rubber-based industries can be expected in the future. 

The Bottom Line

Inheriting the practice of rubber plantation from the foreign, Sri Lanka was finally able to improve this industry with a global significance. Thus, even amidst challenges, the rubber industry in Sri Lanka still remains strong. In fact, its contributions to the Sri Lankan economy, as well as to thousands of Sri Lankan families are indeed immense. However, there is no doubt that the rubber plantation in Sri Lanka would further grow, and dawn a better future for the rubber industry, as well as for the country’s agricultural sector in the years to come. So, let’s hope for the best!