When exploring Phuket, one cannot help noticing numerous plantations with perfectly aligned trees, giving a stroboscopic effect as you drive past. These are rubber trees or Hevea brasiliensis, a species that was introduced to Phuket in the early years of the 20th century and since then has consistently been either the island’s largest or second-largest export-earner after tin or tourism.
Rubber trees are not native to Phuket. They originated in the Amazon rainforest and for years Brazil was the only supplier of natural rubber, jealously safekeeping this unique natural resource. It was not until 1875 when English explorer Henry Wickham succeeded in breaking Brazil’s monopoly by smuggling out several dozens of hevea seeds.
The romantic story goes that he hid them in the heels of his shoes. No-one can tell for sure whether this story is true, but one thing is for sure – by the time Wickham’s seeds arrived in Great Britain the demand for rubber was incredibly high. And if such names as Charles Goodyear, John Boyd Dunlop and Claude Michelin ring a bell, you will easily figure out why. By the beginning of the 20th century rubber was used for many applications.
However, the seeds kidnapped by Wickham gave rich fruit, but not on the English soil. Local climate was too cold for hevea, thus Great Britain had to try the overseas colonies, namely Ceylon and Singapore, as their climates more closely matched that of the Amazon. Of the 22 saplings that reached Singapore only nine survived, but these nine saplings have now propagated most of the millions of rubber trees that cover large swathes of tropical Southeast Asia today, including much of Phuket.
The first rubber trees to arrive in Siam were brought by the ever-enterprising Khaw Sim Bee when he was the governor of Trang. With his usual astuteness, he went to Sumatra in 1901 and purchased a few dozen seeds and then forced people in Trang to cultivate. He then persuaded the government to change the law to allow farmers to cut back the jungle, plant rubber on the cleared land and then own it.
As the rubber price relentlessly rose in the early 20th century, the Chinese in Phuket started burning and cutting back the jungle and “stately trees” that had shrouded the island’s interior. All over the island, forested land began to be claimed to plant rubber trees or to be sold off as the next prospective tin mine.
Rubber prices grew continuously in the first half of the 20th century, as it was used in almost everything mechanical, electrical or automotive, and, after oil and steel it had probably become the third most important commodity required to run an economy, or an army. For example, each US Sherman tank in World War II required half a ton of rubber.
The production cycle generally follows a regular pattern. A rubber tree takes about six years to reach maturity, when tapping can begin; in the meantime, pineapples are usually planted between the rows of trees to bring a temporary income. A rubber tree has a productive life of around 30 years, after which it is cut, the wood sold and new trees and new pineapples are planted.
In the years of post-war rubber boom, more and more of Phuket’s jungle was frantically cut away and replanted with rubber trees, three metres by five metres apart, giving a stroboscopic effect as one drives by. Rubber planters’ huts and villages cropped up all over the island, new roads were created to previously inaccessible places and new houses build where no-one ever lived before.
In 1960, for the first time, rubber became Thailand’s largest export earner, overtaking even rice. The scant few seeds from Mr Wickham’s shoes have utterly transformed the appearance and the ancient ecosystem of Phuket, an island on almost exactly the opposite side of the world from their original Amazonian home. No longer is Phuket island hidden by a spectral blanket of “impregnable jungle full of tigers wild elephants and rhinoceros” as earlier visitors described the place. No longer is the region a thinly peopled and jungled “wilderness” as King Mongkut described it in 1855.
Thai government figures today claim that natural forest now covers only 26 per cent of Phuket Island and rubber covers almost 60%. But these official figures seem incorrect.
Today the hiker or rambler in Phuket’s hills and national parks sees that much of this so-called “natural” and protected forest is also illegally interplanted with these ubiquitous and lucrative rubber trees.
This on-going process of reforestation with rubber is still continuing deeper into the national parks and higher up in Phuket’s mountain forests today.
Adapted with permission from ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from bookshops or from amazon.com. See also historyofphuket.com.