Economic Development and Land-Use Change: Expansion of Rubber Plantations in Southeast Asia


Expansion of rubber plantations in north-eastern Cambodia: Green tones are forest areas, beige to brown tones are annual crops, and orange to dark red tones are rubber plantations

Over the past half century, countries of South and Southeast Asia have witnessed a major shift from predominantly subsistence agriculture to industrialized economies. These changes have been accompanied by expanding urban populations and the growth of huge megacities around the region, often at the expense of prime farmland.

Commercialization of agriculture has also led to the expansion of cash crops, including several tree-based crops such as rubber, oil-palm, coffee, cashew, and fast-growing wood-producing species for pulp and paper. In many areas, these have replaced foodcrops.

At 300 meters and higher above sea level, the mountainous region of mainland Southeast Asia is a large, ecologically important area that includes approximately one-half of the land area of Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR), Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and China's Yunnan Province. It is also a region of great biological and cultural diversity. This region has come under close scrutiny in the past several decades as a result of both real and perceived deforestation, land degradation, and most recently, the conversion from traditional agriculture, including shifting cultivation, to more permanent cash crops driven by regional and global markets. Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) is the major commercial crop replacing traditional agriculture and secondary forests in the region, a direct result of strong market demand from China, the world's largest consumer of rubber.

In collaboration with colleagues in Asia and the United States, scholars at the East-West Center are investigating this widespread conversion of forests and traditional mixed farming to rubber plantations. Using remotely sensed data, geographic information systems (GIS), and global positioning system (GPS) technology as well as surveys on the ground, research focuses on the effects of land-use change on the wellbeing of local farmers and on local water and carbon dynamics.

Mapping changes in tree-dominated landscapes is particularly challenging because of the diverse types of tree covers in the region—ranging from primary forests to the secondary forests associated with shifting cultivation, and including areas of both deforestation and afforestation as well as plantations of tree crops. Understanding the linkage between land-cover and land-use change and ecosystem carbon and water fluxes is also challenging because both natural and human-induced processes are involved and and these occur over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. To meet these challenges the project draws on the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of foresters, geographers, and hydrologists from Thailand, Lao PDR, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the United States. The team seeks to determine:

  • How do specific historical, socio-economic, and political factors in each country affect traditional farmers who make the transition to rubber cultivation?
  • What effect does the transition to rubber cultivation have on carbon emissions from the region?
  • Is it possible to design land-use strategies that will enhance development and food-security objectives while at the same time reducing carbon emissions?

By integrating aspects of land-change science and actor-network theory with remote-sensing data, the project has produced an integrated understanding of land-cover and land-use change in areas of expanding cash crops. This work documents not only how distant drivers affect land-cover and land-use changes in a collection of sample sites, but also how those changes drive other, distant land-cover and land-use changes. These findings provide an empirical understanding of political, economic, and social forces driving land-cover and land-use change at the local level.

With support from the US government's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), field research took place from 2014 to 2018. This work has generated a number of reports and other documents. The project is linked to three of NASA's priority science themes: synthesis studies; detection and monitoring of land-cover and land-use change; and drivers of change.

Considerations for policymakers

Land-use policies in Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and southern China are leading to an increasingly homogenous landscape, dominated by rubber trees. Yet the impact of these policies on the food security and economic wellbeing of farmers could hardly be more different.

In parts of Thailand and China, the government has provided tree seedlings, secure land tenure, loans, and technical expertise to help local farmers take up rubber production and move out of poverty. In Cambodia and Lao PDR, in the absence of government oversight, foreign companies have initiated a variety of contractual arrangements with local farmers. Often, farmers have not benefited from the profits derived from rubber production. In some cases, they have even lost their land.

It is clear that policies that seek only to increase tree cover can have a range of impacts on smallholders’ livelihoods, varying from beneficial to destructive. And even the environmental effects are poorly understood. Little is known about rates of carbon cycling, either from traditional shifting cultivation or from rubber plantations. Given these uncertainties, it is risky to predict the environmental consequences of a change from one type of land use to the other.

It is, thus, perhaps impossible to suggest land-use policies that will ensure both a reduction in carbon emissions and an improvement in smallholder livelihoods. Nonetheless, emerging carbon-finance schemes are being developed across the tropics to provide economic incentives for more rural communities to transition away from shifting cultivation to other types of land use, including rubber.

Findings from the East-West Center project suggest that no “one-size-fits-all” policy is appropriate for the region as a whole. In some locations, standing forests exist that can be managed with a focus on protecting and improving carbon sequestration. In other locations, shifting cultivation may be the most rational land use for farmers from both economic and environmental perspectives. In these cases, policies should help farmers maintain or rehabilitate traditional farming systems, with fallow periods that are long enough to allow regeneration of mature secondary forests.

In still other locations, secondary forest fallows will be converted to permanent agriculture, largely dominated by tree crops such as rubber, coffee, and cashews. Policies should aim not only to increase carbon sequestration but also to improve the livelihoods of subsistence farmers and to protect other environmental services such as biodiversity and soil and water conservation. Such policies must provide economic support for small-scale, diversified, agroforestry systems, i.e., multi-storied agricultural systems that preserve the species diversity and ecological functions of a forest.

Collaborating Scholars

Andreas Heinimann's (Centre for Development and Environment) research focuses on landscape transformations and their ecosystems and development trade-offs under global change as well as sustainability science and sustainable development, with a special focus on human-environment interactions in developing countries. He is a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of the Global Land Project (GLP) of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). Stephen Leisz's (Colorado State University) work focuses on land-use/land-cover changes in upland Southeast Asia with specific emphasis on linkages to changing farming and livelihood systems, especially changes in shifting cultivation, and drivers of these changes. Leisz has worked with agent-based models and systems models as well as Landsat, SPOT, ASTER, MODIS, and GeoEye/Digital Globe imagery.

Kaspar Hurni (Centre for Development and Environment) focuses on the detection of land transformations in Lao PDR using remote-sensing data at different spatial and temporal resolutions and GIS approaches, linking patterns to processes and characterizing changes.

Ian Baird's (University of Wisconsin at Madison) research is focused on land-tenure and livelihood issues and large-scale land concessions related to cash crops (particularly rubber, but also other crops) in Lao PDR and Cambodia. He has extensive experience working in Lao PDR and Cambodia, including relevant language abilities and strong contacts in mainland Southeast Asia.

Regional counterparts included T.D. Vien (Hanoi University of Agriculture), H. Kimkong (Royal University of Phnom Penh), and the late K. Phanvilay (National University of Laos).

Related Publications

Ahrends, Antje, Peter M. Hollingsworth, Alan D. Ziegler, Jefferson M. Fox, Huafang Chen, Yufang Su, and Jianchu Xu (2015). Current trends of rubber plantation expansion may threaten biodiversity and livelihoods. Global Environmental Change. 34:48-58.

Baird, Ian G., William Noseworthy, Nghiem Phuong Tuyen, Le Thu Ha, and Jefferson Fox (2018). Land grabs and labour: Vietnamese workers on rubber plantations in southern Laos. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. 40 (1): 50-70.

Evans, Tom P., Khamla Phanvilay, Jefferson M. Fox, and John Vogler (2011). An agent-based model of agricultural innovation, land-cover change and household inequality: the transition from swidden cultivation to rubber plantations in Laos PDR. Journal of Land Use Science. 6(2): 151–73.

Finucane, Melissa L., Jefferson Fox, Sumeet Saksena, and James H. Spencer (2014). A conceptual framework for analzing social-ecological models of emerging infectious disease. In M.J. Manfredo, J.J. Vaske, A. Rechkemmer, and E.A. Duke, eds. Understanding society and natural resources: Forging new strands of integration across the social sciences. New York: Springer.

Fox, Jefferson (2014). The production of forests: Tree cover transitions in Northern Thailand, Northern Laos, and Southern China. In Susanna B. Hecht, Kathleen D. Morrison, and Christine Padoch, eds. The social life of forests. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fox, Jefferson (2014). Through the technology lens: The expansion of rubber and its implications in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Conservation and Society 12(4): 418-24.

Fox, Jefferson, and Jean-Christophe Castella (2013). Expansion of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) in mainland Southeast Asia: What are the prospects for small holders? Journal of Peasant Studies 40(1): 155-70.

Fox, Jefferson, Jean-Christophe Castella, and Kaspar Hurni (2018). As rubber plantations expand in the highlands of Southeast Asia, what happens to local farmers? East-West Wire:15 August 2018.

Fox, Jefferson, Jean-Christophe Castella, and Alan D. Ziegler (2014). Swidden, rubber, and carbon: Can REDD+ work for people and the environment in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia? Global Environmental Change 29:318-26.

Fox, Jefferson, Jean-Christophe Castella, Alan D. Ziegler, and Sidney B. Westley (2014). Expansion of rubber mono-cropping and its implications for the resilience of ecosystems in the face of climate change in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Global Environmental Research 18(2): 145-50.

Fox, Jefferson, Jean-Christophe Castella, Alan D. Ziegler, and Sidney B. Westley (2014). Rubber plantations expand in mountainous Southeast Asia: What are the consequences for the environment? AsiaPacific Issues No. 114. Honolulu: East-West Center.

Fox, Jefferson, Tuyen Nghiem, Ham Kimkong, Kaspar Hurni, and Ian G. Baird (2018). Large-scale land concessions, migration, and land use: The paradox of industrial estates in the Red River Delta of Vietnam and rubber plantations of Northeast Cambodia. Land. 7(2), 77;

Fox, Jefferson, John B. Vogler, Omer L. Sen, Thomas W. Giambelluca, and Alan D. Ziegler (2012) . Simulating land-cover change in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. Environmental Management 49(5): 968-79.

Fox, Jefferson, John B. Vogler, Omer L. Sen, Alan D. Ziegler and Thomas W. Giambelluca. (2014). Regional scenarios and simulated land-cover changes in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia. In Ademola K. Braimoh, and He Qing Huang, eds. Vulnerability of land systems in Asia. John Wiley & Sons.

Giambelluca, Thomas W., Ryan G. Mudd, Wen Liu, Alan D. Ziegler, Nakako Kobayashi, Tomo'omi Kumagai, Yoshiyuki Miyazawa, Tiva Khan Lim, Maoyi Huang, Jefferson Fox, Song Yin, Sophea Veasna Mak, Poonpipope Kasemsap (2016). Evapotranspiration of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) cultivated at two plantation sites in Southeast Asia. Water Resources Journal. DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017755.

Guardiola-Claramonte, Maite, Jefferson Fox, Thomas W. Giambelluca, and Peter A. Troch (2010). Changing land use in the Golden Triangle: Where the rubber meets the road. In J. Roumasset, K. Burnett, and A. Balisacan, eds. Sustainability science for watershed landscapes. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.

Guardiola-Claramonte, Maite, Peter A. Troch, Alan D. Ziegler, Thomas W. Giambelluca, Matej Durcik, John B. Vogler, and Michael A. Nullet (2010). Hydrologic effects of the expansion of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) in a tropical catchment. Ecohydrology. 3(3): 306–14.

Guardiola-Claramonte, Maite, Peter A. Troch, Alan D. Ziegler, Thomas W. Giambelluca, John B. Vogler, and Michael A. Nullet (2008). Local hydrologic effects of introducing non-native vegetation in a tropical catchment. Ecohydrology 1(1): 13–22.

Hurni, Kaspar, and Jefferson Fox (2018). Rubber has replaced many of Southeast Asia's natural forests. East-West Wire. 19 September 2018.

Hurni, Kaspar, and Jefferson Fox (2018). The expansion of tree-based boom crops in mainland Southeast Asia: 2001 to 2014. Journal of Land Use Science. 13(1-2): 198-219.

Kumagai, Tomo’omi, Ryan G. Mudd, Thomas W. Giambelluca, Nakako Kobayashi, Yoshiyuki Miyazawa, Tiva Khan Lim, Wen Liu, Maoyi Huang, Jefferson M. Fox, Alan D. Ziegler, Song Yin, Sophea Veasna Mak, and Poonpipope Kasemsap (2015). How do rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) plantations behave under seasonal water stress in northeastern Thailand and central Cambodia? Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 213:10-12.

Lestrelin, G., Jean-Christophe Castella, and Jefferson Fox (2013). Forest transitions in Southeast Asia: Synergies and shortcomings in land-change science and political ecology. In Christian Brannstrom and Jacqueline M. Vadjunec, eds.  Land change science, political ecology, and sustainability science: Synergies and divergences. London: Earthscan/Routledge.

Sen, Omer L., Deniz Bozkurt, John B. Vogler, Jefferson Fox, Thomas W. Giambelluca, and Alan D. Ziegler (2013). Hydro-climatic effects of future land-cover/land-use change in montane mainland Southeast Asia. Climate Change. 118(2): 213–26.

Woods, Kevin M. (2018). In Myanmar, conflicts over land and natural resources block the peace process. East-West Wire. 29 January 2019.

Woods, Kevin M. (2018). Opium, rubber, and a land grab on Myanmar's border with China. East-West Wire. 8 August 2018.

Ziegler, Alan D., Shawn G. Benner, Chatchai Tantasirin, Spencer H. Wood, Ross A. Sutherland, Roy C. Sidle, Nicholas Jachowski, Mike A. Nullet, Lu Xi Xi, Anond Snidvongs, Thomas W. Giambelluca, Jefferson M. Fox (2014). Turbidity-based sediment monitoring in northern Thailand: Hysteresis, variability, and uncertainty. Journal of Hydrology 519:2020-39.

Ziegler, Alan D., Jefferson M. Fox, and Jianchu Xu (2009). The rubber juggernaut. Science 324(5930): 1024–25.

Ziegler, Alan D., Jacob Phelps, Jia Qi Yuen, Edward L. Webb, Deborah Lawrence, Jefferson M. Fox, Thilde B. Bruun, Stephen J. Leisz, Casey M. Ryan, Wolfram Dressler, Ole Mertz, Unai Pascual, Christine Padoch, and Lian Pin Koh (2012). Carbon outcomes of major land-cover transitions in SE Asia: Great uncertainties and REDD+ policy implications. Global Change Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2012.02747.x.

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