ITUBERA, Brazil — Michelin´s natural rubber plantations in the Brazilian jungle provide only a fraction of the tire maker´s NR needs, but research conducted there may have a huge impact on the world´s supply of the integral ingredient in tires.
The focus of the research is microcyclus ulei, or South American leaf blight. The dreaded fungus attacks Hevea Brasiliensis rubber trees, causing their leaves to drop and thus reduce the photosynthesis needed so their light-colored bark can produce latex.
The blight, which some say has been around as long as the trees themselves, now has spread to continents where 93 percent of the world´s natural rubber is produced, according to Dominique Garcia, the head of the microcyclus research project taking place in Brazil.
The project is a joint effort between his employer, CIRAD-the French government´s Centre de Cooperation Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Developpement-and plantation owner Michelin.
Just as the seeds of the Hevea trees that are native only to Brazil were smuggled out of the country more than a century ago to spawn other plantations, so too can the leaf blight travel across national borders and oceans.
"If it spreads, it would be an ecological, economic and social disaster," Garcia said, noting that an Australian group that studies such things rates the potential spread of microcyclus among the 10 worst threats to international agricultural commerce.
The climate, soil, elevation and all the other natural conditions that are most ideal for growing rubber trees also provide an ideal environment for microcyclus ulei.
Because both the rubber trees and the fungus are native to Brazil, this nation is the focus of research to develop trees that are resistant to attack.
´Green Gold Project´
Research takes place both in a laboratory and on nearly 2,500 acres where trees undergo field testing at the Michelin plantation. In the lab, more than 100 strains of the fungus are being studied and classified by virulence. In the field, 3,000 new trees are evaluated each year. So far, 14 fungus-resistant varieties of Hevea have been identified.
Through grafting-sort of like a botanic vaccination-productive rubber trees can absorb fungus-resistant characteristics. In the meantime, more naturally fungus-resistant strains of trees are being developed, though Garcia said it can take 20 years of research to verify that a new strain will prove resistant enough to be recommended for widespread planting.
Controlling the fungus and producing stronger trees is only one focus of the research taking place at Michelin´s "Green Gold Project." Researchers also are developing ways to enhance the health of family farms and are helping to return one of the few nearly virgin areas of the Atlantic rain forest to its natural state.
Michelin has had a presence in the Brazilian Atlantic rain forest, some 15 degrees south of the equator and just inland from the Atlantic Ocean, since the early 1980s, when it purchased a rubber plantation that Firestone had planted in the early 1950s.
Michelin also owns a larger plantation, Mato Grosso, in southwestern Brazil and owns a 20-percent equity in plantations in three African countries. It calls its facility near the Brazilian coast the Ouro Verde (Green Gold) Project.
This plantation´s hilly landscape spreads over more than 22,000 acres-35 square miles-that include nearly 4,000 acres of forest that is one of the world´s most endangered but biologically diverse ecosystems. Here, new species of plants and animals are being discovered on an impressively frequent basis.
The projects under way date back to the 1990s when the Bahia, Brazil, plantation was suffering a double whammy: a low cycle of international rubber prices and a fungus outbreak that significantly reduced the local flow of rubber, according to Gerard Bockiau, the new director of Michelin´s Green Gold project.
Kevin Flesher, who has hiked the region´s forests for 10 years and considers himself a landscape ecologist or biological geographer, said the fungus apparently was transported to Bahia on tractors and other equipment brought from other areas of Brazil when Firestone was establishing the plantation during the 1950s. No one realized the spores could travel on the equipment, he said.
New business model
Michelin considered selling the plantation or switching to a different crop such as palm oil, a big business in this part of Brazil, but it did not like either alternative, Bockiau said.
As a tire maker, Michelin had no interest in entering new fields of agriculture, nor did it feel good about the prospect of abandoning its employees or the forest.
Instead, it decided to use the Bahia plantation as a Western prototype for the proliferation of small and medium-sized farms, much like the agricultural model that produces most of the rubber in Southeast Asia. Such a move fulfilled the company´s commitment to encourage sustainable development for people and the economy, said Michelin Managing Partner Michel Rollier.
To help make rubber growing more attractive for family farmers, Michelin´s researchers worked with CIRAD to make trees more resistant to fungus and to find a way for farmers to survive the ups and downs of international rubber prices. It also has sold off much of its plantation to its local employees, basically setting them up with their own rubber farms, with Michelin retaining a tract for its research projects and a rubber processing plant.
So far, the results are impressive. With highly motivated private farm owners, rubber production has doubled. At the same time, instead of Michelin employing 250 workers on its plantation, the 12 employee-owned mid-sized farms employ twice that number of local residents and produce rubber, cocoa and banana crops.
Michelin also is working with the local government and Brazilian regional banking interests to build 250 houses for local workers. In an area where housing is built from mud-chinked wood or weak but expensive ceramic brick, the Nuovo Itubera community introduces sturdy yet less expensive cinder block construction techniques in houses with tile floors and bathrooms connected to a sewer system.
Bockiau said there are four pieces to this "puzzle": the microcyclus research, the rubber processing plant, Atlantic forest management and social development for the region.
"It motivates everyone," Bockiau said. "It is strategic for Michelin to be involved in rubber and especially to be on the forefront of research."