SINGAPORE—Owners of small rubber farms around the world now have a seat at the table at an international sustainability group.
More than one seat, actually.
The Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber, a Singapore-based group aiming to make a difference in how rubber is harvested, has adopted new rules that allow these so-called smallholders to join the group and have representation on GPSNR's executive committee.
Companies around the world have gotten used to conducting business via Zoom calls as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the latter stages of 2020. And such was the case at GPSNR's General Assembly Sept. 23 that brought together group members from around the globe virtually instead of in person.
It was the first overall meeting of GPSNR since early 2019, and an overwhelming majority of group members—more than 98 percent—approved the creation of a smallholders category within the organization that features representatives from throughout the rubber supply chain.
A total of 28 smallholders from seven countries initially are joining the group to have their interests represented. From that group, smallholders Baroan Roland of the Ivory Coast, Soontorn Rakrong of Thailand and Dang Quoc Thong were elected to the executive committee.
Creating representation for this group of farmers is important to GPSNR because the vast majority of the world's natural rubber comes from small farms.
"I understand the importance of the responsibility I have received. I hope that I will not disappoint," Roland said through an interpreter during the meeting.
Rakrong said he has specific policies he wants to champion during his time on the committee. They include creating stability in rubber prices and improving the quality of life for smallholders.
"Smallholders are a crucial link in the natural rubber value chain, and they have a key role to play in driving awareness on-the-ground and setting the global agenda for sustainable natural rubber," GPSNR Director Stefano Savi said.
Amy Smith, of the World Wildlife Fund environmental group, is co-chair of the executive committee, and she sees the importance of smallholders having a voice in GPSNR along with a variety of rubber-related companies and organizations from throughout the world.
"The creation of a standalone smallholders members category will enable smallholders responsible for 85 percent of global rubber production to help drive the sustainable natural rubber agenda," Smith said.
GPSNR is in the process of establishing a working group to consider the added costs of sustainability and how they should be shared along the supply chain.
"Rubber growing smallholders often operating at the interface of plantations and ecosystems to be conserved should not carry an extra financial burden to implement sustainable practices, and they should be acknowledged for the efforts that they make," Smith said.
Germany has taken particular interest in GPSNR, becoming both a member of the group and a financial supporter. Gerd Mueller, Germany's federal minister for economic cooperation and development, issued a statement read at the meeting expressing the importance of a fair rubber supply chain for all involved.
"Natural rubber is immensely important to the functioning of industrial society. But natural rubber is the source of income for millions of smallholders in the tropics," Mueller said in the statement read during the meeting.
But rubber, unlike crops such as coffee and cocoa, is not as much in the public eye when it comes to sustainability and social responsibility.
"The challenges around sustainability and its supply chain are similar," Mueller said. "Smallholder families produce the raw material that is highly valued by consumers, but commands low prices. … Their work is generally performed under difficult conditions and frequently at the expense of forests."
"Making the supply chain humane and sustainable is a major and urgent challenge," he said. "Such a transformation will require every link in the chain to take responsibility."
GPSNR calls itself an international, multi-stakeholder organization "with a mission to lead improvements in the socioeconomic and environmental performance of the natural rubber value chain." Members include producers, processors, traders, tire makers and other rubber makers and buyers. Also in the group are automobile manufacturers and other downstream users as well as financial institutions and "civil society," the group said.
GPSNR members account for nearly 50 percent of the global natural rubber volume. The group is an outgrowth of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's Tire Industry Project.