The rubber tree, a native of South America, was cultivated and techniques for tapping its latex developed in Singapore from where the plant was eventually disseminated as a commercial crop to Asia around the turn of the 19th century. These photographs look at the cycle of rubber trees and their latex in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand as they present landscape, people, and working elephants involved in this layered industry. Nakhon Si Thammarat is a largely rural southern province situated on the Gulf of Thailand. Many small rubber plantations exist in the coastal area and extend westward and inland into low mountain jungle. Rubber trees are planted in neat rows and begin producing latex in about six or seven years. Rubber trees produce enough of the white sticky flow to remain economically viable for roughly 25 - 35 years depending on where the trees are growing.
Descending spiral slits made into the bark of the trees permit the flow of latex into small collection cups. Typically a tree would be freshly cut in the very early morning twice per week. Collected latex is put into large buckets. Addition of acetic acid initiates coagulation in pans similar to sheet cake pans. The white liquid decanted to the molds soon gels to a tough rubbery texture reminiscent of very sturdy tofu. Flipped from the pan, the coagulum is aggressively kneaded by hand with a sort of rolling pin then pressed through a set of motor driven rollers into rectangular sheets. These sheets are then hung looking similar to thick white towels on a clothesline when the product is air dried. Currently with latex price low, farmers who continue to tap their trees will likely sell their latex to a single local farmer who still maintains a pressing facility. (For the past few years the Thai government has encouraged farmers to cut down and replace rubber trees with more profitable and faster producing cash crops such as oil palms.)
When the flow of latex slows the trees are cut down for rubber wood and the land replanted with rubber tree and/or other faster growing crop. Para wood, another name for rubber tree wood, is used for a number of purposes including furniture and fuel. A large percentage produced in this area is milled, palleted, and shipped to China. The typical logging operation will have one or two cutters take down trees in the early morning for the day’s harvest. Elephant handlers will then chain and drag the logs to a staging area where the downed trees are cut up and loaded to a truck. Depending on the contractor, there may be heavy equipment used to load the truck or there may be only manual laborers. This sort of tough work is often done by Burmese migrant workers.
Lorries roll out of the mountains loaded with the rubber tree wood and onto mill scales that fix a weight for deliveries. The large deep trailers lift and dump just outside and adjacent to the cutting floor. The mill proper is typically a large open pavilion housing a dozen or more tall bandsaws, stacking and sorting floors, great deep drying kilns, wood treatment chambers, and industrial dust recovery system. Burmese will also be found working in the lumber mills along with local Thai. These workers typically function within a de facto union where a lead person negotiates for their pay. If suitable wages are not agreed upon with mill management the workers will leave for other employment. Local workers punch in and out while most of the migrant workers lodge on the mill’s campus in company housing. The Downloads section of this site has a small eBook with a few images from this series.