Intercropping streches Hainan rubber farmers' income
Alok Gupta

Cultivation of traditional Chinese medicine is helping rubber farmers' of Hainan Island cure their economic woes.

Facing the consequences of crashing natural rubber prices by more than 50 percent, farmers are also reeling under the catastrophic impact of growing a single crop for years, called mono-cropping.  

Natural rubber prices are showing no signs of recovery. It's expected to remain low in 2019, after a projected 20 percent year-on-year decline in 2018, a World Bank estimate predicted. 

In a bid to resolve the dismal scenario, researchers from Stanford, McGill University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), identified two Chinese medicinal plants as a part of the intercropping initiative. 

The Alpinia oxyphylla and Amomum villosum Lour plants, popular for curing inflammation, are helping revive the ecosystem and also supplement the agriculture income. 

“A decade back, farmers use to sell one kilogram of rubber for 20 Yuan. Today, prices are as low as 6-8 Yuan per kilogram,” Hua Zheng, a lead project researcher from CAS, told CGTN. 

Prone to climate change induced extreme weather events, the island has also been witnessing floods, storms, and long spells of the heat wave. Last year, Typhoon Sarika pounded the island, forcing an evacuation of almost half a million people. 

Extreme weather events also impacted local tourism.

“Such weather events are frequent. Unfortunately, despite having a large tract of rubber plantations, it has not been able to control sediment run-off from the agricultural land, resulting in flooding,” Gretchen Daily, a faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project, told CGTN.

The run-off leads to frequent flooding, impacting local tourism. It also eroded the fertile layer of the soil and transported agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, contaminating the groundwater. 

Intercropping a ‘win-win-win deal'

“The large-scale plantation of a single crop led to a decrease in soil water retention capacity by 17.8 percent. Thus increasing flood incidents and also depleting groundwater quality,” Zheng said. 

In the last two decades, from 1998 to 2017, there was a 72.2 percent increase in the rubber plantation area in Hainan, clearing around 400 square km of the forested regions. 

Declining crop productivity and tourism were proving to be double trouble for the Islanders. The government, local communities and a team of researchers geared up to tackle the issue.  

They initiated the "Ecological Development Strategy" to experiment with intercropping, a technique that involves cultivating valuable plants under the rubber trees. 

They found that rubber farmers who implemented the technique were able to maintain the same production levels as monoculture plantations. It also increased soil retention, flood mitigation, and nutrient retention. 

It also reduced reliance on a single harvest while also gaining environmental benefits from the land.

“The cultivation of two Chinese medicinal plants have reduced sediment run-off. As a result, helped in increasing rubber yield, the annual income of the farmers has doubled,” Zheng said. 

Results of the experiment has been published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

The challenges faced by Hainan rubber farmers are similar to those of other mono-cropping including soy, beef and palm oil. The concept of intercropping, implemented in Hainan, can also be replicated elsewhere in the world too, researchers added.    

But the selection of plants would differ depending on the local weather conditions. It can be tea, coffee or any other crop. 

According to Daily, the Hainan agricultural experiment is a win-win-win deal with a triple benefit for farmers and countries facing the consequences of monocropping.

“It helps in ensuring stable income from crops, controls natural disasters like floods, and assures economic benefit to the entire community," she added.