THE rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is now regarded as a highly-prized plant in a time when the world is still battling Covid-19.
The latex that flows out from the tree has always been a key export product for the country, but in this time of the pandemic, it is an important resource for the manufacturing of protective gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE).
In 2020, Malaysia produced approximately 515,000 metric tonnes of natural rubber – making the country the fifth largest producer of this commodity in the world.
Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the demand for protective gloves and other PPEs has surged and Malaysia currently constitutes 60 per cent of the total supply to the global market.
This, in turn, has augured well with the nation’s economy as it has given rise to Top Glove Corporation Bhd, which has since become the top producer of rubber products in the world.
Amidst such positive outlook, however, lurks a threat that can easily disrupt the production of natural rubber.
The outbreak of Pestalotiopsis (fungal-originated) disease in Kampung Panchajaya in Johor on Nov 27, 2017, marked the beginning of the infection that struck around 10,000 rubber plantations across the country, including in Sarawak.
“This disease would attack the leaves, rendering the rubber tree unable to produce much latex,” Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (Risda) agriculture officer Emyza Aisah Atang told thesundaypost in Kuching.
According to her, with less production of latex from each tree, the rippling effect would diminish a plantation’s capability to produce raw rubber, which could impact manufacturers of rubber products.
Pestalotiopsis is common in tropical climates such as in Sarawak, which has a high volume of rainfall and humidity.
Once a rubber tree is infected by this fungal disease, the leaves, stems and branches would be affected and they would exhibit spots – a trait that could be seen with the naked eye.
“About 90 to 100 per cent of the leaves of a mature rubber tree would wither, and the tree itself would lose about 40 to 60 per cent of its rubber sap once infected,” said Emyza.
The results, she said, would be heavily felt by rubber smallholders who would lost a significant amount of income.
She added that the decreasing number of rubber seeds would also bring an adverse impact to the industry as it would hinder the expansion of rubber plantations.
“Plans to open up new rubber plantations would also be affected by the unavailability of rubber seeds,” she pointed out.
On the pathogen of the fungus disease, Emyza said it could be spread by air or wind – making it more susceptible to spread and multiply in humid and wet regions such as Sarawak.
She also revealed that the most susceptible tree to be infected by the disease would be rubber trees that had been planted using clone seeds.
“As the pathogen does not have a specific host, the fungus would easily cling to grass, palm oil leaves and palm leaves, which are common plants near rubber plantations.”
However, all is not lost as various steps are currently being taken by Risda, together with the Malaysian Rubber Board (LGM) and the Department of Agriculture Sarawak to tackle this situation.
“Prevention is always better than cure,” stressed Emyza, listing Good Agronomic Practices (GAP) as one of the prevention techniques, which should be practised during the whole growth and cultivation process of the rubber trees.
Steps such as maintaining the cleanliness of the plantation, applying fertilisers on schedule and clearing out weeds were crucial in stopping the spread of the fungal disease.
Emyza added that rubber smallholders must also ensure that all of the pathogen sources would be destroyed to avoid any potential infection periodically.
“The weeds surrounding the rubber trees hold a huge potential of being the host of the disease.
“These too need to be cleared periodically,” she reminded.
Another method, according to Emyza, is the use of chemical control that has been proven to be an effective way to fight this disease.
“Among the ways to carry out chemical control is to spray the leaves of the rubber trees regardless if they are infected or otherwise.”
This, said Emyza, would greatly reduce the risk of the fungal disease attacking the trees.
Nonetheless, she called upon all rubber smallholders to seek advice from the relevant agencies such as Risda and LGM on means to prevent any disease from attacking their plantations.
THE BORNEO POST