Rubber & Risk: Deforestation related to the export of natural rubber from Sri Lanka

Authors: Benjamin Goldstein*, University of Michigan, Joshua P Newell, University of Michigan, Kimin Cho, University of Michigan, Dimitrios Gounaridis, University of Michigan
Topics: Economic Geography, Environmental Justice, Resources
Keywords: Globalization; Global Production Networks; Corporate Sustainability; Deforestation
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 30
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Rubber cultivation is an important contributor to land use change and modification in Sri Lanka. Deforestation for rubber plantations in the country has degraded ecosystems and uprooted traditional relationships to the landscape. The formally nationalized Sri Lankan rubber industry has become decidedly more export oriented since liberalization in the 1990s. The country is now the 10th largest exporter of natural rubber in the world. A cadre of just 23 large plantation companies control most rubber cultivation, and through their monopolies on processing, act as gatekeepers for smallholders to international markets. Exported rubber becomes tires, mattresses, pillows, condoms and thousands of other consumer goods. The churning of international trade cleaves retailers of these products from the negative impacts to the Sri Lankan countryside and marginalized populations. This paper uses a novel method, TRACking Corporations Across Space and Time (TRACAST), to build linkages between Sri Lankan rubber farms, rubber manufacturers and US corporations. Using machine learning and remote-sensing data, we identify areas of deforestation for rubber plantations, including portions of protected forests. With TRACAST we link these hotspots of environmental change to US retailers, including Walmart, Target, and The Home Depot. This work enables us to show how complex supply chains hide the negative implications of corporate supply chains, even those of individual corporations with commitments to sustainable production.

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