Rubber Tree

During the period of transition from coffee to tea, experiments in a new product, rubber, were being carried out. These experiments proved that various types of rubber yielding trees would flourish in Sri Lanka. However, the industry can be said to have had its birth in 1876 when 1,919 plants of Hevea Braziliensis – the native rubber tree of the Amazon Valley – were received in good condition at the Heneratgoda Botanical Gardens from Kew. It is from these mother trees that the gigantic rubber plantation industry in the Eastern hemisphere sprang. Of the trees planted at the Heneratgoda Botanical Gardens in 1876, the first one flowered in 1881, on which the first experiments in tapping were commenced.

The rubber plantation was thinned out in 1882 and from the 260 seedlings raised the following year and distributed in Sri Lanka, the first spread of commercial rubber planting began. The trees at Heneratgoda were thinned out periodically and by 1887 there were 457 good trees standing which provided the seed for further plantings. In 1890 the Forest Department opened a plantation at Edangoda and by 1893 some 90,000 seeds were distributed for planting and similar numbers were sold in succeeding years.

Currently, about 300,000 acres of rubber is under cultivation with an approximate production of 129 Million Kilograms per year. Sri Lankan rubber plantations produce high-quality natural latex processed products, primarily constituting of Sheet Rubber, Crepe Rubber, and TSR (Technically Specified Rubber).

Sheet Rubber

Sheet rubber is one of the oldest but still most popular types. There are two main types of sheet rubber – Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) and Air Dried Sheets (ADS). The ribbed smoked sheet is more sought after and available for volume consumption. Ribbed Smoked Sheets consists of coagulated rubber sheets, dried using smoke. RSS sheets are graded according to its color, consistency, and observed impurities.

Crepe Rubber

Crepe rubber is made using a process of coagulation that creates a crinkled rubber texture. The process involves combing coagulated latex with some natural form of coagulum. Thereafter further processed through large rollers. Crepe rubber is most often used for the manufacture of shoe soles and rubber boots and gloves. Depending on the thickness, density, degree of contamination, crepe rubber can be classified in many grades.

TSR (Technically Specified Rubber)

TSR is a newer form of grading rubber that has become popular in the past 30 years. This process grades rubber using technical specifications instead of visual methods.

History of Rubber Plantation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan rubber tree plantations are the result of colonization. When blight hit the coffee plantations in the 1870s, people tried new things to see if they would work.

Finally, the colonial office selected Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to cultivate rubber because of its geographical features and climate. The seedlings were planted at the botanical garden in Gampaha under the guidance of George Thwaites.

The first rubber tree in Ceylon flowered in the year 1881. After that, people started experimenting with tapping the trees to get rubber. In the year 1893, around 90,000 rubber seeds were supplied to planters throughout Ceylon. And by 1923, approximately 180,085 hectares of rubber were cultivated.

This is how rubber cultivation began in Sri Lanka. And over time, it became one of the country's most important agricultural products.

Who introduced rubber trees to Sri Lanka?

During colonization, Sir Joseph Hooker recommended Sri Lanka to carry out experiments based on rubber tree cultivation. Accordingly, he sent 38 cases full of 1919 rubber seedlings from Kew Gardens to Ceylon. Thus, it can be said that it was Joseph Hooker who introduced rubber plantations in Sri Lanka.

Where do rubber trees grow in Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka, people grow rubber in tropical lowlands in the wet zone below 1400 ft altitude. Here, the size of a rubber holding can vary a lot. According to how much land is used, there are two types of rubber cultivation. Land areas that are below 8 hectares are considered smallholders. On the other hand, plantations that are 8 hectares or more are considered estates.

Sri Lanka's rubber plantations are mostly concentrated in the wet zone, with a total land area of 127,500 hectares. The main rubber growing districts in Sri Lanka include:

  • Kegalle

  • Gampaha

  • Rathnapura

  • Kalutara

  • Colombo

  • Galle

  • Matara

  • Kandy

  • Matale

  • Kurunegala

In addition, there are 19 regional plantation companies that manage around 47,000 hectares of rubber land. So, out of the total 115,300 hectares, about 25,700 hectares are immature, and the balance 89,600 hectares are mature.

Rubber production in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was once the 4th largest rubber producer in the world. But over time, the rubber industry slowly disappeared. Now, Sri Lanka is the 13th largest producer of natural rubber in the world.

The country is not just a producer of raw rubber but also produces a variety of value-added products using natural rubber. This includes:

  • Latex mattress

  • Latex mattress toppers

  • Latex pillows

  • Latex gloves

  • Rubber bands

  • Solid tires

  • Footwear

Does Sri Lanka export rubber?

Sri Lankan rubber is world-renowned for its premium quality and durability. The country exports rubber, both in raw and value-added forms. However, the amount of rubber exported each year is only around 8000 metric tons - which doesn't seem like a lot when you consider that rubber tree plantations cover more than 20% of the island!

Sri Lankan rubber and rubber-based products are mainly sold in the USA, Germany, Belgium, and the UK. Sri Lanka also exports semi-processed rubber to countries like Pakistan, Japan, and Germany.

A list of Rubber Products in Sri Lanka

  1. Rubber Gloves: Various types of rubber gloves, including medical, household, and industrial gloves, are produced in Sri Lanka.

  2. Rubber Mats: Rubber mats used for flooring, doormats, and anti-slip surfaces are common products in Sri Lanka.

  3. Rubber Seals and Gaskets: Rubber seals and gaskets are widely used in industries such as automotive, construction, and manufacturing.

  4. Rubber Hoses: Sri Lanka manufactures rubber hoses used in various applications, such as automotive fuel lines and industrial fluid transfer.

  5. Rubber Footwear: Sri Lanka produces a range of rubber footwear, including flip-flops, sandals, and rain boots.

  6. Rubber Belts: Rubber belts are used in conveyor systems and power transmission applications.

  7. Rubber Profiles: Extruded rubber profiles are used in applications like weatherstripping, edge protection, and sealing.

  8. Rubber Wheels and Tyres: Sri Lanka is known for producing rubber wheels and tyres used in bicycles, motorcycles, and various vehicles.

  9. Rubber Sports Equipment: Rubber products like rubber balls and other sports equipment are also manufactured in Sri Lanka.

  10. Rubber Toys: Sri Lanka produces rubber toys for children, including rubber ducks and other bath toys.

  11. Rubber Floorings: Rubber floorings used in gyms, playgrounds, and other commercial or industrial settings are also made in Sri Lanka.

  12. Rubber Bushings: Rubber bushings are used in automotive and industrial applications to dampen vibrations and provide flexibility.

These are just a few examples of the diverse range of rubber products manufactured in Sri Lanka. The country's strong rubber industry and skilled workforce contribute to the production of high-quality rubber goods that are exported globally.

Processing of Rubber in Sri Lanka

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