The Elastic Local Substance
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Ever since the first few hundreds of Brazilian rubber seeds were brought to Sri Lanka from the Kew Garden in London and planted first in Gampaha Henarathgoda Botanical Garden in 1867, rubber has been a popular industry in the country, drawing some serious attention from the world for the unique and high-quality industrial rubber Sri Lanka produces.
It didn’t take very long for Sri Lanka to pick up rubber planting and by 1900 a considerable extent of the country’s wet zone was dedicated to large-scale rubber cultivation. By 1970 the extent extended to over 200,000 hectares of rubber but currently owing to property and infrastructure development there are only about 136,625 hectares of rubber plantations in Sri Lanka. A considerable drop in quantity one might think, but just like it is with Ceylon tea, cinnamon, and other small export crops Sri Lanka produces, it is quality we are reputed for rather than quantity.
Currently, Sri Lanka is the 13th largest rubber producer in the world – still a significant achievement considering how small a nation Sri Lanka is – and is the producer of the best quality latex crepe rubber. The crepe rubber Sri Lanka produces is dubbed the creme de la creme of rubber, fetching a premium price over all other types and grades. The country’s premium quality natural rubber is odour free, light-coloured, and clean, and is largely used for medical equipment and upmarket value-added products.
Latex crepe is the purest form of rubber and is manufactured in the plantations under clean, hygienic and carefully controlled conditions. Apart from that, Sri Lanka also produces ribbed smoked sheets – a popular method of rubber processing among small and medium-scale rubber producers due to simplicity, low cost of the processing machinery, and easily adoptable processing technology. In ribbed sheet making, the natural rubber latex is treated with chemicals and then left to coagulate until sheets are produced. The sheets are then air-dried or smoked in ovens. The smoked sheets are dark in colour while the air-dried ones still retain a considerable amount of transparency.
Rubber production is a Government-sponsored industry which employs over 200,000 – most of whom are women working at the grassroot level. In the past, the country’s rubber was largely exported to countries that make products out of them but as of late, authorities have paid extra attention to promoting rubber-related products in Sri Lanka to make the most of the quality rubber produced in the country. As a result, the tyre industry and rubber glove industry is thriving in Sri Lanka.
In this week’s Picture Story, Ceylon Today brings you some snippets on how rubber is processed from tapping to smoked sheets. The action was clicked at a local small-scale rubber plantation in Kamburupitiya, Matara.
(Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)