Rubber trees, they stand in lines on the slopes of the hills like a troop of soldiers, perfectly lined up, all looking similar, having the same shape and waiting to be released from their sticky, milky juice. In order to obtain this valuable juice, an incision has to be made into the bark. Then slowly the juice will come out, dripping into a cup, which is connected to the tree. In Sri Lanka they mostly use a coconut shell for this purpose. The full cups are regularly being collected by plantation workers.
The sap is brought to a small workshop or a factory, depending on the size of the enterprise. There the rubber, also called latex, is transformed into sheets or blocs and transported for export and further processing into a wide variety of products.
Rubber cultivation in Sri Lanka is done in the wet zone, which in Sri Lanka comprises the Upcountry and the south western regions. However, due to the high demand for rubber on the global market, research is done regarding the establishment of new rubber plantations in the intermediate zones as well, which means in the Eastern Province.
The modern history of rubber goes back to the 18th Century when in 1735 the Frenchman C.M. de la Condamine scientifically qualified rubber during an expedition to South America. It was the chemist Joseph Priestley who discovered that pencil marks could be rubbed out with this substance. That’s why the name ‘rubber’ is still being used for an eraser. In 1839 it was Charles Goodyear who made a major discovery in the quality development of rubber by adding sulphur to the processing procedure, which resulted into a stronger connection between the molecules. This procedure is known as vulcanization.
The rubber tree, also called Hevea, originates in Brazil, but at the instigation of the British India Office, seeds of the Hevea Brasilienis were smuggled from Brazil into the UK, raised in Kew Gardens in London and from there shipped to the British colonies in Asia to investigate if plantations could be established in that part of the world too, mainly Ceylon, India, Birma and Malaysia. The experiment went well and with the rising demand for rubber due to the rapid Industrial Revolution in Western Europe and the USA, rubber became a booming business. Rubber plantations in Sri Lanka started in the late 19th Century, but increased rapidly during the first decades of the 1900s, following plummeting tea prices. The discovery of synthetic rubber in the 1920s found its breakthrough at the start of World War II, when the demand for rubber increased and transportation of natural rubber was handicapped because of the war. Although the production of synthetic rubber has taken over the production of natural rubber, it is the ongoing global economic growth that keeps the demand going.