THE arrival of rubber in Malaya in 1877 - one of the original trees is still in the compound of the Kuala Kangsar District Office - did not immediately meet with great enthusiasm among the planters, who were quite happy growing coffee. The man largely responsible for making Malaysia the largest rubber-producing country in the world is Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855-1956).
His principal contribution was to develop what is still today the basic method for tapping the tree - the herring-bone method, which left V-shaped channels on the trunk, removing only a thin layer bark each time, thus permitting a smooth flow of latex and allowing the bark to regenerate. This was a great improvement on the method which was being used in Brazil and Malaya at the time, which involved slashing the tree or making holes, causing great damage to the cambial layer and consequently to the productivity and life of the tree.
He took an honours degree, won the Burdett-Coutts scholarship in geology and was appointed to the Department of Botany in the British Museum where he studied many tropical plants. During his eight years at this post he published about 50 papers dealing with botany and zoology.
Ridley was appointed the first scientific director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens in 1888, holding the post till his retirement in 1912.
It was there that his experiments with Para rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) convinced him of the enormous economic potential of rubber as a plantation crop.
He began a campaign to establish a rubber industry. Despite considerable initial opposition among planters, he persisted, and by 1896 the first rubber estates were planted. Ridley's persistence in persuading Malaya's planters to grow rubber trees earned him less than flattering nicknames such as "Mad Ridley" and "Rubber Ridley".
Planters in Malaya largely ignored Ridley until their coffee plantations were devastated by disease and they desperately required a new cash crop. From then on the rubber industry grew into one of the economic mainstays of the Malay states. By 1912, Malaya was producing more rubber than Brazil.
Ridley also studied other plants in the Malay Peninsula, publishing many articles and the five-volume Flora Of The Malay Peninsula in 1925.
At the time of his retirement, Ridley published Spices - a monograph on spice plants and their cultivation which was the standard work on the subject for many years.
In 1950, in recognition of his botanical contributions, the Linnean Society awarded him the prestigious Gold Medal. He was also honoured many times over by the rubber industry. In 1955 he received the Colwyn Medal from the Council of the Institution of the Rubber Industry.
In his 80s, Ridley continued to publish on botanical subjects and was a keen birdwatcher in Kew Gardens. He got married for the first time to Lily Eliza Doran. He died at Kew, Surrey, England, on October, 24, 1956. He was 101 years old.
THE Malaysian Rubber Board (MRB) has been involved in the systematic breeding and selection of rubber clones to improve productivity for nine decades. In the past, greater emphasis was given to produce high latex-yielding clones, giving rise to a spectacular increase in yield.
The success of the rubber breeding programme can be seen from the multifold yield increase. The introduction of new genetic materials in the 1950s increased the yield potential to about 3,000 kg per ha per year from about 500 kg per ha per year. This is amazing feat given the narrow genetic base of the breeding population and this was achieved within two to three cycles of breeding and selection.
Since it embarked on the scientific approach, six series of clones with a total of 185 clones had been developed and recommended to the industry under the names RRIM 500 (1928-1931), RRIM 600 (1937-1941), RRIM 700 (1947-1958), RRIM 800 (1959-1965), RRIM 900 (1966-1973) and RRIM 2000 (1974 till now) series clones.
In recent years, rubberwood furniture gained wide acceptance by domestic and foreign consumers after rubberwood was accepted as an alternative timber to the natural forest species.
Rubber breeding and selection have now been re-emphasised to produce rubber clones with high latex content as well as rubber wood, known as latex-timber clones.
New promising latex timber clones are being developed in the breeding programme. Every three years, planting recommendations are updated to provide new information on the availability, status and performance of the planting materials for the rubber plantation industry.
The sustainable yield improvement through breeding can only be achieved with the availability of large genetic base compared to the narrow genetic base of the progenitors of the commercial planting materials in Malaysia, originating from 22 seedlings introduced to Singapore in 1877.
Broadening the genetic base is one of the key areas of rubber breeding to reinforce the additive genetic component for yield, girth and other important secondary characteristics.
The usage of these large genetic materials collected from wild germplasm of Hevea brasiliensis and different Hevea spp would enable the rubber breeders to develop new latex timber clones having yield potential of about 4,000 kg per ha per year and wood volume of 2.0 m3/tree in the near future.
With the advent of high-throughput genomic technologies, research on rubber genes of interest has shifted from single gene to large-scale gene analysis.
MRB has generated more than 35,000 latex gene transcripts in the form of expressed sequence tags (or ESTs). This collection constitutes a vast molecular resource which serves as a gene bank for rubber research. This is the largest latex EST collection not just in Malaysia but also in the global rubber research community.
Rubber plantations can be considered as significant contributors towards reducing global warming through carbon sequestration.
Carbon sequestration is a process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Simply put, sequester means to lock transiently. As far as rubber plantations are concerned, carbon is sequestered in plant parts, products, litters, debris and soil.
Total carbon sequestered in rubber plantation ranged between 235 tonne/ ha/30 years and 574 tonne/ha/30 years.
As part of carbon strategies, Malaysia must adhere to the Kyoto Protocol mechanism which take into consideration the effects of carbon sinks and sources, as well as for addressing issues related to fossil fuel emissions.