P rince Norodom Ranarridh open-ed a major new exhibition at the French Cultural
Center last week dedicated to the country's rubber industry.
L'hévéaculture, it depicts the history of tree plantations which were the
foundation of the tire empire founded by the French tycoons and brothers Andre
and Edouard Michelin in the 19th century.
The exhibition describes the origins and development of the rubber industry
through a series of strip cartoons, photographs and tactile displays. There are
rubbery exhibits to touch, bowls of liquid latex, lengths of tree-trunk in soil,
car tires and large chunks of spongy substance like old Romano cheese.
In 1970 there were 60,000 hectares of rubber plantations in Cambodia.
Today, they are being revived around the area of Kompong Cham, in Chup, Krek,
Mimot, Snoul, Chamcar and Andong districts. As part of the plan to revive the
country's industry it is hoped that 120,000 hectares will eventually be
At the opening of the exhibition Prince Ranariddh said he
hoped that tax breaks and other financial incentives offered by the Ministry of
Agriculture would boost the revival of the industry.
Philippe Monnin, an
agronomist and specialist in rubber cultivation said that this country produced
exceptional quality in the commodity, with trees outliving those found in other
countries by up to 17 years, with some reaching the age of 47.
extraordinary age for a tree," he said. When the tree dies it is cut down and
used in furniture making. "Nothing is wasted," Mr Monnin added.
variety of rubber plants contain latex, a milky fluid with globules of rubber in
an aqueous suspension, but only the tropical species has been commercialized.
Trees are planted in long straight avenues, and as they mature the rows take on
a beautiful cathedral-like shape.
During collection the bark of each tree
is cut in a circular motion downwards and the latex 'bleeds' out and drips into
special pottery bowls attached to the trunk. In a year a plantation will process
one to two million cups of latex.
The exhibition also touches on the
origins of the industry. The Incas, Aztecs and Mayas of South America, for whom
the analogy of 'bleeding' rubber was significant, used rubber for, among other
things, shoes, water-proofing fabrics and for making containers.
interest in the use of rubber did not begin until the 18th century when reports
were made to the French Academy of Sciences by Charles de la Conda-mine and
The first rubber factories were established in 1803
near Paris, and in England in 1820. Three years later Charles Macintosh produced
the first waterproofed coats. Rubber balloons, pardon the pun, burst on the
scene in 1825. Then the first rubber hose, resistant to heat and cold, was
invented for fighting fires. Then the Goodyear company introduced vulcanization,
which revolutionized the industry, producing the pneumatic
Delightful engravings showed the first bicycles with rubber tires,
with attendant punctures. One shows Queen Victoria sitting majestically on a
tricycle in 1869.
Another advertisement from 1906 declares: "The tire
... is Death! The Elastic wheel, by Roussel, is Life!" A violent polemic erupted
between supporters of the elastic-covered wheel and those of the rubber tire.
A two-and-a-half km race between the two types of suspension proved the
elastic wheel's downfall. The rubber tire won.
In the 19th century wild
rubber was harvested in south America. Seeds of the tree were smuggled to
England's Kew Gardens in 1873 by three Englishmen, Markham, Collins and Hooker.
The resultant seedlings, anxiously watched over day and night as they
germinated in the greenhouse, were sent to the Malay area and Indonesia. They
started the huge Far Eastern rubber industry. When World War II cut off supplies
from the east, synthetic rubber was produced.
Currently Indonesia and
Malaysia, still are among the largest producers of natural rubber. Nevertheless,
Cambodia's unique red soil produces rubber of special quality.
"Cambodian rubber was recognized as being the best because it is very
clean, without any trace of mineral elements," explained Pou Choti, a former
rubber planter before the Pol Pot years.
"It has to do with our long dry
season which ensures that there are no fungi in the earth to destroy the trees.
You get a better price for clean rubber with no marks on it. It's the same when
you buy diamonds," he said.
The exhibition shows that rubber could again
be the jewel in the crown of Cambodia's economy.