A three-week trip to meet with the natural rubber farmers on the island of Java and Sumatra, in Indonesia, subsequently moving on to the plantations in Chonburi province, Thailand. For Alessandro Scotti, author, photographer and former Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, this was a fairly standard assignment among the many for Pirelli. Indeed, Scotti has worked on reports in more than 30 countries, from China to Vietnam. Among his various projects, one of the most intense covered a report on drug trafficking across multiple continents: from Afghanistan to Colombia, the Caribbean and Burma.
But this latest immersion in different places and experiences gave him a new perspective on a raw material we often take for granted: natural rubber. It also inspired a collection of black-and-white photos of faces, animals, nature in motion and snapshots of life that capture the essence of life on the plantations, taking the spectator on a virtual trip.
“Visually, the work is a celebration of the farmers – of the physical labour involved and the kind of approach they need to fulfil their task,” says Scotti. “These are very simple people but, like artisans, they honour their traditions and then they become like giants because of their ability to do what they do and to read things in nature. These are things that are unreadable to me. They have a whole language, a lexicon that is unknown to me”.
Visually, the work is a celebration of the farmers – of the physical labour involved and the kind of approach they need to fulfil their task
Working with nature
Natural rubber is the raw material with no equally effective synthetic substitutes for making tyres. Pirelli doesn’t own any rubber plantations but instead obtains this precious material through dealers and processors who in turn buy it from farmers, often via smallholder groups who take it to auction.
Pirelli - whose objective is to promote and develop sustainable and responsible sourcing of natural rubber across the entire value chain by developing a Policy on natural rubber - decided to take a leap forward to recount this unexplored world. A tale made up of images to raise awareness of this valuable raw material, contribute towards preserving forests and biodiversity and support the development of local communities and economies.
“Natural rubber cultivation raises the level of family economy” confirms Alessandro Scotti. “Rubber trees begin to produce latex when they are about seven years old. The farmers, who are both men and women, tap the rubber trees with a knife, allowing the latex to pour into the half coconut shell and then leaving it to solidify in 50-kilo parallelepipeds. Then they sell these blocks in the weekly open-air auctions, at the world market price that we read on all the major financial newspapers."
Working sustainably with the farmers is a priority and Pirelli’s recent Sustainable Natural Rubber Policy was created in consultation with stakeholders, including international NGOs, major Pirelli natural-rubber suppliers, traders and farmers within the supply chain, automotive clients and multilateral organisations.
Working sustainably with the farmers is a priority and Pirelli’s recent Sustainable Natural Rubber Policy was created in consultation with stakeholders
What Scotti saw in Indonesia and Thailand was a system – and a raw material – that provides a living for thousands and thousands of people. While the context for rubber farmers varies widely between countries – Thailand has larger plantations while Sumatra has multiple small plots, for example – the dependence on nature remains the same.
“These people are relying on nature to survive,” says Scotti. “The mutual dependence with the land and nature around them is really strong and has its own pace, which is not necessarily our pace.”
That pace is best illustrated by considering the time involved in extracting this natural resource. A rubber tree will only begin producing latex when it is around seven years old. This then needs to be harvested through tapping, which involves making a cut in the bark and letting the milky sap drip into a small cup – or half coconut – for several hours.
You can’t rush the process – you can’t harvest the same tree day after day because it will become stressed, weak and unproductive. Normally this kind of knowledge is transferred from father to son, but Pirelli is also providing training – in partnership with rubber processors such as Kirana Megatara in Indonesia - to help farmers protect and maximise their source of income, namely latex extraction.
From nature to the road
“Everything is done in a very calm way; it’s very, very peaceful,” says Scotti. “You have to slow down your pace. Once you do, it is astonishing that a place where it seemed like nothing was happening suddenly feels like a hectic megalopolis, where insects, animals, plants – everything – is moving.
Everything is done in a very calm way; it’s very, very peaceful
“It felt overcrowded with life,” the photographer recalls. “The people were just a small part of the action. They live in that flow; it’s part of their way of being. And they cohabit with nature.”
It’s this experience that Scotti conveys in his series of striking videos and black-and-white photos portraying the people and places that provide the natural rubber that is so central to our everyday lives.
“It’s interesting that the degrees of separation are very limited,” adds Scotti. “The chain is very short between the rubber farmers living in the jungle and the product we are so used to seeing on the road.”