Rubber Tapping—A Job That Touches Your Life
By Awake! correspondent in Nigeria
AT FIVE o’clock in the morning, the Nigerian rain forest is dark and cool. In a mud-block house in the middle of the forest, John awakens and slips on his clothes. Then he heads off into the night, carrying a lantern, a plastic bucket, and a short knife with a curved blade. For the next four hours, he moves from tree to tree, making surgical cuts in the bark of each tree.
This is the first in a long series of events that may eventually touch your life. How so? Because the trees that John cuts are rubber trees. And rubber, named for its ability to rub out pencil marks, is one of our most valuable and widely used resources.
Thousands of Products
Just think about the role rubber plays in your life. The soles and heels of your shoes may be made from rubber. Your carpet backing and furniture may contain foam rubber. The elastic in your clothing is likely made from rubber. When it is raining, you may reach for a raincoat and boots made from rubber. Going swimming? Wet suits, goggles, and fins contain rubber. You do not want to swim? Perhaps you would prefer to just float on a rubber raft or play with a rubber beach ball. About your home there are probably rubber bands, rubber erasers, and rubber adhesive. When you sleep tonight, you may rest on a mattress and a pillow made from rubber products. If you are cold, you may snuggle up to a hot-water bottle made of rubber.
Apart from all those things, there are many products that would certainly not work very well without rubber parts—washers, belts, gaskets, hoses, rollers, or valves. The average car, for example, has about 600 rubber parts. In all, according to The World Book Encyclopedia, between 40,000 and 50,000 rubber products are manufactured.
What makes rubber so useful? It is long-wearing, heat-resistant, elastic, water-resistant, airtight, and shock absorbent. Consider the tire, whether it be for a bicycle, a motor vehicle, or an airplane. Because it is rubber, a tire is not worn away quickly by constant contact with the road, neither will it burn away because of the constant friction. When you drive through puddles, you need not fear that the tire will become soggy and rot; it will not corrode either. Not only does rubber stop water from going inside the tire but it also prevents the pressurized air on the inside from leaking out. Moreover, as you move along, the shock-absorbent quality of the rubber in your tires helps cushion you from the bumps in the road. Really, without rubber, manufacturers would be hard-pressed to produce a tire.
So you will probably agree that rubber tappers like John provide a valuable service that touches our lives in a positive way. Of course, not all rubber comes from trees. Synthetic rubber, produced from chemicals, takes up a large share of the industry. Both types of rubber have their strengths and weaknesses. Many products can use either, and the choice is often decided by the prevailing cost. Other products use a blend of synthetic and natural rubber. Most automobile tires contain more synthetic rubber than natural rubber. However, because the synthetic is less resistant to heat buildup, a higher proportion of natural rubber is used in the tires of racing cars, trucks, buses, and airplanes.
Rubber trees grow best in hot, wet climates near the equator. Much of the world’s natural rubber comes from plantations in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia. The rest comes from South America as well as West and Central Africa.
John does not tap a tree until it is about six years old. After that the tree will produce rubber for the next 25 to 30 years and will grow to about 65 feet [20 m] in height. When the rubber tree “retires” from producing, it may continue growing, to a height of 130 feet [40 m], and it may live to the ripe old age of 100 years or more.
Rubber straight from the tree looks more like milk than like the tire of a car. This milky substance, called latex, contains tiny particles of rubber. About 35 percent of the latex is rubber. The rest is mostly water.
To tap the latex, John makes a diagonal cut in the bark. This cut extends halfway around the tree. He is careful not to make the cut too deep, since that would damage the tree. The latex begins to flow immediately after the cut is made; it trickles along the groove formed by the cut and empties into the bamboo cup John has attached to the tree. The flow continues for two or three hours; then it stops.
A day or two later, when John next taps the tree, he will make another cut just below the first one. The next time he will cut below that one. Eventually, a panel is cut out of the bark of the tree. Now John will begin to tap another part of the tree, leaving the panel to heal completely for tapping at a future time.
John works quickly, moving alone through the quiet forest, cutting the trees to make the latex flow. Later, he revisits each tree and collects in his bucket the latex that has accumulated. Next, John adds formic acid and water to the latex. This thickens and coagulates it much like vinegar curdles milk. John then carries the bucket of latex on his head to the main road, where it is collected by a truck from the nearby rubber-processing plant.
John now returns home to bathe, eat, and rest. In the late afternoon, when he leaves his house again, he is smartly dressed and carries a briefcase in his hand. This time he will be going not from tree to tree but from house to house. As a regular pioneer minister, John has a full share in the preaching and disciple-making work.
As John conducts his first Bible study of the day, the latex he collected will have reached the processing plant. There the rubber will be separated from the water, dried, and compressed into bales for shipment. Soon it will be on its way to England, Japan, or the United States. The worldwide natural rubber industry produces over five million tons of rubber each year. Although it is unlikely, there is the possibility that the rubber in the soles of your next pair of shoes will come from a tree tapped by John.
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John at his work of tapping rubber trees
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John shares in the Christian ministry