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Old-growth forests are falling victim to rubber plantations in China — and scientists have calculated the environmental consequences.

Rubber prices have tripled in the past decade and China plans that by 2010 it will be producing a third more rubber than it was in 2007 in order to feed its booming automobile and tyre industries.

Scientists are selectively breeding rubber trees to thrive at higher altitudes and trying to make them mature faster. But rubber trees are thirsty, reducing the water content in soil and drying up streams and wells — and deforestation to make way for rubber plantations is releasing huge amounts of carbon.

Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Science's flagship institute for conservation research, the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), have been documenting the influence rubber plantations have on the value of ecosystem services — by putting prices on environmental necessities such as nutrient cycling and erosion control.

"We will soon hit the wall in an ecological credit crunch. This is hardly a viable investment," says one of the scientists.

Ecologists at the institute — itself enveloped by rubber plantations — are looking to strengthen their research capacity and play a stronger policy and advocacy role in biodiversity conservation in the region.

Link to full article in Nature