Rubber tapping is the harvesting of the sap of rubber trees, particularly one species that originates in South America, Hevea brasiliensis. The sap of rubber trees contains a very high concentration of latex which is used to make rubber. Rubber tapping is still carried out in much the same way it has been for centuries. Most of the world's production of natural rubber comes from Southeast Asia, from plantations of trees descended from those originally transplanted from the rain forests of South America.
The rubber tree produces a white milky sap, rich in latex, which forms raw rubber when it coagulates. The sap is collected from the trees in such a way that it allows the tree to continue to grow, making rubber a renewable resource. Rubber tree plantations are also considered less ecologically damaging than some other types of agricultural enterprises in rain forests. Rubber trees also typically harbor many kinds of birds and coexist with other plants and trees, partially incorporating themselves into the ecosystem rather than totally supplanting it.
Workers on rubber tree plantations use a special knife to cut a thin strip from the outer bark of the rubber tree in such a way that it slopes downward at approximately a 45 degree angle as it goes about half way around the trunk. This cut causes the tree to ooze the latex rich sap and also acts as a channel for it to flow downward where a cup, bag, or other container is placed to catch the sap. The cuts are made each night or in the early morning hours before dawn, which increases the yield from each cut as the tree begins to heal the wound quickly. The flow of sap typically tapers off and ceases before the end of the day.
The following day, a cut is made along the same line as the cut from the previous day. This maximizes the yield and useful lifetime of a particular tree. After one side of a tree has been used for harvesting the rubber sap for a certain amount of time, that side of the tree is left to heal and the other side of the tree is used. By alternating areas of the trunk on opposite sides of the tree, called panels, a skilled rubber tapper may keep a particular tree productive for years at a time.
While much rubber tapping is still carried out in this labor intensive and primitive way, especially on small plantations owned by families or individuals, on many larger plantations, the rubber tapping process is much more reliant on machinery and technology to reduce labor and increase production. The basic idea behind rubber tapping has not changed, however. It continues to be the basis for the production of all natural rubber, which is still in great demand worldwide, even with the invention of synthetic rubber compounds and other alternatives.