A photograph of Maria Wang Mei Hua who researches rubber, agroforestry and sustainability. She is pictured on TUoS campus and there are some nice trees behind her.

For the love of plants: Maria Wang Mei Hua

Grantham Scholar Maria Wang Mei Hua loves plants – and researches rubber, sustainability and agroforestry. In this interview we talk about that love, and how it feeds into her work.

Her plant love has seen her travel to America and the UK from her home in Malaysia to study them. For the Grantham Centre, Maria is researching ways that the plants we use to make our tyres – rubber trees – can be grown in a more sustainable way. Alongside this, she has been foundational to efforts to embed sustainability across the University of Sheffield. So she can stay connected to the plants she loves so much, she’s also a member of the University’s Allotment Society.

When we spoke to Maria she was seeing out lockdown at her brother’s house in London. We spoke via video call – and could hear her brother cooking in the background – about why she loves plants, why we still need rubber and her experiences of working with powerful people.

Interview with Maria Wang Mei Hua: rubber, sustainability & agroforestry

Part 1: childhood, research and the pandemic

Maria grew up in Malaysia and remembers loving plants from a very young age. In part 1 we talk about this, and Maria tells us some of the pet names she gave weeds as a kid. Plus we talk about how the pandemic has affected her work at the Grantham Centre, and what skills Maria brings to sustainability.

What did you want to be as a kid?

One of my childhood dreams was to be a ‘naturalist’. But my parents and other people around me were sceptical that this could offer respectable or stable job prospects. They would have preferred that I’d become a doctor (this is a typical Asian parent mindset).

So I mostly kept these dreams to myself – but I never could quite give up on them. Going to university in America I met people who made a living from studying plants and ecology. Seeing them effuse joy and passion when talking about their work and life, for the first time I felt I could do conservation for a living.

However, the fear of job insecurity still looms in my mind, especially now I’m in my final year. I’m trying to work extra hard to increase the chances that I can get a job doing what I find meaningful.

So did you like plants when you were little?

I was raised in a small town by a river in a rural state of Malaysia. My parents were overprotective so I didn’t go far from the house. But my father, who’s a science teacher, loved gardening. I didn’t take after him as a gardener, but I loved the weeds. I found them so pretty, the flowers especially. I’d give them my own names. My mom also said that I always ‘bring home junk’ from the outdoors: rocks, leaves, twigs, flowers, anything I found interesting. Actually I still collect random plant parts and weird rocks.

What kind of names did you give the weeds?

Maria Wang played with plants when she was little, and this picture shows a love puff, one of her favourites
This is a ‘love puff’. Maria took this photo to show us one of the cute plants she played with as a child.

Things like ‘Broomtail’ or ‘Amethyst Blossom’. I was influenced by the books of Enid Blyton and Anne Of Green Gables. A few years ago I found a really cool book about edible and medicinal weeds in Malaysia, so I actually can locate their scientific and common names now! My Broomtail is Emilia sonchifolia and is called tetambak merah in Malay. It’s called ‘lilac tasselflower’ or ‘cupid’s shaving brush’ in English.

Can you remember what drew you to the weeds?

They just looked pretty!

My Chinese name is Mei Hua which means ‘plum flower’. My father named me that because the plum flower is one of the few plants that bloom in winter. Maybe that name sparked a connection between flowers and me.

What impact has the pandemic had on your research?

In this last year I’ve been focusing on my PhD, but I felt like I wasn’t really contributing. Because I felt that disconnect between my research and actual people on the ground, I wanted to do fieldwork in Malaysia for one of my thesis chapters. Because of the pandemic I didn’t get to go back.

Was missing fieldwork at home in Malaysia a big disappointment?

Yes, I was going to volunteer with a conservation NGO there. But also it was going to be challenging because it would have been social sciences fieldwork which is terrifying for me. Recently, I did interviews for the Mighty Earth report [see later on for more about this report] and I realised that interviews are not my forte.

2 pictures of the same plant. It has a long thin stem and tiny little flowers growing out all the way up. Before researching rubber, agroforestry and sustainability Maria researched these plants.
For her undergrad final year project, Maria studied wind pollination in the prairie panic grass, Dichanthelium leibergii. She tells us that people asked her “what’s the use of this plant?” It has no economic use or special ecological function but is a pretty native plant which flowers twice in a year and that’s cool enough for Maria. And her project went on to win multiple research awards!

What are your best skills?

(Laughing) I find it hard to promote myself! But I’m getting better at it, with practice – and age!

I’m attending a professional development programme for women called ‘Daring to Dare’. In the first session we had to do a speed dating activity and introduce ourselves and our strengths to each other. Upon reflection, I think that because of my varied background – coming from Malaysia, studying the US and the UK, and having a broad knowledge of different disciplines – I am able to better connect with people. For instance, I can understand what people from different fields are saying and to translate between them.

For example, for the Mighty Earth report I found I was able to understand both my research team (who are all trained in science and quantitative evidence) and the NGO side (who are all advocates and campaigners). The NGO speaks the language of fighting for the marginalized, gender equity, livelihoods and food security, and farmer autonomy. Of course all these are important but they are not covered by biological science.

It was really rewarding to be able to integrate the contrasting views in writing.

Part 2: is sustainable rubber possible?

Maria’s research at the Grantham Centre focuses on making tropical crops more sustainable, especially rubber. In part 2 we talk about the rubber industry and Maria explains some of her findings.

Is natural rubber still an important crop in the world’s economy?

Globally, rubber is not as major as say oil palm or rice, but it’s still a big crop in SE Asian countries. About half of rubber is still from natural rubber. And it’s mainly used for tyres.

Rubber’s importance depends on the rubber price. This was one of the issues my PhD looks at. When rubber prices increased 2005-2008 and 2011 it encouraged more rubber plantations to be established. But now the price has dropped so it affects the farmers who have it planted. In some countries some farmers are abandoning their rubber and going into oil palm.

Your research looks at ways to make rubber production more sustainable. What have you found?

My first chapter from my PhD was ‘Reconciling rubber expansion with biodiversity conservation‘. In this I looked at where we could establish new rubber plantations with the least impact on species. So here we’re assuming that new plantations are going to be planted.

However, in my opinion we cannot afford to have any more deforestation.

So if we still want to increase rubber production without new rubber plantations, one strategy is agricultural intensification. This is where you aim to increase rubber yield on existing land and leave the forests alone. It can be done in several ways. For example, by planting better varieties, improving rubber tapping practices, or through a better fertilisation regime. You can also intensify rubber production in unsustainable ways, like using lots of mineral fertilisers and pesticides.

Agroforestry is a different strategy. In modern terms, it usually means to have trees and one or more other crops on the same plot of land. In the case of rubber – rubber can be the ‘tree’ component, but you can also have other trees like native forest species or fruit trees. You could even have agroforestry with animals, like bees and rabbits! Having more plant diversity and plant cover is generally better for ecosystems, and also helps diversify smallholder farmers’ income sources.

Are there other ways for rubber production to be more sustainable?

Depending on the benefits you want, yes. So you might put buffer zones between farming land and streams so there is less pollution run off into the rivers. While this isn’t agroforestry, it is better than pure monoculture. But the strategies are not mutually exclusive.

Right now I’m involved with the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR), a multi-stakeholder platform whose main goal is to make the rubber value chain more sustainable. They have a ‘Theory of Change’, which is basically a mind-map of how to get from our current state to the ‘ideal’, ‘sustainable’ state.

For GPSNR, I’m part of a collaborative effort to make all levels of the rubber value chain more sustainable. It is a lot of work, and sometimes I wonder if it is possible for an industry with entrenched interests in profit to become genuinely sustainable. But we shouldn’t stop trying.

Is a mixed crop method gaining popularity in rubber production?

From our research and interviews monoculture is still the dominant mode of production. Usually because there is a history of governments promoting this model in the past through policies. It’s the way it’s been done for decades so farmers are reluctant to try something new. Plus you have to put more work into agroforestry so it poses a greater risk if unsuccessful. Of course, if farmers are not getting support from the government to do this then there is less incentive.

2 photos of the same river side by side. The one on the left is a later one and shows the results of flooding.
A river which runs close to Maria’s parent’s house. In the second photo you can see the results of a recent severe landslide and ongoing repair works on the river bank and floodwall.

Part 3: Maria’s rubber agroforestry report

In May 2021 Maria Wang Mei Hua’s expertise on agroforestry was put to use when she and two co-authors published Rubber Agroforestry: Feasibility At Scale for the NGO Mighty Earth. Here she explains what the report was about and why it’s important.

Recently you published a report on agroforestry. Can you tell us about that?

This report looks at the potential for scaling up rubber agroforestry and the barriers to making rubber agroforestry a more widespread practice. Mighty Earth are an NGO who want to improve livelihoods, especially for smallholders. But companies too could make more profit just by having more crops in the same land.

Overall, the report found that in most cases it improves livelihoods to have a diversified portfolio.

So mixing up different species amongst rubber trees improves productivity?

Yes, but it is complicated because there are so many different systems which makes it hard to compare and generalise. Plus not all crops will do well under rubber. Some people are concerned about doing agroforestry because it would reduce the yield of rubber which is the main source of profit.

However, previous research has shown that if you don’t change the number of rubber trees per hectare that you plant, but arrange the pattern of planting such that you have enough space around each tree and the other crops in between, then the productivity of the plantation is not impacted. As long as the rubber is not shaded by other taller trees, the rubber trees will still produce the same amount of latex even with other plants around.

What practical use would you like to see come out of this report?

Farmers, companies, NGOs and anyone interested in rubber sustainability can look at this evidence-based report and see a wide array of options available in terms of rubber agroforestry. And it both clears up common misconceptions and promotes good ideas from previous work on rubber agroforestry in different countries.

However, it’s important to realize that agroforestry is not a silver bullet. There have been agroforestry projects that have ended up in failure. Even when it works, it can’t solve everything. But it can improve some things, and at least people now have ideas to choose from.

Part 4: Maria’s sustainability work at the University of Sheffield

You do a lot of outreach and activism at the University. What’s something unexpected you learned from this work?

I didn’t feel like my research was having much impact, so I got involved with various campaigns and groups at the University of Sheffield (TUoS).

One important thing I learned is that campaigning and activism don’t mean you have to be in the limelight or be able to debate in public. Behind the scenes skills like research, administration and communications are all equally as essential!

It wasn’t until I became secretary for the Sustainability Committee that I realised I had a penchant for doing admin, and that not everyone enjoys or excels at this type of work. So shout out to Deborah, Jana and yourself [the Grantham Centre Operations Team] for running the Grantham Centre so smoothly!

I encourage everyone to try getting involved in a cause you believe in. Find your niche – everyone has something to contribute.

You did some foundational work for the TUoS Sustainability Strategy didn’t you?

In my first year Deborah Beck [our Centre Manager] put out a call out for Grantham Scholars to come up with metrics to measure how TUoS was meeting 5 of the SDGs. I got involved, along with a few other Grantham Scholars. We produced a report laying out potential metrics and recommendations for what TUoS could do next. That formed the basis for the Sustainability Strategy.

Being involved in these groups helped me think more critically about sustainability and sustainability strategies. And it taught me leadership skills and how to put myself out there a bit more. I believe it also informed my PhD work, in the sense that the rubber sustainability platform meetings aren’t too different from the university meetings.

In what way?

(Laughing) Powerful people take up airtime.

I’m very conflict averse. Being involved in these groups taught me how to deal with potential conflict. Strategies like supporting and being supported by your team. We always made sure to do our research and be ready to articulate our arguments. Plus I learned how a lot of this work is about building relationships, making each other better. After all, we all have the same goal: to achieve sustainability.

Part 5: after the Grantham Centre

Maria is pretty close to finishing her PhD with us. Everyone at the Grantham Centre is sure whatever she chooses next will be awesome, and no doubt involve plants. But like all academics, Maria can’t be certain there will be jobs or research positions that appeal or fit in with her passion for sustainability.

What do you hope to do after your PhD?

Climb the tallest mountain in Malaysia!

But after that, I’m torn between going back to Malaysia or finding opportunities abroad. If I go back home then I can be close to my parents. And I would like to make a practical impact on conservation in Malaysia. I’d like to join a conservation NGO and use my research and other skills (all my skills?) for the greater good. To be honest, I don’t really mind which sector (industry, civil service, NGO etc) I end up in – as long as I am making use of my skills to contribute towards sustainability and conservation.

I was also thinking it would be great to a project that was promoting under utilised foods.

Like bread fruits (Maria wrote a blog for us about her research into cempedak which has thousands of readers a year from all over the world)?

Yes, wild cempedak and other breadfruit relatives could be a source of livelihood for indigenous or rural folks who have knowledge of these under-utilised fruits or plants.

All photos are from Maria, except the main banner image which is by Dora Damian. Interview by Claire Moran. If you want to keep up to date with Maria Wang’s research on rubber, agroforestry and sustainability then you can follow us on Twitter.