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For peat’s sake, it’s Sarawak’s goldmine

by Peter Sibon, reporters@theborneopost.com. Posted on July 14, 2013, Sunday

WORKSHOP: Lulie shows the brochure of the upcoming one-day workshop entitled Tropical Peat 2013-Good Plantation Practices for Oil Palm on Tropical Peatland to be held in Sibu on Sept 7.

KUCHING: As a scientist who tries to explain theories in layman’s terms, acclaimed peat soil expert Dr Lulie Melling goes a bit further to put her points across.

To Lulie who is the state director of the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory (TPRL) in the Chief Minister’s Department, it’s pointless talking Latin when no one understands.

Taking into account that scientific talks are by nature boring and dry, she tries to make things interesting and wet.

“Science is not a smart prostitute. It’s dry. Men, in general, love to hear stories and stories can be seasoned and spiced up. But we cannot do that to science as seasoning will make it unauthentic.

“My job needs me to ensure that the people who do not have any scientific background or knowledge understand science in order to allow successful management of tropical peatland for oil palm cultivation.

“To make sure those involved in peat soil management (who are mainly of the male gender) get my message, I have to try and use their language and come up with some analogies to make them understand the scientific theories and to be able to apply these theories in their farming.

“That’s why I came up with this them — Please don’t imagine the Hole, verify it! For the Tropical Peatland and Oil Palm 2013 workshop on September 7 in Sibu,” Lulie told thesundaypost at her office.

She received her Bachelor of Science degree from University of Malaya in 1990, followed by a Master of Agriculture Science in Soil Science from University of Reading, United Kingdom in 1997. She obtained her PhD from Hokkaido University, Japan, in 2005.

She began her career as a research officer-cum-soil surveyor at the Department of Agriculture in 1991.

Her deep interest in pursuing the study of tropical peat and the state’s support has led to the setting up of TPRL under the chief minister’s department.

TPRL is envisioned to be a leading research centre for developing scientific technical knowledge and understanding of tropical peatland.

As a renowned scientist, Lulie has led more than 20 tropical peatland research projects with numerous accredited publications and reports in various journals worldwide apart from pioneering the publication of greenhouse gas emissions from tropical peatland.

She has also been appointed the world expert and peat soil consultant for various international organisations.

Lulie is now an active member of the Malaysian Soil Science Society (MSSS), the Malaysian Peat Society (MPS), the International Peat Society (IPS) and the International Union of Soil Science (IUSS).

With the principle of making a “boring and dry” topic “interesting and wet” in mind, Lulie has come up with all sorts of plain and simple analogies to make it easily understandable for the farmers.

For example, she describes greenhouse gas as “smoke from the hole” and calls peatland “sexy.”

“Peat soil is actually very sexy. It’s always soft and wet. I tell farmers to treat the peatland like their wives. If you love her but leave her high and dry, you will have unwittingly set off a ticking time bomb of contempt.

“Beneath her calm surface of grassland is a dried up layer of angry debris — just waiting to be ignited into a raging fury where there’s a spark of fire,” said Lulie in explaining the origin of peat fire.

That’s how she explains peatland and all its characteristics she has discovered to farmers.

“When I first started 14 years ago, I was innocent and green. I had try and explain to the planters and farmers in simple terms to understand on — how you squeeze the peat soil, how to determine its hardness for deciding its rawness, how to check its moisture content, how to interpret the colour of its liquid and how to determine the virginity of the peat based on penetration technique.

Later, I realised men have their own unique imagination which is a bit different from women’s.

“And through their language, I manage to make them understand ways to manage peatland properly and keep it productive,” she revealed.

According to Dr Lulie, peatland is still a very much unknown entity as not many studies and research have been done on it worldwide and what has been known about peatland today is just a tip of the iceberg.

After being involved in peat research for over 10 years, she has proven her methods to be effective in improving the yield of oil palm estates on tropical peatland.

Through systematic research, she has been able to help update oil palm farmers with her latest discoveries through workshops and discussions.

It is not often that a workshop on tropical peatland is held.

TPRL organised one in 2007 entitled ‘Big Hole, Small Hole and KY Jelly’ and another one in 2008 themed ‘I’ll Show You how to use the Hole’.

“The coming workshop is a rare opportunity for farmers involved in peatland agriculture to get themselves updated on tropical peatland management. We will be focusing on the nature of different types of peatland and what to do to improve and make it productive.

“What we are offering at the workshop is not found in any textbooks. Proper management of peatland is important. It means income for those involved and revenue for the state if the effort is successful.

“I really hope farmers, plantation workers, policy makers, different government agencies as well as academicians will attend it to update themselves,” Lulie said.

She believes proper management of peatland is a preventive measure against the fire during hot spells in Sarawak, saying it also helps to increase yield for cash crop such as palm oil while at the same time, provides a sustainable environment apart from generating income for farmers as well as the state government.

About 1.6 million hectares in Sarawak are peatland with 400,000 hectares cultivated with oil palm, generating income for Sarawakians, especially those in the rural areas.

The industry employs as many as 40,000 people.

“If we develop 750,000 hectares, we will get about 18 million metric tonnes. That means RM11.3 billion worth of potential revenue from fresh fruit bunches. “At the current price of RM600 per tonne, we can expect RM15,000 per year per hectare. With that, the estimated revenue for the Sarawak government will be RM500 to 600 million annually,” she said.

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