A story of the oil palm – hunting for planters

Control over planting and sales of FFB from NCR land need to be rationalised with the imperative of observing local customs and practices.

ALMOST everybody in Sarawak is talking about planting oil palms. It’s a plant that produces edible oil, which is in great demand by consumers in many countries in the world.

In Sarawak, oil palm fruit was known as buah sabun or soap fruit. Some palms were planted by the early Catholic missionaries at Kanowit in the 1880s and later by the Anglican priest Fr Stonton, at Simanggang, possibly at Munggu Sabun.

The oil from the ripe fresh fruit is considered to be a good source of vitamins, even a food supplement. The oil from the kernel is for industrial use.

When the oil palm was introduced to Sarawak as a commercial crop in the late 1960s, not many knew that it was going to be a most valuable crop for the world in the following century.

In Miri, the Borneo Development Corporation (BDC) started a plantation, followed by the Sarawak Land Development Board planting palms on land cleared next door at Peninjau.

As the secretary of the SLDB (1972-I974), I used to visit that part of Miri District for the purpose of troubleshooting and making sure that SLDB’s plantations at Peninjau and Sungai Tangit were in good hands.

It was during one of those visits that I bumped into one boy, whose parents were originally from my village in Lundu. He is Hollis Awell.

To digress a bit, his father, Herrick Awell, was a senior officer in the Land and Survey Department in Kuching. By chance I also met another Lundu boy by the name of Sabri Ali (we called him Katon).

To digress again, Katon’s father was from Kuching but had been in Lundu working as the government wireless operator. How could I ever forget about Pak Ali with his finger tapping on the Morse Code sending telegrams out and his mouth red with the pinang (betel nut) that he was chewing. A generous soul, he was.

I mention names of the two planters because when you talk about oil palm planting in Borneo, these two Sarawak boys can be considered as the pioneer planters of oil palms in the state. They were trained to be good planters in Sabah and worked for a British plantation company in Tawau.

I had traced their whereabouts in Sabah from their family members at home. When I visited Tawau at the invitation of the manager of Bal Estate, Walker, I had a plan to pinch the boys for Sarawak Land Development Board but I failed in my mission. SLDB would not be able to pay the salaries equivalent to what they were getting from BDC.

So SLDB under the chairmanship of Wan Habib Wan Mahmud had to go to Peninsular Malaysia to hunt for experienced planters from the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda). There were a number of Sarawak boys working for Felda, Wan Habib being one of them. They were also among the first to open up the countryside for oil palm plantations in the peninsula. I remember meeting Benedict Bunsen, Reduan, Tay Choo Foo, Edwin Lau, Leong to mention a few when I went round many Felda schemes.

Later, in 1976, I pinched Edwin Lau to start and manage Salcra’s schemes at Merindun, Lubok Antu.

I mention these names because they were also the pioneers in oil palm industry in Sarawak. The 1970s can be considered as the period when oil palm planting was being intensified in Sarawak.

The role of all these pioneers ought to be remembered for their contribution to the palm oil industry in Sarawak. You can see evidence of their contributions to the economic advancement of the country really in those palm trees throughout Sarawak.

My concerns

I attended a meeting called by the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council early this week in Kuching. I noted that everybody who attended the meeting was enthusiastic about palm oil as a cash crop; for the farmers who have been relying on rubber and pepper as sources of income all this while, the oil palm is another good crop to plant, if there is enough land for it.

I also noted that the smallholders, especially those who plant the palm on land which is not under title, are facing a bureaucratic problem. They are required to possess a licence to sell.

“Does one need a licence to sell durians, langsats, rambutans, dabai from trees planted on NCR land?” a participant sitting behind me was asking himself.

I was keeping quiet as I wanted to hear clarifications from a panel member on the question of sales of FFB (fresh fruit bunches) from the palms planted on NCR land.

I could not figure out what exactly was the answer.

Over such an important matter, there should have been more intensive deliberations among the participants.

There should have been more participative deliberations on the principles and criteria of RSPO as compared to MSPO.

People want to know why the necessity of MSPO when RSPO, being an international standards certification organisation, is what the European buyers of palm oil recognise. My answer to a question relating to this issue was answered with a counter question, which was irrelevant and unproductive.

I had expected to participate in an intensive discussion on this problem with the EU but there was no time for further discussion. Lunch was getting cold.

Some other time, perhaps.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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