Monday, November 28

SOPPOA’s Position on the WETLANDS Article (Feb 1, 2011)


SOPPOA (Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association) represents most of the Oil Palm Planters in Sarawak. They plant oil palm in any arable land suitable for oil palm.

We do not dispute the facts that we have planted 330,669 ha of oil palm in peat areas. There are some sago, rubber, paddy, pineapple and other mixed horticulture planted in our peatland too.

Our peatland has high contents of C and N as well as other nutrients. It also has good water holding capacity, cation exchange capacity (CEC) and high moisture content making it very ideal for agriculture development.

So it is because of these that Sarawak is targeting at 750,000 hectares, out of 1.69 million hectares of peatland for oil palm cultivation. Our planters have managed to get an average yield of about 25 – 30 tonnes per hectare of FFB (Fresh Fruit Bunches) from a well-managed matured oil palm plantation on peatlands. The yield per hectare in peatland areas are about 20 per cent more of the average yield of the mineral soil plantation areas in Sarawak.

The recent field visit by Marcel Silvus, Head of Programme and Strategy of Wetlands International and Faizal Parish, Head of Global Environmental Centre (GEC) to an oil palm plantation on peat in Sarawak on January 19, can well attest to this.

They had also participated in the Forum on Sustainable Palm Oil on Peat sponsored by the RSPO Peatland Working Group who is developing the Framework for RSPO Best Management Practices (BMP) for Cultivation of Oil Palm on Tropical Peat.

It is most humiliating and inappropriate for Wetlands International (WI) and Sarvision to compare the rate of forest loss of the Entire Asia with Sarawak based on Hansen et al, 2010 studies.

From the forest map (Hansen et al 2010) provided in the study, we can see that almost 90 per cent of Asia is already deforested i.e. China, India, Pakistan, Middle East and Central Asia Countries.

Most of Central Asia comprises desert and mountain areas. It is safe to say that ONLY about five per cent forest is left in Asia if we take off the Siberian Boreal Forest area. In these Boreal Forest of Siberia (Russia) where it is covered with snow almost 90 per cent of the time, it would be difficult to practice any form of agriculture and also impossible to plant rapeseed or oil palm.

Figure 1. Estimated percentage forest cover, 2000 (Hansen et al 2010)

In comparison, Sarawak has more than 80 per cent of its area covered with forest. Its 80 per cent has a long way to reach the deforestation status of Asia.

Since the studies by Wetlands International/Sarvision and were sponsored by the Netherlands Government, so we would be using the land use of Netherlands as a benchmark to compare with Sarawak.

Table 1 Land use Percentage of Netherlands and Sarawak

Figure 2 Land uses of Netherlands and Sarawak

Deforestation Index of Netherland (90) and Sarawak (15)

Netherlands has deforested almost 90 per cent of its land, so there is only about 10 per cent of the land area under forest. They had utilised almost 60 per cent of their area for agriculture especially for pasture land for their dairy farming which produces methane gas which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Under the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a forest is an area of land 0.5 – 1 hectare having more than 30 per cent canopy cover and having a potential height of 2 – 5 metres.

Using this definition, oil palm plantation can be classified as a forest plantation. So the conclusion of deforestation in Sarawak by Wetlands International and Sarvision interpretation is inaccurate because the area under oil palm forest has not been deforested but only undergone changes in species, from trees to palm trees.

Wetlands International and the Dutch Government must be having a different definition of “deforestation”. An area is “deforested” if the forest area is replaced by grassland for pasture or rapeseed for oil as they are mostly annuals and these replacements will not meet the UNFCCC definition of forest tree.

Sarvision actually cited the use of UNFCCC definition of forest cover in their paper on the “Impact of oil palm plantation on peatland conversion in Sarawak 2005-2010” (Sarvision 2011). They must have been confused that the oil palm trees which fits the UNFCCC definition as rapeseed???

From the table above, it is observed that the biodiversity of Sarawak is much better than any other countries in the world as Sarawak still has more than 70 per cent covered by tropical forest. Sarawak high forest biodiversity is actually of non-comparable with the rest of Asia and Netherland.

Peatland Utilisation in Netherlands and Sarawak

Netherland has over the years mined 97 per cent of their peatlands for energy and horticulture. Today, Netherland only has 5,000 hectares of peatland left. The lakes created by peat mining are now being used for sport, recreation, and eco-tourism.

In comparison, Sarawak has developed only 30 per cent of its peatland but as planting medium for oil palm. The peatland is still maintain and not mined for both energy and horticulture. An area of 750,000 ha has been allocated for oil palm cultivation which is less than 50 per cent of the available 1.69 million hectares of peatland in Sarawak.

Socio-economic benefit of oil palm plantation Industry to Sarawak

It is the prerogative of any Government to develop its land resource for the socio-economic benefits of its people. The State of Sarawak targets to develop 25 per cent (3.5 Mha) of its land area for agriculture use.

With the oil palm plantation having a yield of 25-30 tonnes of FFB per hectare and the current price, the revenue generated per hectare can be RM17,500 (US$5,800). Assuming, a development of 750,000 hectares of fully matured oil palm plantation, it can potentially generate RM13.5 billion (US$4.5 billion) per year.

For illustration purposes, a million hectare of oil palm plantation with a yield of 25 tonnes per hectare can produce FFB of 25 million tonnes generating a revenue of about RM 18 billion (US$6 billion). The plantation industry will be employing about 50,000 workers, 10,000 supervisory and professionals and have a multiplying effect of about four times.

The downstream industries from the CPO mills, refinery and other downstream industries will also be employing more high income jobs such as engineers, lawyers, accountant, bankers, teachers, academicians, scientist, researchers, economist and many high capacity jobs which requires higher competency in the oil and fats industry.

Sarawak has a lot of young human capital who are now in the higher institutions who will be seeking employment in the future so that they can reach the level of affluence that the Dutch has enjoyed today through developing their peatlands among others.

If Netherlands wants Sarawak to save the remaining Forestland from any agriculture development, they need to compensate at least US$6,000 per hectare per year.

Many attempts have been made to explain this to the WENGOs like Wetlands International who are based in Netherlands.

The common answer is that we cannot blame them (The Dutch) for the sins of their forefathers. We say it would be a greater sin if we do not develop our arable land for the future generation who would otherwise have no chance of tasting the affluence achieved by Netherland today and in the future.

Should Sarawakians continue to live in systemic poverty forever???

Carbon Emission Per Capita

Netherland’s CO2 emission is about 10.5 Mton per capita, which is more than double that of Malaysia. Again, in comparison, Sarawak has more than 70 per cent of its area under forest cover. The Sarawak State Government’s policy is to maintain around 50 per cent of its area under forest cover. The State had utilised only 13 per cent of its land mass for agriculture, and still has a large area of forest land reserves in order to meet the same benchmark as Netherland.

Where is the morality of the Netherland Government and its NGOs when it is so clear that the Sarawak land use is much better than Netherland?

They have the option to do afforestation and reforestation on their peatland and other land areas to at least 50 per cent forest cover before telling others to do otherwise.

Emission of CO2 from Peatland Areas

In case of the logged over peat swamp forest of Sarawak, Alexandra Morel from University of Oxford, had estimated the above ground carbon to be about 50 – 80 tonnes per hectare of timber. The mean volume of deforested forest will be approximately 60 tonnes per hectare. Thus the bone dry biomass of the wood per hectare is about 50 per cent of the green biomass which makes it equal to 30 tonnes of wood containing lignin, cellulose and other extractives.

It is estimated that these bone dry biomass has 50 per cent C content. So the C content per hectare of a logged over peatland terrestrial biomass is about 15tonnes of C per hectare (1 tonne of C being equal to 3.67 tonne of CO2). Thus one hectare peatland terrestrial biomass would produce about 15 x 3.67 = 55 tonne equivalent of CO2.

Every year, a hectare of an oil palm plantation produces about four tonnes of oil and 36 tonnes of biomass (fronds, fruit bunches etc.). This 40 tonnes of green biomass is equivalent to 20 tonnes of dry biomass. The carbon content will be almost 50 per cent of the dry biomass, thus equivalent to 10 tonnes of elemental carbon.

This 10 tonnes of C will be equal to 36.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. So there can be an annual sequestration of about 36.7 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. So for a logged over forest with about 55 tonnes CO2 equivalent would take 55/36.7 = 1.5 years for an average mature oil palm plantation to capture the emitted carbon from its original forest stand. Therefore for, every 1.5 years, a plantation can capture the same amount of above ground biomass carbon loss from the logged over peatland forest.

We can logically see that oil palm plantation is a net “Carbon sink” and play a very important role in the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Wetland International had assumed that tropical peat release huge emission of carbon dioxide. They estimated that the peat under oil palm plantation would decompose and emit 50 – 70 tonnes CO2 (or even more) per year. So in one life cycle of 25 years of oil palm, the total emission would be more than 1,500 tonnes CO2 and 2 cycles of oil palm plantation would be about 3000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the peat.

Based on their assumptions, our calculation shows that after 50 years, the peatland will subside by 3 metres. There is no well- managed oil palm plantation in Malaysia that has subsided by 3 metres. The reality does not meet the theory and assumptions used by Wetland International.

Based on Wetland International assumption, in 25 years there would be at least one metre in subsidence. Theoretically, the Wetlands International scientists are correct if they assumed that oil palm can grow on peatland with a low bulk density of 0.08 g/cm3.

But in reality, no perennial agricultural crop can anchor itself on such a soft soil with a bulk density of less than 0.20 g/cm3 because of insufficient bearing capacity. Any perennial crop will topple and suffer anaerobiosis.

Responsible agriculturist can advise Wetland International scientists that it needs a bulk density of more than 0.20 g/cm3 for roots to anchor the plant and provide enough bearing capacity and water holding capacity.

Thus drainage and compaction allows the roots to breathe and grow. The subsidence is more due to compaction and consolidation of the peatland during land preparation for oil palm plantation instead of decomposition.

We welcome the International group of scientists to verify the CO2 emission on the use of peat in Netherland versus the use of peatland for oil palm in Sarawak.

Loss of unique species

Wetland International had also been quite audacious, irresponsible and naïve to state the existence of Borneo Pygmy elephant Elephasmaximusborneensis), the Sumatran Rhino Dicerorhinussumatrensis), the Bornean Clouded Leopard (Neofelisdiardiborneensis), and the Malayan Tapir (Tapirusindicus) are in a peat swamp.

We all know, for those who have been to the peat swamp that these areas are not habitat for these animals because their bulk density is ONLY about 0.05 – 0.08 g cm3. In their haste to “demonised” palm oil, they may have been confused with Borneo Pygmy elephant as “water buffalo” and the Sumatran Rhino as a “hippopotamus”.

Biofuel Issue

Based on the price trend of fossil fuel versus biodiesel in the last 5 years, it is noted that the price of vegetable oil is twice the price of crude oil. Currently the price of crude oil is about US$100 per barrel whereby the equivalent price of vegetable oil is US$250 per barrel. Thus it is illogical that vegetable oil will be converted to biofuel in order to compete with fossil fuel. It doesn’t make any economic sense.

With the shortage of vegetable oil today, we are now experiencing a big increase in palm oil prices. The World Bank says food prices are at a “dangerous level” and have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since 2010.

The inflation in food prices is felt disproportionately by the poor who spend over half their income on food. The impact of rapid food inflation has triggered riots in a number of countries. The palm oil is the cheapest source of vegetable oil today.

SOPPOA is there to develop and increase the supply of this nutritious and affordable vegetable oil to humanity.

Statement released by
Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association
February 28, 2011