Oil Palm in Sarawak


It has been some years since I met Jog Stewart but he was one of the first people to have planted oil palm in Sarawak, in the early seventies.

The Scotsman was working for the Commonwealth Develop­ment Corporation, which was once called the Colonial Devel­opment Corporation and the plantation was in Lambir.

It happened that he was the first chairman of the Miri branch of the Incorporated Society of Planters and as the national chairman it was my pleasure to pay him a visit.

Miri was a sleepy oil town. It went quiet very early.

The planters were however quite noisy, joined by some jun­ior assistants and other planters who were in the Sarawak Land Development Board, including Mazlan Ahmad and a research man called Richard Tiong.

The efforts of the two com­panies gave oil palm a start in Sarawak, and being new, it had many problems, including the siege of nettle caterpillars Setora Nitens and Darna Trima which ate the leaves and threatened to kill the trees, until they were brought under control by the efforts of Richard Tiong and the planters.

But oil palm had a good growth record after that and my next encounter with the crop in Sarawak was in the early 1990’s when Sarawak Land Consolida­tion and Rehabilitation Author­ity (Salcra) began planting on NCR land.

The Asian Development Bank loan was conditional on Salcra using the advice of an experi­enced planter.

So that was how Sandy Ander­son came out of retirement from St Andrew’s in Scotland and ar­rived to serve as adviser based in Saratok, giving the benefit of his experience of many years in Sime Darby on opening up land and planting of oil palm.

This time instead of Peninsu­lar Malaysia it was in Sarawak and he had to do it differently.

He had to learn Iban quickly and spent long hours in the longhouse to persuade the owners to participate by leasing their lands to Salcra.

­ I once went with Anderson to visit Rumah Barau and sat on the floor while he explained patiently the wealth that oil palm could bring.

I have written about it in my book ‘Planter Upriver’, and it is a joy to recall the memory now, although at the time it was stressful for we had deadlines to meet.

He had a bigger problem however, with Edwin Lau a strong-willed manager, who was backed by his general manager Dennis Lang.

There was one point that stuck out in my mind and it was when Anderson insisted on a wide road with a thick layer of gravel and Edwin felt it would cost too much.

As Anderson’s adviser in Sime Darby, I had to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, take the ferry to Sarikei and then by road to Saratok and arrived to cool things down.

But of course Anderson was right, for with the high rainfall of about 4,000mm a year, one just had to have a good road with stones or else all would turn to mud.

Finally they saw his point and so did the many Ibans who at first had refused to join.

Now of course plantations have spread.

Now I am often on the road to Sri Aman and then onwards to Sibu, Mukah, Bintulu, and Miri.

I am delighted to see oil palm on either side, with dark green leaves, and the fruit lorries roar where the timber lorries used to run.

When I visit a mill, it is even more pleasing to see the new Hilux pick-ups owned by Iban vil­lagers and the sight of husband and wife working hard to unload the fruit to the ramp after having gone over the weighbridge.

This prosperity was unimagi­nable when I first saw Sarawak in 1961, as a deck passenger from Singapore to Sibu.

With a team of classmates from the Royal Military College, we went upriver by boat provided by the British army to Kanowit, and then Julau to live among the longhouses.

We reached them in canoes and stepped up the ladders of logs.

Now many houses are made of bricks and roads have of course reached Julau.

They pass an oil palm planta­tion, which of course was not there before.

By 2010 oil palm had covered 919,418 hectares in Sarawak, second only to Sabah which had 1,409,676 hectares (Source: MPOB).

Crude palm oil production has gone up over the years with only 520,236 tonnes in 2000 to 2,179,601 tonnes in 2010.

The prices for palm oil went up from RM2,454.50 in January 2010 to RM3,571.00 by December.

Palm kernel production had also risen from 122,582 tonnes in 2000 to 458,805 tonnes in 2010 an increase of nearly four times in ten years.

Prices of palm kernel have also doubled in 2010 from around RM1,300 in January to around RM2,600 in December.

The 50 mills in the state compete to buy fruit from the growers.

Thus I can see the impact of oil palm on the population like timber, rubber or pepper never had, and yet I can feel that this is only the beginning.

Because of the preponderance of undulating or peat areas covered by palms, the yields in Sarawak are still low.

Unlike in other states, Sarawak has the NCR policy and villagers have the best areas for agriculture.

Allowing for gardening and padi land, perhaps there are one million hectares avail­able, and doubtless all will be planted one day as the world demand keeps increasing for food and for fuel.

I hope that day is not too far away, and when it happens, the yield will at last match the other states where the most suitable areas have been planted.

Here the most fertile areas can contribute to the boom in agriculture.

Can Sarawak be the state with the biggest production of palm oil? The state’s stability and fertility of the land are of course big plus factors, and the new planting materials can give higher yields.

The villagers have kept back their land until now, and when they change their minds, I am sure they can find some good partners in the planting indus­try.

The best days are yet to come.