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Industry leaders say ban on oil palm crop expansion has jeopardized Rs. 26bn investment

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Representatives of the Palm Oil Industry Association (POIA) Association met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to present an appeal for a pragmatic solution to the impasse created by non-scientific opposition to the cultivation of oil palm, Dr. Rohan Fernando, president of the industry’s apex body, said.

The President’s announcement of a ban on further expansion of the crop has placed a Rs. 26 billion investment in jeopardy, he noted.

“We have presented the facts that respond to the environmental and other concerns expressed by critics, and elaborated on the economic potential of the industry in terms of supporting the government’s efforts to conserve foreign exchange through import substitution, and to generate better wages for plantation workers,” Dr. Fernando told the Association’s AGM last week.

He said that with the re-election of the founder office bearers and committee of the POIA for a second two-year term, business leaders pledged to continue their advocacy in the national interest on behalf of Sri Lanka’s beleaguered palm oil industry.

Palm oil is the most-widely used vegetable oil in the world, meeting 42 per cent of global demand from only 14.8 million hectares of land world-wide, while Soya Bean, the No. 2 crop, meets only 29.8 per cent of the global oil demand from 103.8 million hectares of land, he elaborated.

He said the current mean national yield of coconut oil is 0.8 MT per hectare in contrast to the global mean palm oil yield of 3.8 – 4.0 MT per hectare, which means that five times more land needs to be allocated to produce an equivalent volume of coconut oil.

A worker employed in an oil palm plantation earns an average of over Rs. 60,000 per month, which is more than twice the wages of a worker employed on a tea or rubber plantation, Dr Fernando said. “Therefore, cultivating oil palm is one strategy to address low worker wages within permissible limits and oil palm is also an economically-viable crop for smallholders.”

He added that the opportunity for import substitution is also immense in Sri Lanka as the country imports almost 220,000 MT of palm oil per year.

“We produce only around 25,000 MT of palm oil per year and coconut oil cannot meet the balance demand. An increase in local palm oil production could enable a foreign exchange saving in the region of approximately Rs 30 billion”, he further said.

The Association has repeatedly stressed that the campaign against oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka is based on untruths, half-truths, misrepresentation and panic-mongering and that the country’s oil palm cultivation is a case study for guilt-free palm oil, Dr. Fernando continued.

Lessons learnt from the mistakes of other countries have been implemented in a slow and measured expansion of oil palm cultivation over the past 50 years, with no deforestation, no habitat loss and no adverse environmental or climate impacts scientifically attributable to the crop, he added.

Addressing the most common argument used against oil palm, he said: “Critics allege that cultivation of oil palm has affected rainfall in Galle, Kalutara and other districts. However, in the last several years rainfall in these districts has increased and caused flooding, which clearly shows that there has been no drop in rainfall in any of these districts. On the contrary, rainfall has drastically reduced in the last 10 years in the Nuwara Eliya and Kandy Districts, where there is no oil palm cultivated.”

“We remain hopeful that the President will favourably consider the Association’s request to permit the planting of saplings legitimately imported by plantation companies in response to the 2014 Cabinet decision during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency to expand the extent under oil palm cultivation up to 20,000 hectares”, he said.

The POIA represents cultivators as well as refiners, processors, manufacturers, marketers and sellers of palm oil and other products of the oil palm, who have cumulatively invested Rs 26 billion in the industry.

Sri Lanka has less than 11,000 hectares under oil palm – just over 1 per cent of the extents under tea, rubber and coconut – and plantation companies had been mandated by a government decision in 2014, to increase the total area under oil palm to 20,000 hectares under strictly-enforced guidelines that ensure the industry is environmentally non-invasive, before the government back-pedalled on the plan, leaving companies with oil palm saplings to the value of Rs. 500 million in nurseries.

The office bearers and executive committee re-elected at the POIA AGM for 2020-22 comprises Dr. Rohan Fernando (President), Vish Govindasamy and Sajjad Mawzoon (Vice Presidents), Mrs Oshadhi Kodisinghe (Secretary), Ravi Jayatilleke (Treasurer) and Messrs Gayan Samarakone, Bhathiya Bulumulla, Lalith Obeyesekere, Thishan Karunasena, Manjula Narayana, Manoj Udugampola and Binesh Pananwala.

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Special COVID-19 probe crippled by infections among CCD sleuths: AG calls for new police team

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Brandix Apparel Limited yesterday (29) said that the company would fully cooperate with relevant authorities in the investigation ordered by the Attorney General (AG). A spokesperson for the company said so when The Island sought a clarification with regard to AG Dappula de Livera, PC, directing the police to launch a criminal investigation into the alleged lapses on the part of the company as well as those officials leading to the devastating COVID-19 outbreak.

The Minuwangoda eruption, which happened in the first week of October is widely believed to be the cause of the fast expanding Peliyagoda cluster.

Asked whether the police had contacted the Brandix management as regards the investigation and sought access to Brandix management and workers at its Minuwangoda apparel manufacturing facility as well as records at the Minuwangoda facility, the spokesperson said: “We will work with the relevant authorities in this regard”.

The Colombo Crime Division (CCD) tasked with the probe has suffered a serious setback due to a section of its officers being tested positive for COVID-19. Authoritative sources said that the CCD lacked sufficient strength to carry out the investigation.

AG de Livera early this week told DIG Ajith Rohana that a progress report should be submitted to him by or before Nov. 13.

Sources said that the badly depleted CCD was not in a position to conduct the high-profile investigation, in addition to other ongoing inquiries. The AG has directed the Acting IGP to constitute a special team of law enforcement officers to conduct the investigation. Sources acknowledged the urgent need for a thorough inquiry into the far worse second corona wave. Sources said that the AG issued fresh instructions in that regard after the crisis in the CCD was brought to his notice.

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Most garment workers under self-quarantine left to fend for themselves

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A large number of garment workers who were undergoing self-quarantine in Minuwangoda did not receive any assistance, Chamila Thushari of the Dabindu Collective, a labour organisation that works with garment workers, told The Island yesterday.

She said that those who were under self-quarantine did not have money to purchase food and even those who were willing to help could not reach them.

“Some of them have received food parcels from their work places but that is not adequate. Most others have not received any assistance. Matters will only get worse after curfew is imposed throughout the Western Province,” Thushari said.

Most of these workers are undergoing self-quarantine at their boarding places, which also house individuals who still work in garment factories. “Although there is a curfew, they can go to work. These are perfect incubators for the virus,” she said.

Thushari said that every day between 20-30 workers under self-quarantine, tested positive for COVID-19.

There were no public health inspectors to monitor the boarding houses of garment workers to ensure that COVID-19 prevention measures were being followed, she said.

“Not even Grama Niladaris visit them,” Chamila said.

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SJB requests separate seats for its dissidents

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Chief Opposition Whip and Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella has written to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena requesting him to make arrangements to provide separate seats to the nine MPs who had voted with the government for the 20th Amendment to the Constitution recently.

The letter dated yesterday said that the SJB parliamentary group had decided to expel MPs Diana Gamage, A. Aravind Kumar, Ishak Rahuman, Faisal Cassim, H. M. M. Haris, M.S. Thowfeeq, Nazeer Ahmed, A.A.S.M. Raheem and S.M.M. Musharaf and it requests the Speaker to make separate seating arrangements for these MPs in the Chamber.

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