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Oil Palm Elephant and the Blind Men



Various unsubstantiated utterances have been made by some on oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka, without looking in depth into the subject. Little knowledge is a dangerous thing! A leading politician, in the south, some months ago, prior to the elections, went to the extent of felling a few oil palm trees along a stream bank, probably growing out of seeds dispersed by birds and animals from existing plantations around. He was, of course, seeking to impress villagers in the oil palm cultivating areas ,prior to the elections! Some villagers have been vociferously demanding the banning of the crop, claiming that it is drying up their water resources, although the available scientific evidence does not support their contention. Anyhow, they have now succeeded with the President banning the crop without an in- depth analysis of the issues at stake!

Interestingly, the Government Medical Officers’ Association, some days ago, conducted a seminar on coconut oil, but the unstated objective appeared to be to promote coconut oil and concurrently degrade palm oil! However, except for a few presentations, that of a historian and several Aurvedic specialists, the others failed to articulate effectively a factual comparison of the two crops and their oils.

A lecturer of the Wayamba University ‘sang the usual song’ of oil palm cultivations excessively drying the soil and water bodies as against rubber, without supporting data. He should have conducted a comparative hydrological study of an exclusively oil palm cultivated area as against a nearby rubber only area to support his contention. The published comparative evapo-transpiration evidence of oil palm and rubber do not support his views. A biochemist (a retired professor) comparing the chemical composition of fatty acids in coconut and palm oil stated the virtues of coconut oil fats, but hardly anything about palm oil fats. It is a well known fact that coconut oil is a functional food , that means it has health benefits other than the nutritional. Its main health benefit is the high composition of the so called medium chain fatty acids, lauric, capric and caproic acids, which constitute nearly 63% of the total fatty acid content. Lauric and capric acids are reported to have anti-microbial properties. In fact lauric acid is also a component of mother’s milk and is reported to provide suckling babies immunity against harmful microbes. On the other hand, some coconut fats namely, lauric, myristic and palmetic acids comprising about 74% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are reported to elevate cholesterol. It is to be noted then that lauric acid is doing both good and bad! On the other hand, palm oil lacks the medium chain fatty acids, there being only a trace of lauric acid and accounts for about 46% cholesterol elevating saturated fats, nearly all of it being palmetic acid. Nevertheless, it has 39% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and 9% lenoleic acid, an unsaturated fat both of which reduce total cholesterol. It is important to note that the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, in palm oil, as also in avocado and cashew nuts, decrease only the (bad) LDL cholesterol but not the good (HDL) cholesterol. Palm kernel oil on the other hand, comprising less than 10% of the total oil content in the fruit, has a fatty acid composition, very comparable to coconut oil. On the whole, therefore, palm oil can be argued to be more heart friendly than coconut oil! Regrettably, the good professor should have explained all this to the participants of the meeting! However, it is now accepted that consumption of coconut oil in moderation does not elevate the risk of heart disease. The same applies to palm oil.

The professor, however, was on the whole, sceptical of oil palm and one of his hacks was on tree trunk’s use as timber, a common practice in many oil palm growing countries. He stated that the trees are harvested only about every 25 years, and, therefore, the factories will have to remain closed most of the time! Is he not aware that coconut timber is harvested only every 60-80 years, but the coconut timber mills function throughout because all timber harvesting, whether oil palm or coconut, is not done at any one time!

One of the agenda items of the GMOA Seminar is felicitation of Dr D P Athukorale, a well-known cardiologist. I should add a word on my association with him in defending coconut oil consumption in the 1990s when I was Chairman of the Coconut Research Board. However, my first interaction with him dates back to 1983 when, I consulted him for high blood lipids, having returned from Brazil, spending one year on a World Bank mission, and eating beef steak regularly and lavishly! Dr Athukorale’s advice was then, amongst other things, to cut down on my saturated fat intake including coconut oil!

A decade later, when I took over the appointment as Chairman of the Coconut Research Board, one of the first things I came across was the above poster which had been widely distributed the world over! Coconut and palm oils were then accused as ” artery-clogging tropical oils”! Naturally, I was highly disturbed and began digging into the literature on the subject and educating myself on the impact of coconut oil on cardio-vascular diseases.

The history of it is that coconut and palm oil were the main vegetable oils used in the U.S and Europe prior to the World War 11. However, when vegetable oil shipments from SE Asia were disrupted due to the war, the west naturally looked for alternative oil sources and hit upon soya and corn oils. In fact at that time soya oil was used for making paint amongst other uses, but hardly as a dietary oil! With the war ending, and coconut oil shipments arriving again in the U.S and Europe, the soya lobby with the support of the American Heart Association, launched a massive misinformation campaign against coconut and palm oils, as depicted in the poster. The Ancel Keys diet- heart hypothesis, that was propounded by then, that saturated fats elevate cholesterol, leading to coronary vascular diseases, was widely accepted in the U.S and Europe, and people avoided consuming saturated fat. The misinformation campaign was so effective, it was said that the people were more scared of saturated fat than ghosts! The soya lobby, backed by the American Heart Association even attempted to ban import of tropical oils . As a consequence, the U.S government appointed a Senate Sub Committee to investigate into the complaint. However, the Coconut Authority of the Philippines hired a team of experts comprising cardiologists and other specialists from the Harvard Medical College to defend against the proposed ban. The team successfully argued the case pointing out that, apart from other evidence, whereas there were then 227 deaths for every 100,000 Americans due to cardiovascular diseases, there were only 22 Philippines, and the coconut oil content was less 1% in the US diet as against 6% in the Philippine’s!. In that setting it should have been natural for our doctors too to fall in line with the western thinking on saturated fats!

When we (CRI) started our campaign promoting coconut in 1994 , I approached Dr Athukorale, feeding him with new scientific information on coconut oil I had collected. We jointly had a TV programme in Rupavahini and also several seminars including ones in the Colombo and Peradeniya Medical Faculties explaining matters. Prof. Shanthi Mendis, cardiologist, then with the Medical Faculty, University of Peradeniya who had conducted controlled trials feeding coconut oil as against corn oil to subjects, was initially rather cautious with coconut oil consumption, but later came round taking up the position that, consumed in moderation, its risk was minimal!

Things have taken a U turn in the last two decades, in that coconut oil, one of the two so called “artery-clogging tropical oils”, has become the ‘ darling oil’ of the west’ and palm oil is present in nearly 50% of the processed food items in the supermarket!

In conclusion, the global demand for vegetable oils is increasing with increasing population and affluence. Oil palm’s comparative advantage is its extremely high oil productivity with a global average of 3.5 t/ha as against 1t/ha or less for coconut and all other oils. About 43% of the global vegetal oil supply is from oil palm, and it will continue to be the world’s highest oil supplier. Because of increasing demand for food but agricultural land limitations, there is a global trend of replacing less productive and profitable crops with the more profitable, and in this regard too oil palm’s vantage position as an oil crop cannot be matched. We produce only 50,000 MT of coconut oil whereas our vegetable oil demand is in excess of 200,000 MT; and even with substantial expansion of the coconut cover, the oil demand cannot be matched. There is thus a need to expand the oil palm cultivation to at least 50,000 ha to meet our oil requirement. The concurrent foreign exchange savings will be substantial. There is no evidence of environmental damage if the needed land is provided by replacing rubber. The small farmers are abandoning rubber cultivation because of low profit margins, and the net profit from oil palm is several fold that from rubber. Ideally, therefore, oil palm cultivation should be introduced to smallholders, too, as in other countries.

Dr. Parakrama Waidyaratne

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The lasting curse of Janasathu



Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.


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Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions



I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!


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Need for best relations with China



(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future


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