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Oil Palm Expansion – In Retrospect

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The recent Policy Statement of the President has made the Government’s position on expansion of oil palm cultivation very clear. It will have to be stopped. This statement marks the culmination of a period of great uncertainty on the future of oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka. The former President too made similar remarks on banning oil palm cultivation, but whether there was a legal instrument to implement that decision was unclear. Now it is final.

It would be pertinent to examine the circumstances that led to the expansion of oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka. Oil palm had been planted at Nakiyadeniya Estate near Galle in the late 1960s and gradually expanded to about 2,500 ac. A factory to extract oil was also established. With the land reforms, the State Plantations Corporation (SPC) took over the management of this estate. SPC realised there was no research support for this crop. Following some problems attributed to a disease, the writer was requested by the late Lincoln Perera of SPC to visit the estate and look at the problems. It was my first visit to Nakiyadeniya Estate, and had a guided tour within the estate by Livera, the Superintendent. Whilst the matter of the ‘disease’ was soon sorted out, I was amused and curious to see many people, both men and women (but more women), walking about the estate in a strange costume – a closer examination revealed they were wearing gunny bags. On inquiry, I was told that they were ‘pollinators’, and Livera kindly showed me the process of pollination. These hapless workers would manually climb the trees, and the gunny bags provided protection from the thorny stem of the tree. They would then use a puffer to pollinate the bunch. The process is done ad nauseam. That is how they produced oil palm fruits for extraction of oil.

I was still struck by what I saw, and while driving back remembered reading on an insect that is being used to pollinate oil palm in South America and South East Asia. I managed to retrieve the paper, and having read through it, informed Lincoln Perera about the pollinating weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus. I think he immediately conveyed this message to the Chairman, SPC, the late Ranjan Wijeratne who requested me to meet him – and a detailed inquisitive discussion on the content of the research paper followed. Based on the scientific evidence presented, he decided to import the insect. I then briefed him on the animal and plant quarantine regulations. Following ministerial level discussions, the Quarantine Division of the Department of Agriculture issued a permit to import the insect, and asked the Coconut Research Institute to carry out post-entry quarantine under their supervision.

I was able to arrange the introduction of the insect via the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control, England (now called Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau). One of its Principal Scientists, Dr Peter Ooi from CIBC, Malaysia, personally carried a laboratory-bred consignment of about 700 pupae (inactive immature form before the adult insect) to Sri Lanka. Of this, about 200 pupae were retained by the Quarantine for their own testing. About 300 pupae were found to be dead or moribund and were destroyed. The balance 200 were quarantined at the CRI and extensively researched under the supervision of the Quarantine Division of the Dept. of Agriculture. Within about a month, it was possible to raise about 4,000 adult weevils. After approval from the Quarantine authorities, this consignment was released in a block at Nakiyadeniya Estate in January 1987, after Wijeratne personally released the first batch.

The results were spectacular – within several months, the yield increased by about 400% as the insect is able to move inside the oil palm bunch and pollinate deep-seated flowers. And SPC stopped using manual pollinators – which was a welcome relief to all – and used them for other productive work. SPC’s palm oil production rapidly increased, and the factory was working full-time. In due course, there was interest to expand cultivation in satellite estates within SPC in Elpitiya, Baddegama, Neluwa areas. SPC obtained permission to import high-yielding oil palm seeds from the Pacific Islands – they were quarantined under the joint supervision of the Dept, of Agriculture and the CRI in an estate in Neluwa.

Thus, came the interest to expand oil palm. The Regional Plantation Companies were keen – as oil palm produces the highest amount of oil per unit area of land, and is much more profitable given the lower cost of production. The RPCs saw the economic potential in reducing import of vegetable oils, as the country had to import about 50% of its edible oil requirement. The decision of RPCs to expand the oil palm area was also triggered by lack of profitability from rubber, which has been struggling to maintain adequate profits in spite of increasing local value addition. As a result, the area under rubber has decreased significantly – from about 200,000 ha in the 1970s to about 125,000 ha today. Productivity has been low, and RRI laments that its agronomic recommendations are not properly followed. The outlook is continuing disinterest in rubber. Added to this imbroglio is the gradual reduction of coconut oil production as coconut, at last, is getting value added by conversion to powder and packaged milk – a welcome development as we have been struggling to get away from the traditional copra and oil extraction. The RPCs continued its gradual expansion of oil palm, and a second factory was established.

The then Government in 2016 decided to expand oil palm cultivation up to 20,000 ha, and the cultivation to be done only in uncultivated lands, marginal lands, abandoned lands and cultivated lands which have completed the economic life span. It also permitted crop diversification up to 20,000 ha. Presumably, this decision was evidence-based, for most of the literature on issues highlighted now were available then. Consequently, RPCs invested heavily on importing seeds and raising seedlings, which are now ready for the field. If these are not planted, the loss is estimated to be about Rs 500 million.

It would appear that the government’s decision to stop expanding oil palm is based on a report by the Central Environmental Authority (2018). The report has been commissioned as a result of ‘complaints on oil palm’ received by the CEA. However, these complaints are not annexed to the Report. The report is a collection of sector reports. Due to lack of local research, the report relies on research studies done elsewhere in the world where forests or peat bogs have been cleared for oil palm cultivation. The report does not contain the viewpoints of the main stakeholder, the Regional Plantation Companies.

This report could have examined issues more deeply, and avoid naïve statements. The report highlights issues (generated from secondary data/information) of high water use, changing weather pattern, soil erosion and compaction, high fertiliser use compared to rubber, higher evapotranspiration than rubber, effluent discharge issues, effects on vertebrate biodiversity and negative impact on industries and employment in general. On impacts on biodiversity due to the changes of land uses, it concludes: ‘loss of Biodiversity in areas covered by oil palms and also that some species such as snakes have increased their populations (sic). In addition the soil has dried up in these areas as well. … encourage planting coconut in the marginal lands other than the oil Palm.’ The report also states that according to ‘informants’, ‘floods are more frequent during the rainy season, and occur sooner after rainfall events than in the past, when forests and rubber plantations covered the area’. The Coconut Research Institute, which has been mandated to research on oil palm, recommends planting of oil palm in certain agro ecological zones with added precautions.

The respected Agronomist, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha, in an open letter to the President, draws his attention to the shortcomings of the Report, in particular its recommendations. Professor Asoka Nugawela, who was previously Director of RRI, provides a different scenario. On the key question of high water use, which appears to be the main complaint of the communities, water use in oil palm (34,860 litres/ha) is only slightly higher than rubber (31,500 litres/ha). He contends that given the rainfall in the areas, there cannot be a water deficit. He also highlights an important observation, not found in the CEA report, that oil palm fixes a high amount of carbon dioxide. Contrary to the CEA Report, the Centre for Environmental Justice has presented a very balanced policy paper. Whilst acknowledging the various issues, it also highlights the benefits to the country, and concludes, quite rightly, that no ad hoc decisions should be made by the plantation companies or by the politicians without following the proper investigations, research and adequate safeguards.

The Presidential policy directive has caused much disquiet in the investor sector. Decisions of this nature have long-standing consequences. Investors will be very cautious to approach similar projects, even with Government’s full blessing as has been the case in oil palm. The decision on oil palm should have been made on sound scientific and socio-economic investigations. We have enough expertise to undertake such studies, and funding agencies such as the Council for Agricultural Research Policy (which should have priority on this issue), the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation are few where the Government could request launching an integrated multi-sectoral research programme to gather evidence on oil palm cultivation and its effects on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and communities.

If a ban on oil palm expansion or replanting is to be imposed, then it is suggested that it be reconsidered with a phased out medium to long term time-line, with an exit strategy detailing the proposed actions for land use once the current stand is uprooted, noting that the life-span of oil palm is relatively short. What would be the future of the two factories? CEA has recommended planting coconut – a review of CRI’s soil classification will reveal that this area in the agroecological Zones WL1 and WL 2 are marginal for coconut. In the meantime, the best option would be to allow RPCs to plant existing seedlings which are maturing in the nurseries, and to launch a comprehensive research programme to seek answers to the questions set out in CEA’s report and elsewhere. A final, well-thought out decision could then be made.

On a different but related topic, whilst commending CEA’s interest on environmental effects of oil palm cultivation, it is submitted that it should also look at environmental issues relating to other crops. For example, it is documented that potato cultivation, particularly in undulating lands in the upcountry, causes serious soil erosion due to frequent soil disturbance; equally, vegetable cultivation in these areas is also known to cause erosion, and more importantly, polluting water-ways with agro-chemicals. Mid-country tea holdings have very little topsoil due to heavy erosion. There are blatant violations of the Soil Conservation Act in the mid and up-country. It is fervently hoped that CEA will look at these issues with the same zest so that the resultant damage to the national economy could be reduced.

 

Dr RANJITH

MAHINDAPALA

 

[The writer was former Director of CRI, former Executive Director of the Council for Agricultural Research Policy, former Country Representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sri Lanka, and the Immediate Past President of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka.]



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Opinion

Right to travel

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A.G. Noorani

VERY few would dispute that travel broadens the mind. But in the developing nations of this world, the state asserts that it can determine whether its citizen has the right to go abroad or not. The supreme court may take its own time to decide whether or not a citizen — even if he or she lives in a country that claims itself to be a democracy — has the right to possess a passport. Even if that is allowed as an essential travel document, the authorities might decide who can use it or who cannot. The government of India, regardless of which party is in power, seems to have assumed the right to decide whether or not to let a chief minister travel abroad.

The victim is the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, who was to speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. But the BJP-ruled government, headed by Narendra Modi, felt that he could not go and did not give him clearance. Its approach was nonsensical.

By now, most of the countries of the Third World have ratified the United Nations. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). This is an international treaty in law while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is, in law, just a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Article 12(2) of the covenant provides that “Everyone shall be free to leave any county including his own” — in other words, there should be no restrictions on travelling abroad.

The covenant sets up a human rights committee of distinguished persons who are not representatives of the government but are individuals of note who have “high moral character” and are elected by the states, who have ratified the covenant.Parties to the covenant have to file reports to the committee on their observance of the stipulations contained within. States send mostly their attorney general to defend their reports. Members of the committee grill representative of the states. They do not publicise much of the report within their own countries or the contents of their reports. Both err on the side of exaggeration.

Unfortunately, civil liberties movements in the Third World are generally not articulate nor well-equipped. The exception that stands out is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in Lahore whose prominent chairperson, the late Mr I.A. Rehman, never failed to stand up for civil rights.

In India, following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election in 1977, a liberal government came to power which ratified the UN covenant in March 1979. They ratified it only with certain conditions but these did not concern Article 21 of the constitution of India that says very clearly that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

The Indian supreme court has ruled that fundamental rights can be exercised outside the country. In 1978, the apex court had to deal with Maneka Gandhi’s case concerning the impounding of her passport. The supreme court held:

“…[F]reedom to go abroad is one of such rights, for the nature of man as a free agent necessarily involves free movement on his part. There can be no doubt that if the purpose and the sense of state is to protect personality and its development, as indeed it should be of any liberal democratic state, freedom to go abroad must be given its due place amongst the basic rights.

“This right is an important basic human right for it nourishes independent and self-determining creative character of the individual, not only by extending his freedoms of action, but also by extending the scope of his experience. It is a right which gives intellectual and creative workers in particular the opportunity of extending their spiritual and intellectual horizon through study at foreign universities, through contact with foreign colleagues and through participation in discussions and conferences.

“The right also extends to private life; marriage, family and friendship are humanities which can be rarely affected through refusal of freedom to go abroad and clearly show that this freedom is a genuine human right.

“Moreover, this freedom would be a highly valuable right where man finds himself obliged to flee: (a) because he is unable to serve his God as he wished at the previous place of residence, (b) because his personal freedom is threatened for reasons which do not constitute a crime in the usual meaning of the word and many were such cases during the emergency, or (c) because his life is threatened either for religious or political reasons or through the threat to the maintenance of minimum standard of living compatible with human dignity.” This ruling has stood the test of time.

(The Dawn/ANN)
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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Opinion

If visitors pay USD at airport, no fuel queues for them

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The above statement was made by Manusha Nanayakkara our Labour & Foreign Employment Minister. How the Minister is going to do it is not known.I wish to make a few suggestions to the Minister for his consideration to implement his proposal. Tourists, migrant workers and the dual citizens were the people whom the Minister referred to in his proposal. Many expat Sri Lankans of whom some could be dual citizens visit home once a year to spend their holidays with their families. Since Covid this might have slowed down.

With the Covid jabs even though one could catch Covid people have started to travel. Travelling to Colombo again will slow down due to the pathetic situation that exist with a shortage of everything, particularly fuel, gas and medicines. The Minister’s statement is some encouragement, but he must place his plan for the consideration of the prospective travellers and shoe by action.

The Bank Of Ceylon Branch at the Airport can sell a Dollar debit card to expats, migrant workers and tourists or in other words those who arrive with a return ticket. The minimum value can be USD 500 with provision to put more dollars attending any BOC Branch. When selling the card, a separate certificate in a little booklet format can be given with the Passport details of the traveller entered. The registration details of the vehicle the traveller intends to use can be entered in the booklet by any BOC branch after the traveller finds the vehicle, that is hired or owned by a relation. If the traveller changes the vehicle the new vehicle details can be entered only after 3 days of the first registration. This will help to prevent misusing the debit card.

The traveller must be able to purchase fuel and other rare commodities on production of the certificate to pay by the debit card referred to in the certificate.

Expats and the tourists visit to travel, and fuel must be available at petrol stations, at least one station ear marked in every town with stock always available for this category. Purchase of fuel can be restricted to at least 15 litres per day that will be good to run about 150kms approximately.

I have suggested the above as a base for the Minster to work out a reasonable plan. Once it is made and implemented whether it works smoothly or with hiccups will be known to prospective travellers through the newspapers. If the system works well, the travellers will have confidence in visiting Sri Lanka and there will be many wanting to visit in the near future.

Hemal Perera

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Opinion

‘CEB restructure must be apolitical says CEBEU’ – a reply

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The above captioned news item appearing in your Sunday issue quotes CEBEU mentions that Cabinet approval has been granted to commence restructuring of Ceylon Electricity Board [C EB] and a committee has been appointed to submit its recommendations within a month; a very important and urgent action indeed seeing and learning the mismanagement and conflicting views and action taken to serve two masters viz, the Ministry for Power and Energy and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] and also political interferences as correctly stated by CEB engineers –”The engineers stressed that political non-interferences is of paramount importance”. The interference of the Minister to award a tender for the construction pf 350 Mw LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya to a Chinese construction Company as against the recommendation of the Tender Board, causing a delay of over four years, and the cabinet approval for a wind farm in the north by an Indian company without consulting CEB are a couple worthy of mentioning. It should be emphatically stated, CEB has knowledgeable expert electrical engineers and I believe there are none outside, other than those retired CEB engineers who have set up lucrative consultancy firms, internationally recognized. During my time serving this sector for nearly two decades, with directives by the Ministry, in electrical engineering, administrative and financial matters, the CEB ran to the satisfaction of consumers and also invested elsewhere which made the Treasury to compel CEB to invest on Treasury Bills. The interferences in the administration and matters were directly settled by CEB and also directives of the Ministry have now to obtain the approval of PUCSL.

I remember that the PUCSL called for tenders to remove electric poles, a minor job done by area engineers. There was an instance where the PUCSL sought legal action against CEB for not consulting the PUCSL on a certain matter. Recently, the PUCSL has reduced the tariff worked out by expert proposed by the CEB. What does this mean, the CEB will have to cut down or cancel certain items which it had, to accommodate PUCSL reduction. For efficient running of the CEB, the committee should recommend an end to PUCSL interference with CEB. Do not forget consumers of electricity, commuters etc., could directly place their grievances to the authorities or through organizations, associations concerned and Trade Union, to get redress. The interference I mentioned is not my not my view alone. This was a request made by former Ministry for Power and Energy, Dallas Alahapperuma to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; it was approved but overruled by the then Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mahinda Rajapaksa. For reasons perhaps ut ab ordine – chaos from order.

It is hoped the Committee appointed will look into what is stated above and make recommendations accordingly.

G. A. D.S irimal
BORALESGAMUWA
Former Assistant Secretary, SLAS, Ministry P&E.

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