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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

An open letter to 6.9 million

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Basil Rajapaksa has recently said that the Rajapaksas are not responsible for the dire situation in the country. He told the journalists not to pass the ball to him and he passed the ball to the people, especially to the 69 lakhs who voted the “Pohottuwa” into power.

So, my dear 6.9 million citizens,

You are my brothers and sisters. The Rajapaksas may blame you for the dire situation in the country but I do not blame you. I do not condemn you. For everybody makes mistakes. We are frail human beings. Now I am a senior citizen and in my life time I have been pickpocketed three times. It cost me three purses, a few thousand rupees and two ID cards to learn the lesson. But dear 6.9 million brothers and sisters your present political lesson cost all of us national bankruptcy, millions unemployed, unending queues for petrol, diesel, kerosene, cooking gas and passports, exorbitant price hikes of essentials, lack of essential medicines, looming starvation, anarchy, destruction and terrifying death. I hope you have learnt the lesson, at least by now.

Do you realise what kind of image you have shown to the world of our people, of us? Out of courtesy they will not voice it but they consider us damn fools.

Didn’t you know about the Rajapaksas and the tsunami funds? Didn’t you ever wonder how his three brats were spending like nothing and living it up like playboys? Have you never heard of Siriliya? Have you never heard of the deals between the Krish and the Rajapaksas? Didn’t you ever realise what an enormous amount of money has been wasted on useless white elephants, like the Lotus Tower, the Sooriyawewa Stadium, the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota Conference Hall? Why is it that the murderers of Thajudeen and Lasantha Wickrematunga can never be discovered? The latest revelation, from circumstantial evidence, is that Adani Group probably has dealings with the Rajapaksas. The Pandora Papers expose has raised the Rajapaksas to the notorious status of International Crooks. This is only the tip of the iceberg; if you scratch the garbage heap you’ll find more.

I cannot understand how the 69 lakhs got so thoroughly fooled by the Rajapaksas. You believed scandalous tales about infertility Kottu, infertility garments and Muslim doctors making Sinhala mothers sterile, etc. Everybody knows but nobody says who the brains behind the Easter Sunday massacre are. I guessed who it was quite soon. In any crime, the prime suspect is the one who profited most from it. Ask any police detective. The monks, intellectuals, professionals, and artistes were taken for a ride. Therefore, I do not blame you, the 69 lakhs. But the world was surprised that the citizens of Sri Lanka have such low IQ and can be so easily fooled.

Never mind all that; now let us talk about how to remedy the damage done to yourselves, us and the country. Here are a few methods to keep the right attitude to the current reality.

No.1: Never tolerate or get used to the hardships we are going through. If you are in a queue, curse the government loud enough so that at least the men in front and behind can hear you. The problem is not organising the queue more efficiently; the problem is there should not be any queues. The scarcity of petrol and diesel is a deliberate ploy by the heartless government to suppress the protest by the people. The only solution is a new stable and respected government and sending Rajapaksas to jail. Curse the government when the power cut begins. When you go shopping, curse the government loudly for the high prices of things or their lack. Keep the public aware of the hardships they unjustly endure. Never allow them to get used to it. Rage, rage against Gota and the 225 thieves.

No. 2: Either organise yourself or get somebody to organise small neighbourhood groups everywhere in your village, town and work place. Get in touch with someone in the Aragalaya and tell them you are ready for a final showdown.

No. 3: Write a letter of appreciation and encouragement to each one of the people who are at the Gotagogama. Or send a Thank You card for the sacrifices they are making for us and for our children. Here is their address: (Name) The Library, Gotagogama, Galle Face, Colombo 2.

No. 4: If you believe in a Universal Force or God, as I do, pray insistently with grief and groans and ask him to save our country from the rapacious scoundrels and killers who are holding our people by the scruff of the neck and robbing them clean.

No. 5: The evil government is driving us to a famine and starvation. Let us not be selfish. Let us share what we have or what little we have with those who do not have anything. Let us be always kind and considerate to our fellow citizens whoever they maybe.

Forget race, religion, language or whatever divides us. All of us are brothers and sisters in this national calamity, all children of Mother Lanka. Let us save her and ourselves together.

Down with the Ali Baba and the 225 thieves!

Aragalayata Jayawewa!
Fraternally your co-citizen,
Fr Chryso Pieris SJ

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We will remember, and we will be grateful

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by Krishantha Prasad Cooray

For as long as the human race has organised itself into sovereign nations, no country has had a story of limitless success. Nations and empires alike have risen and fallen, over thousands of years. Every language has phrases like “it takes a village” to remind us of the limitations of individual people and the need to work together. Similarly, no nation will ever thrive in isolation. The fate of every country is dependent on its relationships with other countries, with allies who share their values and who support each other in times of need.

History is littered with examples of countries that have been beset by natural disasters, militarily crippled, ridden with diseases, targeted by terrorism or economically ruined. What separates those who overcome these challenges from those that don’t is the willingness of other countries to come to their aid.

After World War II, for example, when the Axis powers were roundly defeated, it was the countries that vanquished them who stepped in to rebuild them. Indeed, without the aid of the Allies, neither Germany nor Japan would have grown into the economic powerhouses they are today.

The Marshal Plan, an American initiative, enabled West Germany and other West European nations to rise from the ashes of war and gain rapid economic development.

Japan, on the other hand, had far fewer friends. As European victims of German aggression feared the prospect of a united Germany, Asian victims of Japanese aggression feared a remilitarised Japan. Cold War politics too played a role, with the Soviet Union accusing the United States of planning to turn Japan into a military camp against itself and China. It was only at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 that a peace treaty was finally signed, ending the occupation of Japan, restoring Japanese independence, and putting the country on a path to prosperity.

At that conference, it was then Sri Lankan Finance Minister Junius Richard Jayawardena, who spoke most persuasively about the case for making peace with Japan as an independent non-occupied nation. Jayewardene reminded the audience that prior to the barbarity of World War II, Japan had long been a staunch ally of other Asian nations. “It is because of our age-long connections with her, and because of the high regard the subject peoples of Asia have for Japan when she alone, among the Asian nations, was strong and free and we looked up to her as a guardian and friend,” he reminded the assembled world leaders.

Japan has never forgotten, and even today, memorial statues and plaques across Japan mark the country’s gratitude to J.R. Jayewardene. Sri Lanka, at the time, had nothing to gain from the vanquished Japanese. But we came to the aid of a nation in need and did the correct thing. A quarter century later, when J.R. Jayewardene became President of Sri Lanka, our relationship with Japan became one of the cornerstones of Sri Lanka’s subsequent prosperity.

Today, Sri Lanka finds itself crippled by an unprecedented crisis. Our people are in abject financial peril. Over a quarter of the country is starving and malnourished. The economy is paralyzed and many children are unable to reach schools due to fuel shortages. Electricity has become a luxury, and essential medicines have become scarce.

This is not the doing of the people but the result of mismanagement by corrupt, incompetent and short-sighted politicians holding the reins of power for their own gain. These politicians benefited. The people suffered. They suffer as I write and will suffer for a long time more to come.

It is tragic to see a country as resilient as Sri Lanka, with a proud history, being reduced to such a state. One day, I have no doubt that my country will rise again. But we will only do so with the support of friends, who will speak in solidarity and act in support.

Sri Lanka is but the first country to see its economy collapse at the mercy of corruption and rising global food and oil prices. It won’t be the last. Before long, other poorly managed countries will also begin to waver. Each stumbling nation can be rescued one at a time, but if several countries all collapse together, the chain reaction could paralyze the economies of not just the region, but the entire world. Sri Lanka, in particular, is ripe for rescue.

The people are clamouring for serious institutional and constitutional reform. If these reforms are coupled to both humanitarian aid and commercial investments, the payoff will be not just a monetary one, but one of deep gratitude.At this time, if people, institutions and nations alike come to the aid of the Sri Lankan people, that aid is needed like never before. Doing so will help avert or minimize a humanitarian crisis like Sri Lanka has never known. Any country can make a contribution to help feed the starving, heal the sick, employ the unemployed, light up a classroom, and take other steps to help Sri Lanka to jumpstart its economy.

It was such words of support, and deeds of solidarity that helped Japan in 1951, and for which Japan has remained grateful so many decades later. Likewise, such a word, such a deed, will be remembered by Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, those who are suffering right now, those who survive, and their children. It is a brand of gratitude that is special because it is altruistic. People will remember, ‘they didn’t have to, they had nothing to gain, but they did anyway.’ We will remember, and we will be grateful.

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Opinion

Ohe Innava ; ban on Russian tennis players; greed leads via deceptive satisfaction to disaster

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Sins of the leaders suffered by innocents

This beautiful island seems to be at a standstill and its people rather dazed, confined to homes or queues for days on end (no longer hours). Maybe, Jaffna and its southern neighbouring Vanni are better equipped mentally and stoically to withstand these vagaries of fortune and carry on their lives as they know well, through experience (1983 to 2009 and even thereafter), with inbuilt mental and physical resistance. The government that should be so very occupied looking after its people, and MPs and their bosses mandated to do so, only continue emanating hot air and cruise around in their gas guzzlers, of course, in protected areas. They feel the anger of the people: righteous, justified and ready to burst forth in flames of anarchy at the first ignition. One VIP speaks to the public of imminent arrival of ships laden full with fuel and cooking gas; and another VVIP on further necessity to tighten belts and suffer. All of us are near suffocation because of the mistakes, corruption, extravagance and bl… idiocy of those who ruled us.

The biggest man, almost daily, gathers sundry officers to his vast meeting hall and while they gaze at him, some mindlessly but none interrupting, pontificates mostly on how they should be alleviating the hardships of the population. He singlehandedly caused farmers and now us immense deprivation. He thought his mea culpa would exonerate him. The ex-PM and doing-just-as-they bid ex-Gov of CB sit out in comfort on the look out to escape. The dethroned VIP heir is creeping back to meetings where he is not justified being in. Dreams of a glorious return? Shatter them to bits, you people are NOT coming back ever to power. 20 million people, including kids, know you all too well now and the bung screwed on tight on criticism popped off, released mostly by the peaceful protesters of Mynagama and GotaGoGama. Thank goodness for them!

Cass listened to the articulation of peaceful protesters in Havelock Town carrying succinct boards and good sense and intelligence in their heads as relayed by 8.30 pm Newsline of MTV TV One on Tuesday 28 late evening. What emerged was most forceful censure of the powers that were and are. ‘Go home Gota’ they said in unison and decently. What sort of a skin does one need to enable one to stay on when disliked so intensely and shown the exit explicitly by millions here and overseas. The protective skin of the armed forces is not available, one presumes. As is said, the soldiers’ old mothers can barely make ends meet with soaring prices and fathers are in queues, so how expect them to turn against their own suffering people even though commanded to do so?

Wimbledon

The cricket matches between the Aussie team and a revived, zestful Sri Lankan team have been giving solace to a major section of our people. That is fine, since one needs to divert one’s mind and also grab whatever respite one can from the ongoing disaster that is our beloved country.

Cassandra is a tennis buff deriving not only sporty enthusiasm but also aesthetic satisfaction by watching good players on court. How so the latter, one may query. Just watch a good player and witness his/her playing is ballet like in postures and grace; a fine synchronization of muscle and limb. And for Cassandra the best is to watch the Wimbledon matches, the players and linesman and ball pickers all in white. Maybe Cass is conservative, a throw back on her upbringing, but discipline even in what the players wear is pleasing to her. Wimbledon times are not so inconvenient to us as matches start there at 3.30 (it was said) and so by 8.00 pm one can watch them over sports channels. It’s when the US Open is on that one has to watch into all hours of our night.

Wimbledon has banned Russian players and so men’s world number 1 Daniil Medvedev is out – banned; so also number 8 Andrey Rublev and women’s numbers 6 and 13 – never mind names, difficult to even spell. Great pity, especially regards Medvedev – almost humble on court – but again proof that sins of the leaders fall on ordinary heads. The organisers of Wimbledon decided in April to ban players from Russia and Belarus in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So, ex KGB Putin’s fear of European Union’s expansion of influence and protection, or greed for expansion of Russian controlled territory or even a desire to re-establish a sort of USSR have impacted on innocent sportsmen and women.

Greed may be satisfied temporarily but degraded shame is permanent result

‘Bollywood actress of Sri Lankan origin’ as Jacqueline Fernandez is named by S Venkat Narayan and other media persons, has again been questioned by the Indian Enforcement Directorate (ED) on the gifts of dollars and expensive items given her and her family members by billionaire conmen Sukesh Chandrashekhar. Cass is not flogging a dead horse (or much alive, lovely mare here) but quoting this tidbit from Tuesday June 28 press, wishing to impress on herself and her readers that avarice and boundless greed lead to retribution and perhaps heart searing regret. It is obvious Jackie entertained the conman, and very intimately we suppose, to be worth all those millions gifted to her. It surely cannot be love. That explanation for the close liaison is good for the fairies to narrate. She was motivated by desire for quick immense wealth. And she has landed flat on her face: passport impounded, reputation gone, and with it admirers and Salman Khan too perhaps, and sure shot no offers of further stardom. She was catapulted to be top of the beauts on par with now exclusive Aishwaria Rai Bachchan. And what has avarice brought her to?

Cass in her age earned wisdom warns young beauties not to gamble on good looks. Many are the girls who did so and surely are cast aside and also fearful now since tables have been turned on their benefactors mostly by the sensible young ones of GotaGoGama. Where’s that beauty queen whose crown was snatched as placed on her by political influence, who accompanied Lohan R to Welikada prison in short shorts to view the gallows? We heard many a chick was given jobs, sometimes double at Sri Lankan, with no English ability, etc. No wonder our airline nose-dived and is still on that perilous down swing but sustained by government monetary life lines. Many were the discards given employment in Sri Lankan.

Another point: definitely a too flogged horse: are those who plundered government money and assets by the millions, nay billions happy and leading fine lives. Nay, No and Nein! They may be safe and their stolen wealth intact and in no danger of being confiscated, but their minds? Wellbeing? They cannot have such thick hides that satisfying the five senses brings them peace of mind? Again, a thundering NO. Reputations ground to dust; friends disappeared; and the door to a return to political power shut bang. Jolly good for those damned thieves who sent our country down to the depths. We will rise, that’s for sure. We have good people in the majority.

On that rousing note of determination to rise from the depths, Cassandra wishes you bye, for now. May its enforced curtailment of normal routines; immense difficulties and future bleakness not depress you too much. We as a country can only now go upwards, hit rock bottom as we are.

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