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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

The care of good dentists

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I experienced an agonizing toothache for the first time in my right-hand upper jaw. On bringing it under control with native medicines, a couple of colleagues at my work place stressed me to see a dentist who could prevent any recurrence, and recommended a highly proficient doctor by the name Rini Mathew attached to a popular medical centre in Riyadh. After nearly five-days-wait I was successful in getting an appointment to consult her.

This highly pleasant lady doctor from Kerala, India, after seeing the set of teeth in my right-hand upper jaw recommended for a root canaling and requested to return in two-weeks-time. Having not undergone any sort of surgery in my whole life, I was a little confused as to what to expect. As I arrived prepared for the repair work on my teeth, the good lady told me to my pleasant surprise that I don’t need any further treatment for the moment and if I get the toothache back again to come and see her. I thanked God and praised her for her being frank and honest.

The history of dentistry records Hesy-Re, an Egyptian scribe, who lived around 2600 BC is recognized as the first dental practitioner. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry, specifically about treating decaying teeth, but it wasn’t until 1530 that the first book entirely devoted to dentistry – The Little Medicinal Book for all kinds of diseases and infirmities of the Teeth – was published.

You don’t want to feel like just another item on your dentist’s to-do list. The best dentists, like whom I consulted, have a way of letting their patients know they care about them personally. They are interested in their patient’s lives and are eager to become a part of their general care team. The best dentist always gives you the care that you deserve.

 

S. H. MOULANA

 

 

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Opinion

The Age of Animal Ministries

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The call by the government’s backbench MP Mr. Dilan Perera to be made the Rilav/Vanduru Amathi, or the Minister for Monkeys, in the Pohottuva Realm, certainly leads to plenty of interest.

This must do with the various divisions and breakup tasks that have been given to both Cabinet and State Ministers, in the current play of governance, by the Gotabaya strategies. 

The call for a Rilav Ministry may have come after the Minister for Coconuts, Arundika Fernando, tried to climb a coconut palm, in his estate, at Dankotuwa, and hold a press conference to tell the people about the shortage of coconuts and the cause of the high price of this essential food item. One was surprised that he did not blame the coconut price hike on the 19A to the Constitution, and give any assurance that the coming 20A will bring the nut prices to within the people’s reach. Such nutty thinking is possible from politicos today.

What was also interesting is how he did this climb, halfway to coconut heights, with some modern climbing gear, having nothing to do with the traditional coconut tree climbers, who used their feet and hands to move much higher, and also walk on ropes from tree to tree for coconut plucking and toddy tapping. He must be following the new thinking of the Rajavasala on Digital Development to raise this country to new heights of Rajapaksa Success.

Let’s get back to the hopeful Rilav Amathi – the Monkey Minister Dilan Perera. The dictionary meaning of ‘Rilava”, that comes from the Vaanarayas, is those who take the forest products. This certainly has much relevance to the huge forest destruction taking place today, with the clear political blessings of the Rajapaksa realm. It is the crooked, or rilav, thinking of the Pohottu politicians that is causing this huge destruction of nature, bringing disaster to the environment. Is it the hope of Mr. Dilan Perera that he would be put in charge of this chronicle of destruction, becoming the political gatherer of profitable forests products, and giving free forest land to the political catchers of 20A fondness?

Or, is he thinking of the romantic legends of the monkey Hanuman, that had so much to do with Rama and Sita, and brought so much of forest land from India and dumped in several parts of this country, giving much of the ayurvedic medicine to this day. Is the Pohottuva Dilan thinking of becoming the Phohottu Hanuman, to bring in new legends of politically powerful romances that will soon be part of the Hanuman Keli or Monkey Games of the Power Players? His recent defence of the 20A, against the 19A that he voted for, gives a good indication of the Rilav and Vanduru thinking that is the stuff of Pohottu politics.

 There is also a good opportunity for the call for a Nari/Hival Amathi, or Fox Minister, in this government. Why not have one of these foxy politicians, with their delight in political long-jumping, who have plenty of nari-thinking in their systems, as the new Nari-Hival Amathi. He or she will make some quick decisions on how the ‘Nari Tharjanaya’, the Fox Threat in the Kalutara, and now Horana areas, can be tackled; giving the Cabinet Minister of Health time to keep thinking of matters other than public health, and more on the political health of those who are in the bandwagon of power politics. 

A Nari-Hival Amathi will be one whose hoots will be heard loud and clear in support of 20A, and one who would have gladly hooted in support of both the 18A and 19A, and is ready to raise both hands, and even one’s legs, for the 20A.

There are other animals who can have Cabinet or State portfolios in this politics of backward evolution. Why not have a Buffalo, or Meeharak Amathi? This could be a Pohottuva activist who will promise to give a good price to the curd made from buffalo milk, and also tell the public how much they can benefit by lying for hours in the mud found near their homes, without looking for government jobs or contracts for services that can only be given to the Pohottu catchers.

The Tamil Tigers were defeated more than a decade ago. But the politics of today is still seething with tiger threats to national unity. With what is happening to the leopards in this country, there is certainly a cause for a pohottu backbencher to ask for a Kotiya or Diviya portfolio. This can be a pohottu player who have the stripes of corruption on one’s body, with plenty of experience of grabbing the land of others, whether paddy fields or plantations, with the twisted politics of power, whether from the UNP, SLFP, UPFA or the Yahapalana travesty. A Koti Amathi will be roaring away, and leaping with great success on grabbing the property of other people, for the rising cause of Pohottu Balaya, the future power Dual Citizens, especially of the Washington-Medamulana alliance.

It is not likely that there will be any calls for a Bull or Cow – Harak Amathi – especially after the reigning silence over the plan to stop the slaughter of cattle. There are plenty of bulls in the huge pack on the government side, at Diyawanna Oya, we hear and also see their ‘gon talk’ and ‘harak keliya’ in the parliament so often today. They will be happy that cattle slaughter will remain a reality here, with no moves for the rise of a vegan society, which is certainly not the substance of the real Rajavasala thinking, with complete absence of kindness to animals.

There are many more animal or species ministries that can be offered to build up this Rajavasala Sathva Kattiya, once the 20A is passed, and the ministries can flow from the Rajapaksa pen. There is much space for more than one serpent or Sarpa Amathi – who will spread themselves all over the country, and crawl around and strike down with venom those who dare talk of the disasters that lie ahead post 20A. There can be many cockroach and mosquito ministers, too, who will help spread the Covid 20 — that can be far more dangerous than today’s Covid-19.

Let’s give a bow to the Age of Animal Ministries or Sathva Amathya Yugaya. 

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Opinion

Where is Sajith’s leadership?

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By Dr UPUL WIJAYAWARDHANA

The Leader of the opposition is a vital link in democracy and, as the name implies, is expected to give leadership. Unfortunately, the behaviour of Sajith Premadasa is casting doubts as to whether he is giving that leadership.

Even when he challenged Ranil for the leadership of the UNP, he was happy to put up a fight for some time and then give up. His disappearance into the wilderness after losing the presidential election and issuing a statement that he would devote the rest of his life to looking after leopards, perplexed many. Egged on by a coterie of Ranil-haters, he split the UNP but still wanted to grab the HQ of the party, an aspiration he quickly gave up after the last general election, probably because the UNP did unexpectedly bad.

There is no doubt that the biggest challenge he faces is opposing the introduction of the 20th amendment. If the ugly scenes in the parliament, when 20A was tabled, on 22nd September is anything to go by, many would be in for disappointment. “The ongoing campaign against 20A is characterised by a severe trust deficit, which the Opposition has failed to overcome.”: This forewarning in the editorial “Diyawanna Post Office” (The Island, 22 September) seems to ring true. I greatly doubt the opposition enhanced its image with this behaviour and the contempt of the voters towards Members of Parliament surely would increase.

What was displayed was not leadership but gang-leadership. Instead of obeying the rulings of the Speaker and forging a strong opposition in a democratic manner, what we saw was rowdy behaviour. To add insult to injury, they were demanding the cameras be aimed at them, so that the whole country could witness their rowdiness!

I too am against some aspects of 20A, like removing the limitation of Cabinet size and letting dual citizenship holders enter parliament, but have done so by just means; having voiced them through this newspaper.

In addition, Sajith failed miserably as a leader when he did not take any action against the national list MP Harin Fernando, who made a totally unsubstantiated allegation against Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. He told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the Easter Sunday attacks that the Cardinal shifted the Sunday Mass to Saturday as he was aware of the terrorist attack. As a catholic himself, Harin should have verified facts before he made such a serious accusation. In spite of having had to admit his folly to the commission, on his way out, Harin made sarcastic remarks to journalists. It is impossible even to speculate what earthly purpose these insults are meant to serve. If it is to regain the support of the Buddhist voters, it certainly is an exercise in futility as most Sri Lankans hold Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith in high esteem for his exemplary leadership following the Easter Sunday attacks.

Sajith should have taken immediate action, as this is a repeat offence; having taken Harin to the Cardinal for an apology on the previous occasion. Instead, he said in high-brow Sinhala “abhyantara kathikawathaka yedenewa”, meaning an internal conversation is taking place. Sajith seems to be under the impression that using serious sounding words would satisfy the masses and solves problems.

Unfortunately, Sajith’s lack of leadership qualities are becoming more obvious by the day. Perhaps, there is a chance for Ruwan Wijewardena, if he plays his cards right!

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