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Opinion

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

Becoming a water-wise citizen

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

According to current demands and availability, potable water resources are rapidly depleting in Sri Lanka. Finding new potable water sources has become increasingly challenging due to the competition between irrigation water and drinking water needs in many areas. Population growth, industrial demand, pollution, and climate change exacerbate water scarcity more than ever. Despite this, society often overlooks the importance of water conservation, with water waste remaining widespread. As responsible citizens, it is high time to adopt effective water management practices at household and industry level for its sustainability. On the other hand, doing so will reduce the energy requirements for water treatment and distribution, helping lower greenhouse gas emissions.

According to NWS&DB only about 46% of the population in our country are supplied with pipe-borne water. Therefore, wasting water deprives others who really deserves fresh water but currently lack access.

Here are several common ways water is wasted presumably by users due to ignorance, along with effective strategies for reducing waste at the household level.Following are some other practical measures to save water.

Standard plumbing

Using standard pipes and fittings and skilled workmanship are crucial for preventing water waste, especially in embedded areas where such leaks are hardly noticeable. PVC pipes should not be exposed to the sun as that will deteriorate the quality of pipes over time leading to water leaks. Properly installed systems are often devoid of leaks and ensure efficient water distribution minimizing maintenance costs.

Selecting water-saving fixtures

There are many water-saving fixtures available today as low-flow showerheads, taps, and dual-flush cisterns having two flushing options. For instance, kitchen taps with fine mesh give the feeling that more water runs through it than the actual flow. Replacing the existing fixtures with these advanced items will reduce water usage significantly.

Fixing water leaks

If there are leaking taps or pipes in the house or business premises they should promptly be rectified. In addition, it is wise to have regular infections to identify such defects so that possible water wastage can be minimized.

Mindful showering habits

One mode of heavy water consumption at the household level is showering. Even small reductions in shower duration such as reducing the shower time by a few minutes can save many litres of water. Any habits of keeping the shower running while applying soap and shampoo should be avoided.

Using domestic appliances only for full loads

Making a habit of using washing machines and dishwashers only for full loads not only saves water but also reduces electricity consumption. Operating appliances at full capacity also enhances their efficiency and prolongs their lifespan while reducing repair costs.

Harvesting rainwater

Rainwater can be used for many household activities, especially for gardening, landscaping, and washing vehicles. Currently, treated water is often used for these purposes, which results in unnecessary treatment costs. Rainwater can be used even for drinking if properly collected, treated, and filtered for better hygiene. However, rainwater can be used for drinking after boiling if it is collected through a clean roof exposed to sunlight. Avoiding early rain is advisable to minimize the risk of impurities mixed with rainwater.

Gardening and landscaping

For hotels, public parks, playgrounds, and similar venues with extensive gardens growing native and drought-tolerant species that require less water can lead to massive water savings. This approach not only conserves water but also enhances landscape resilience during times of water shortages. Further applying mulch to retain soil moisture and installation of drip irrigation systems and garden sprinklers for watering can minimise water requirements. Watering the lawns should be done in the morning or late evening to minimise evaporation losses.

Water Recycling

Water from sinks, showers, and washing machines which are called “grey water” can be used for toilet flushing and gardening. By diverting grey water away from the sewer system and integrating it into these activities, freshwater requirements can significantly be reduced.

Awareness and Education

Making children aware of water conservation is crucial for fostering responsible water usage habits. At the domestic level parents and elder family members can be role models by demonstrating water-saving habits. As organization-level initiatives, educating children at schools, public awareness campaigns, promoting and giving incentives for water-saving appliances, and formulating sustainable water management policies are vital.

Adopting simple, yet effective methods as discussed can save water to ensure the sustainability of this scarce resource. As the adage goes, “Water is life”, every citizen has to be water-wise by understanding its value and actively taking steps to use water efficiently and responsibly.

(The writer is a chartered Civil Engineer specializing in water resources engineering)

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Opinion

Key takeaways from British election

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PM Keir Starmer

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The fact that political parties splintered by internal strife, culminating in open warfare, would be punished mercilessly by the electorate at the first available opportunity is, perhaps, the key takeaway from the UK parliamentary election held on 4th July. Conservatives, who held power for 14 years were humiliated and reduced to only 121 seats, 9 fewer than even exit-poll predictions. However, exit-polls predicted the landslide for Labour spot-on, missing the mark by only two; Labour ending up with 412, prediction being 410. This Labour win was second only to the massive victories by Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001. Terms used by news media to qualify this Labour victory, tsunami and earthquake, perhaps, are inaccurate as both are unexpected events whereas this win was not. What surprised most, however, was not the Labour victory but the scale of the humiliating defeat of the Tories, losing 251 seats. This to a large extent, was self-inflicted!

Conservatives ended 13 years of Labour rule in 2010, but as they did not have an outright majority, winning only 306 seats in a house of 650, were forced to form a coalition government with Liberal Democrats who won 57 seats. In the subsequent election in 2015, Conservatives won 330 seats, just clearing the threshold of 326. David Cameron, who was PM from 2010, resigned in 2017 when the UK voted for Brexit in a referendum, which he forced on the country, hoping to get the opposite result. Conservative divisions bloomed following the referendum disaster and Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, went for a snap poll hoping to get a larger mandate but was unsuccessful getting only 317 seats, forcing her to continue with a minority government. However, she too, had to resign in 2019 as the draft withdrawal agreement with the EU, she negotiated, was rejected by the parliament. Boris Johnson, who succeeded her, went for an election in 2019 and was able to secure a comfortable victory with 365 seats and it was the worst defeat ever for the Labour Party, which got only 202 seats. This catastrophe resulted because of Labour being out of tune with its own supporters, majority of whom were for Brexit whereas the party policy was to remain in the EU. This was a unique event in British political history where Labour supporters switched in droves to Conservative. Worsening internal strife in the Conservative Party and the blatant breeches of Covid rules, led to the ouster of Johnson in 2022, which resulted in the disastrous 45-day tenure of Liz Truss, shortest in British history. She had to resign in disgrace when the British economy tanked with the drastic economic policies she rushed through. Not surprisingly, she could not even retain her seat, which she won with a huge majority of over 26,000 in the previous election in 2019.

Most political analysts opine that the Conservatives lost the general election in October 2022, when their acknowledged economic competence was thrown into question with the antics of Liz truss. Rishi Sunak, who took over under the most difficult of circumstances, in addition had to face frequent backstabbing, mostly from a colleague also of Indian origin. He had the unenviable task of leading a badly divided party, on top of attempting to repair the massive economic damage caused by his predecessor. Although he could have gone on until December, he called a snap election and, ultimately on 4th July, faced the inevitable!

Perhaps, the humiliating defeat suffered by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has its origins to the demand for Scottish independence, was even worse than that of the Conservatives. SNP once exercised virtually a dictatorship over Scotland, winning almost every parliamentary seat. It was humbled down to having only 9 seats, a loss of 39 seats, in spite of stoking the fire of nationalism by campaigning that this would be a vote for the demand of a second referendum for independence. The first independence referendum held in 2014 was lost, 55% voting against independence. Therefore, the most positive takeaway from the 2024 election is that it ensured the persistence of the union between England and Scotland. This clearly illustrates that a single-issue party like the SNP has a limited lifespan, a valuable lesson for some of the communal parties of Sri Lanka.

This election is remarkable in that, rather than being a Labour win, it was a Conservative defeat, as a detailed analysis of statistics clearly show. It had the second lowest turnout with only 59.9% of registered voters voting, the lowest with 59.4% being the 2001 election where the outcome, of re-electing Tony Blair’s government with a massive majority, was never in doubt leading to voter apathy.

In 2019, Labour got 32.1% of the vote, winning only 202 seats, which is considered Labour’s worst defeat. However, five years later, the share of the vote increased only to 33.8%, the increase being mostly due to a 19% increase in Scotland whereas there was hardly any change in England. Conservative share of the vote dropped from 45.6% to 25.7%. How can a mere increase of 1.7%, lead to a gain of 211 seats, Labour ending up with 412 of the 650 seats? The main reason for this is that Nigel Farage’s Reform party siphoned off a fair share of the Conservative vote in many electorates enabling Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates to win with small majorities. Reform got 14.3% share of the vote, a remarkable achievement for a new party. Farage, who started the chain of events that led to Brexit, took over the leadership of the right-wing Reform party immediately after the election was declared and threatened to take over the Conservative party ultimately. He may well do it unless Conservatives work out a robust strategy for revival! Wonder whether Farage got letters of thanks from the leaders of Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

This is not the first time that the ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP)electoral system, used in the UK, has produced paradoxical results. As Liberal Democrats were regularly getting fewer MPs compared to their share of the vote, one of the conditions for the formation of a coalition government in 2010 was a referendum to change the electoral system. However, the ‘Alternative Vote referendum’ held in 2011 ensured the continuation of FPTP as the Alternative Voting (AV) system was rejected by 67.9%.

Another big paradox of the 2024 election is Liberal Democrats gaining 64 seats, increasing their tally to 72 with only a 0.6% increase in the share of their vote from 11.6% to 12.2%. This probably will make them lose their enthusiasm for a change to a Proportional Representation (PR) system!

By far, the biggest paradox is Reform, which polled 14.3% got only 5 seats while Liberal Democrats, who got a smaller share, 12.2%, secured 74 seats! Reform is bound to clamour for change of the electoral system, with other minor parties, but the question is whether they would have a sufficient clout to bring about changes to the electoral system?

All parties in opposition clamour for a change but when they get power, completely forget about it, especially if they muster massive majorities. It is just like our Presidents, who promise to abolish the presidency during the campaign but, once elected and having savoured power, stick to it like leeches! Politicians, wherever they may be, behave the same way, subjugating everything to self-interest.

It looks very unlikely, in spite of all the anomalies, that the newly elected Labour government, which has a two-thirds majority in spite of having only minority support, would be interested in changing the electoral system, unless they start losing support quickly. This is not an impossibility, as they promised a lot which seemed almost impossible to deliver. They rejected Sunak’s Rwanda plan, which would have been a deterrent to illegal immigration and are now looking for a ‘Chief’ to solve the problem! PM Keir Starmer wants closer ties with the EU, which however is demanding free movement for the young but that would lead to an increasing number of immigrants; a very thorny issue. He has made some backers of his as ministers by appointing them to the House of Lords, in spite of having 412 elected members to choose from. The Lords is the chamber all parties never abolish despite their promises to do so as it is the place to accommodate cronies! I do hope, if a second chamber ever becomes a reality in Sri Lanka, it would not be like the Lords.

Even if politicians want to change the electoral system to PR or AV or even the French system of two-stage elections, which seems to have created a huge problem with the latest election, will the voters opt for change? Perhaps, not. After all, the best way to mercilessly punish politicians, in spite of all its disadvantages, is FPTP!

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Opinion

A different take on wind power projects in Sri Lanka

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A representational image

by Eng. Col. N. N. Wijeratne
(Retd)
Secretary General / CEO

Chamber of Construction Industry of Sri Lanka

Saudi Arabia aims to utilize her vast arid lands to harvest renewable energy resources and to increase her share of renewables to around 50% by the year 2030. This is similar to Sri Lanka’s stated goal of 70% renewable energy usage by 2030. However, sadly this is where the similarity ends.

Recently, the Saudi Power Procurement Company entered into two agreements with Marubeni Corporation of Japan to purchase wind power at a staggeringly low rate of 1.566 U.S. cents per kWh. Now compare this with Sri Lanka and the power purchase agreement with a foreign investor Adam Green Energy Ltd at 8.26 US cents per kWh. True, the government states that this will be the single most significant foreign investment in the country with a price of 1 billion US dollars and Sri Lanka will have uninterrupted electricity for the next 20 years, etc., and makes the convoluted argument that it is cheaper than thermal power which is 26.99 US cents per kWh and that the Ceylon Electricity Board purchases wind power from 9.67 to 13.99 US cents per kWh. Additionally, the power bought from Odamwadi solar project is higher in that it is 8.75 US cents per kWh unit. Be that as it may be, if competitive tenders were invited even in Sri Lanka a more competitive rate could have been possible keeping with the global norms. But this was an unsolicited bid negotiated by the Government high ups. Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda has pointed out that for newly commissioned onshore wind projects, the global weighted average internationally for wind power is between 3.5 US cents per kWh to 3.3 US cents per kWh (2022 figures) and falling. In fact, in India the levelised tariff for wind power is 3.8 US cents per kWh. The very same investor is supplying wind power to the Indian power grid at this competitive rate.

This shrouded price has spurred Transparency International Sri Lanka to file no fewer than 11 Right to Information applications about this now cabinet-approved project that will come into fruition 2 years down the line and has questions regarding the legality, transparency, evaluation process, pricing, government involvement, and the environmental impact assessment related to 250 MW wind power plant in Mannar and the 234 MW wind power plant in Pooneryn. Additionally, it strongly raises an alarm about the ecological feasibility of these projects which are located in an ecologically sensitive zone and one in a Ramsar declared wetland sanctuary. The Right to Information has elicited a stony silence by the authorities and it is petitioned that the sovereignty of the people has been violated. If we take the pricing factor in isolation, it behooves the government to answer this call at least, keeping aside the energy policy and investor friendliness that the government talks about for this sector. Next question is do we need to buy wind energy in US$ for next 20 years? What justification is there to pay in US$ for our free wind. Capital investment by the developer could have been treated as a loan repayable at a reasonable interest rate.

Geopolitical considerations may have influenced India to be involved in our power sector in order to ward off Chinese intrusions, but there are questions both big and small that require answers for it appears that the people’s sovereignty is being trampled and they have a right to know.

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