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Palm oil growers await green light for sustainable production



A young oil palm plantation having a thick legume cover crop

By Emeritus Prof. Asoka Nugawela

Palm oil is a versatile commodity. It is used in numerous products world over. The global usage in 2022/23 is estimated as 76 million metric tons. Accordingly, the average global per capita usage is in the range of 10 kg per annum. Sri Lanka too recorded similar usage during 2018/2019 period, prior to economic downturn in the country. Palm oil usage is very much higher than the usage of other vegetable oils such as coconut, soya, canola, sunflower, rape seed and olive. One major reason for the relatively high per capita usage of palm oil is the affordability to purchase and its availability. Per unit land area, the oil production is four times greater in oil palm when compared with coconut. When comparing with other crops grown for vegetable oil production it is about tenfold higher. Further, oil palm, coconut and olive are perennial crops whereas soya, sunflower, canola and rape seed are short term crops. With short term crops the capital cost component is relatively high with yearly land clearing, land preparation and planting activities to be undertaken. Oil palm with a high oil yield and having a 30-year economic life cycle has the ability to provide a relatively cheaper vegetable oil than from other crops. With perennial crops the disturbance to the soil properties and biodiversity is less than in annuals and is a positive attribute as far as sustainability is concerned.

One other reason for palm oil to be the preferred vegetable oil is because it contains both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids in almost equal proportions. Thus, it is different from coconut and other vegetable oils which contain a relatively high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids, around 90%. Palm oil with its 1:1 balance of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids is the preferred choice for many applications in the food industry.

Both the type and the number of fatty acids of fat in our diets are known to influence health and wellbeing. The present global advice is to increase the consumption of unsaturated fatty acids at the expense of saturated oils and fats. For optimal health we require a mixture of fatty acids to be present in our diet. In this context among the sources of dietary oils and fats palm oil could be viewed as a relatively better option for its ‘mixed’ fatty acid profile (saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids).

The relative advantage in the return on investment the oil palm crop is having over other plantations crops also drives the investments towards this crop. This is true for both plantation and smallholder sectors in major palm oil producing countries in the world. The profitability from different plantation crops grown in Sri Lanka under average management conditions and current agrochemical/material costs & trading conditions are summarised in Table 1. Accordingly, oil palm is by far the most profitable plantation crop in the country. (See table)

The country has a demand for palm oil as a cooking oil and also as a raw material for many other industries. The products made in these industries are essential and widely used. For vigorous growth and high yields oil palm crop should ideally be grown under tropical climatic conditions with more than 2,500 mm of rainfall per annum. The low country wet zone of the country is blessed with such climatic conditions. The return on investment is high with this crop. However, even under such a favorable business environment for this industry, the government of Sri Lanka has taken a decision to ban cultivating this crop in the country. All other palm oil producing countries in the world, i.e., more than 20, are surprised and view this as a wrong decision.

Some repercussions of this decision to ban oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka are a). dependency on other countries to fulfill our vegetable oil need, b). loss of foreign exchange to the country by importing palm oil, c). loss of income to the potential investors, d). loss of employment opportunities and e). depriving potential smallholders, the opportunity to enhance their livelihood. Prior to the economic crisis in this country, around 200,000 MT of crude palm oil (CPO) had been imported annually. The current global market price of a metric ton of crude palm oil is around 900 US$. Thus, the foreign exchange requirement to import national crude palm oil requirement will be more than 180 million US$ per annum without freight and insurance costs.

In the past, forests have been felled to cultivate oil palm in some major palm oil producing countries. The same approach was adopted for planting other plantation crops as well in the past. Deforestation will invariably lead to further shrinking of already depleted forest cover and loss of environmental services we accrue from natural forests. Natural forests significantly contribute to depleting of greenhouses gases, to the natural water cycle and protects biodiversity, soil, catchment areas, rivers and water bodies. Due to serious negative impacts of deforestation on the environment, a worldwide lobby demanding countries to grow oil palm in a more sustainable manner was initiated. With this lobby changes are now taking place in the manner in which land is selected to grow oil palm. For most crops including oil palm, systems to certify sustainable plantation management have evolved and such certification has become a requirement for marketing of produce from plantations. Basically, issues related to cultivating oil palm had been identified, awareness created amongst parties concerned and interventions for rectification have been put in place. In Sri Lanka however, to start with there was no issue of deforestation associated with oil palm cultivation. The land for cultivating oil palm in Sri Lanka was obtained through crop diversification, a scientifically accepted approach. Even then cultivating of oil palm in Sri Lanka was suddenly banned by the government incurring the investors a loss of more than Rs. 500 million on nursery plants alone. The global lobby was against felling forests to plant oil palm. The reasons for the anti-oil palm lobby in Sri Lanka according to some environmentalists, scientists and politicians are negative impacts to the environment, loss of biodiversity, depleting soil water and threat to the existence of other plantation crops. There is no scientific basis for such allegations. But those who lobby against planting oil palm do not want to understand the difference between ecological impacts when planting oil palm subsequent to felling natural forest cover and as a crop diversification program. Various attempts made had been futile and as the Sinhala saying goes it’s like trying to wake up a person who pretends to be sleeping.

The necessity for a country to produce its own needs is more than evident now with the economic crisis the country is facing currently. With a huge disparity in outflow and inflow of foreign exchange to the country the need to produce our own requirements are very much obvious. As explained earlier in this article Sri Lanka has a conducive business environment for a successful palm oil industry. What is lacking to drive the industry forward in the country is the political will. Politicians may be fearing that a decision to lift the ban on oil palm cultivation will not be a popular decision affecting their vote base. Countries economy is currently shrinking leading significant losses in employment, falling income levels, increased inequality and government borrowings. To recover from such an economic crisis the country should not ignore viable industries that could enhance national production. A reversal to the decision to ban oil palm cultivation will lead to producing national requirement preventing the outflow of millions of dollars each year. Revenue moving out will circulate among all stakeholders of the industry helping to enhance their livelihood and strengthening the economy of the country.

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Speculations about origin of placename, ‘Negombo’ (Meegamuwa)



By Chandre Dharmawardana,

A writer using the pseudonym GADS, replying to a previous article regarding Negombo, states (The Island 17 Sept. 2023), “It is also historically recorded that the name Negombo is the Portuguese corruption of its Tamil name Neerakolombu and the Sinhala name Meegamuwa which means and comes from old Tamil Naval terminology Meegamam Pattnam. Meegamam denotes a naval captain”.

Unfortunately, the author does not give the reference to this “historical record” or elaborate on the details available from any early sources, Portuguese and Dutch maps etc. Furthermore, he asserts that “Meegamam” denotes a naval captain. Here again, this is certainly not so in any of the Dravidian languages, or Indic languages. No such usage exists even in Arabic and other languages of the Hebrew family, as far as we can ascertain.

A “naval captain” in Arabic would be Kabtin Bahriun, while the Tamil usage would be Katarpatai Kaptain in modern usage. In old Tamil words like Nakutawere used [1]. However, “gama, gamuwa, gammam, kamam, etc., are all refer “village”.

I have collected what is known about the place name Negombo in the website listed at the end of this note [2]. I quote from it below:

The name Meegamuva is believed to refer to a village (gamuwa) which was reputed for its honey (mee). Thus, the Mahavamsa-based tradition has it that honey was procured from this region for Queen Vihara Maha Devi, (2 century BCE)[3], initially from a honeycomb found in a boat turned upside down. It could also refer to a forest of Mee trees, Madhuca Longifolia (Koenig). It is well known that placenames have been based on vegetation and prominent land marks; in our view, this is the most likely source of the name.

Another interesting legend is that the name is related to “Nihumbala, the nephew of the Yakka king Raavana. The Tamil form, Neerkozimpu may mean water, and ‘kozimpu’ is sometimes claimed to mean ‘village’, but such a meaning is not recognised in standard Tamil Lexicons. Also, the Tamil name originally applied only to the lagoon-like area and not to the whole of Meegamuwa. Given the ancient histoofthe village, kozimpu may have comefrom the sinhala kalapuva adorned with the Tamil “nir”.

Maya Oya flows north of Negombo and falls into the ocean near Kochchikade. This was an early center of the cinnamon trade, set up by the Moors in medieval times. The Portuguese ousted them in the 16th century and built a fort, and established a strong Catholic religious centre here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 1644 CE. The ruins of the fort, with its fine archway marked ‘1672’ can still be seen. In 1796 the British took over Negombo, by which time the cinnamon trade had declined. The town has remained strongly Roman catholic to this day.

Frivolous folk-lore etymology attriutes the name ‘Negambo’ to nikam biruva. That is, a dog ‘just barked’ is said to be the response given by a non-comprehending bystander to a colonial who asked ‘what is the name of this town? While GADS recognizes such frivolities for what they are, the claim that Meegamuwa or Neer-kozimpu comes from the Tamil words for “sea captain” can be very intriguing if anyone takes it seriously; one cannot find a source for substantiating such a claim in any reputed Tamil lexicon or Tamil literary source.

[1]Madras Tamil Lexicon.

[2] index.html

[3] Mahawamsa, XXII, verse 48.

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How to conserve electricity at home and workplace



Going through my old paper clippings, I came across the following news item which is more applicable today when the country is facing a severe energy crisis on how to conserve or restrict the use of electricity at Offices and other working places.

There are several ways of conserving electricity at home, offices and other workplaces. It is absolutely necessary to do so because electricity is harmful for our environment and the planet we live in.

Here is how

(a)  Unplug all electrical appliances in the kitchen when not in use, except the refrigerator. This includes coffee pots, sandwich toasters, blenders and ovens. These appliances use small amounts of electricity when they are left in standby mode.

(b)  When it comes to washing, soap them first and then open the tap halfway to wash them.

(c)   Use the washing machine once a week. Try washing some of your lighter clothes by hand and save jeans and other heavy clothing for the washing machine

(d)  When drying your clothes, do not use the dryer unless very necessary. Hang wet clothes on a line in the backyard which is an easy way of drying them and clothes dry so easily during the day in this intensely hot weather.

(e)  Change the traditional light bulbs for energy saving bulbs. The garden lights can be replaced with solar powered lights. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is out of direct sunlight and not next to the oven. Avoid putting hot dishes in the refrigerator as it will have to work harder to cool the dish, therefore wait for a while for the dish to cool and then put it in the refrigerator.

(f)    Unplug any phone or laptop chargers when they are not in use.

(g)  Unplug the computer when it is not in use. This is very important because it can get very badly damaged if it is plugged in during a thunderstorm. You may not even be at home during the storm, so it is advisable to unplug the computer when it is not being used. Do not leave the computer switched on for long hours.

(h)  Unplug the television set and gaming consoles too, as they can get damaged if they are on standby mode during a thunderstorm.

(i)    Keep DVD players, TVs and other audio and stereo equipment plugged into a multi-port which can be turned off with one switch. This saves electricity.

(j)    Turn off the lights, fans and air-conditioner when you leave the room. Remember that you do not need the lights switched on during the day.

(k)  Do not use electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners and use the broom instead.


Via e-mail

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Some lesser known historical facts



The Greek women in ancient Greece realised to their utter dismay that their husbands were always fighting wars overseas. One brave Greek woman, Lysistrata, organised a women’s front with the sole purpose of denying their husbands the marital pleasures unless they remained at home to fulfill their marital duties

Socrates, known for his wisdom, was invited by the King of Sparta, which had waged war against Greece, to be an honorary citizen of Sparta. He gracefully turned down the offer as he valued the democratic way of life in Athens. As he was always arguing with fellow Athenians neglecting household work his wife used abusive language on him in the presence of his companions. Socrates continued with his arguments when his wife in utter exasperation treated him with a plate full of dish water. Socrates merely said to his companions that after thunder comes the rain.

In the Olympic games held during the peaceful times the athletes ran the races naked. Women were not permitted to attend them. The penalty was death if a woman was discovered breaking the law. On one occasion a middle-aged woman was caught breaking the law. As she happened to be the mother of a celebrated athlete she was forgiven.

Julius Caesar was caught dressed as a woman in a women only club in Rome. He was not punished since he had gone there only to meet his lover who saved him. On another occasion he had to offer a bribe to the ship’s captain, a pirate, who threatened to throw him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.

Isaac Newton was accused by Robert Hooke for plagiarizing when the former introduced the gravitational constant in his book Principia Mathematica. Hooke was the Secretary of the Royal Society of which Newton was the President. Hooke was the person who encouraged Robert Knox to write the book “Historical Relations…” Newton was accused by the German philosopher Leibniz of plagiarism as the latter had published the calculations of infinitesimal calculus before Newton. There was a rule in the Universities that dons should take holy orders. The king exempted Newton from this obligation. Newton’s denial of the divinity of Jesus and the trinity did not earn any punishment from the ecclesiastical authorities. The complementary part of calculus, integral calculus, had been discovered by Archimedes in the second century BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome the intellectual supremacy and the culture of Greece saw a gradual decline. It was known that the burial place of Archimedes was a much-venerated place visited by Greeks. The Romans did not show such veneration and the burial place got neglected. However, when Cicero, a Roman intellectual, lawyer and writer became the governor of Athens in the second half of the first century BC, he visited the burial site and had the monument restored to its former state. He noticed the epitaph wherein the symbol of a sphere within a cylinder had been inscribed.

A century later Rome conquered England, killing the English queen Boudica. There stands the figure of this queen on a horse (close to the underground tube station Westminster) with words emblazoned on the flanks in poetic language indicating that while England was colonised by Rome, England had conquered half of the world.

Guy Fawkes was the man who made an attempt to set fire to the Parliament building. This incident is known as the “Gunpowder plot”. He failed in his attempt and was executed. This incident may be compared to the attempt by a JVP member who threw a hand grenade when a Cabinet meeting was taking place in the Parliament building with the President JRJ presiding. The culprit got away.

When a German prince from Hanover became George the First of England, he found life in England very dull as he could not speak English. So, he invited his old German friend Handel, the musician, to be his companion. It was during this time that Handel composed his famous “Water music” and many operas.

Dr. Leo Fernando

Talahena, Negombo

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