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Monday September 23, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday September 23, 2013 MYT 7:54:45 AM
by chin mui yoon
A better life: Oil palm cultivation spearheaded by the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) has brought prosperity to some of the poorest regions in the state. – ART CHEN/The Star
The sad state of the hardcore poor in Sarawak was altered when they began earning a steady income from oil palm.
MAJEN Minos, 62, still looks slightly dazed when talking about the beautiful bungalow he built with dividends earned from his oil palms. The tiled flooring and spacious interiors fitted with modern conveniences like electricity, piped water, flush toilets, washing machine and gas stove are common to city folks., but they are a stark contrast to the dirt floor, thatched hut which Majen grew up in.
Like many other villagers, Majen had grown rice and pepper in small plots of land, and later worked as a driver with a RM700 salary. He later received a Class F licence for small contractor jobs in construction. In his spare time he operated a food stall. In 1995, Majen heard about land redevelopment schemes under the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) during a series of meetings held with the local communities.
“I listened closely to the arguments presented by some villagers over their fears of having their land seized, but the explanations and guarantees given by Salcra were reasonable and assuring,” recalls Majen during The Star’s visit to oil palm estates developed by Salcra near Kota Samarahan, Sarawak.
“Our land title is in perpetuity and everything is done through documents. Of course I was nervous. But I don’t want to stay poor forever if I don’t take a risk.”
Majen used all of his life savings to purchase 43ha of land spread over eight parcels, most deep in secondary forests or over hilly terrain that was undesirable for agriculture. In 1999, he earned RM10,000 in dividends from the first two parcels of land that were developed. In 2002, he received a further RM10,000 from four parcels and in 2007, RM70,000 from all eight parcels of land that were planted.
This year, Majen pocketed RM120,000. With the profits earned, he invested in his own 60ha plantation and built his dream home for his wife Jelumie Sanggau, 57, and their three children. His eldest child was able to finish tertiary education and has a stable job with a multi-national bank in Kuala Lumpur today.
“Many people have the misconception that they would lose their land to Salcra but today, they regret not participating when they had the opportunity. It was a risk I took. I went around and bought land that others did not want,” says Majen thoughtfully.
“People are envious. But they were not around to see how poor we were back in the 1960s till the 1990s when we finally had a chance to earn a profit from the land. I never dreamt that I could one day live in such a big house with water and electricity. For those of us born into poverty without any opportunity to go to school, this was something impossible.”
Majen is one of the 300,000 smallholders in Malaysia cultivating oil palm who collectively contribute over 18 million tonnes of the palm oil exported annually. These smallholders cultivate some 40% of the land, owning plantations of between four and 40ha in size.
Majen is among the landowners whose lives have been transformed by Salcra schemes that were part of an ambitious plan to optimise vast tracts of under-developed native land in Sarawak since 1976.
Another early beneficiary is Naking Nasom, 69, who used to earn a meagre RM8 a day as a labourer. He decided to entrust his 10ha of land to Salcra in 2000, which earned him an RM18,000 dividend. Today, Naking’s experience has allowed him a Salcra contract to manage 332ha of oil palm land. In addition, he owns 20ha.
Like Majen, he grew up in a thatched bamboo hut and later became a subsistence farmer. Rice, corn and tapioca were daily staples; wild boar and fish were luxuries. Naking’s son Nojey, who became a soldier at 22, recalls how his parents laboured from dawn to dusk to feed him and his four siblings.
“Oil palm is a boon to us,” Nojey says. “They are tough, hardy plants and once they are growing well, only need occasional pruning and four rounds of fertiliser yearly. The trees bear fruit well after 10 years, when their height makes it difficult to harvest the fruits.”
Each hectare has some 140 trees from which workers harvest 14 to 16 tonnes of fruits daily. It takes about 55 fruit bunches to produce a tonne of oil, which fetches about RM31.
On a sunny afternoon at Sebako which has one of the state’s highest oil palm yields, landowner Adris Ail Kabon proudly shows up in his Toyota Hilux. It has been his lifelong dream to own the vehicle.
“When people criticise the Salcra scheme, I only wish they could have seen what this place used to be,” he says. “Nowadays you access this place so easily. There were no roads years ago and there’d be frequent floods during heavy rains, so we got around by bamboo rafts. I remember walking one hour to school every day. We often went to bed hungry. Life was a struggle but out here in the wilderness, we didn’t have any choice.”
During the 1980s, the villagers attempted to cultivate cocoa in short-lived agricultural schemes. When Salcra held meetings to explain about the opening of lands for oil palm, they faced no objections, recalls Adris.
“We didn’t want to live in poverty and desperation forever,” he says. “We were illiterate. The best we could do was work as labourers or lorry drivers. I only wanted a better life for my children. Back then, whenever anyone was sick, we’d have to carry him or her on stretchers made from jute sacks to the Lundu hospital, taking over one hour. This was not the kind of life I wanted for my children. I am grateful that the land surrounding our village has been developed, as previously they were just left idle.”
Adris’ five children, aged between 12 and 23, are all educated. Two are studying at Universiti Teknologi MARA.
“I couldn’t even afford a second-hand pair of trousers as a youth. My kids grew up with toys, television, mobile phones ... I spoil them because I want them to enjoy the kind of childhood I could only dream of.”
On the long drive to Serian, the road is lined on both sides by miles of barren, red-soiled land overgrown with straggly trees and lalang. The lack of productivity on what could be viable agricultural land frustrates Salcra’s senior community development liaison Ayan Nyaee.
“The river here used to be the main transport artery until a gravel road was built in 2004,” he says. “I have seen villages completely transformed when the villagers started earning a steady income from their dividends. Yet some villagers remain stubborn and hold on to the belief that they are required to give up their land for good. I’ve been a farmer since young and it saddens me to see land left idle and uncultivated because of unsubstantiated fears.”
Ayub explains that land disputes sometimes arise between family members who disagree with their inheritance or on whether to surrender the land to Salcra. In such cases, Salcra would not accept the land.
At Kampung Tapu, over 500ha of land is being utilised for oil palm. There are some 1,115 villagers, where half are involved in the Salcra scheme while the remaining half cultivate private estates.
Village head Augustin Minin, 64, is busy tending to his dragon fruit plants which he grows to supplement his already healthy income from oil palm. He joined the Salcra scheme in 1994 along with half of his village.
“Before the scheme, this entire area was pitch dark at night. We studied by the light of candles or kerosene lamps. We were so poor we couldn’t afford to even buy pencils. As such, many dropped out of school. Now, you can see three or four cars parked in every driveway. Our offspring are educated and have graduated from universities,” he says, adding proudly, “I am delighted that one of my six children is currently studying physiotherapy at a local university.”
Augustin initially used a small plot of his father-in-law’s land for oil palm. It proved lucrative, as this was flat, roadside land and not hilly terrain. He currently has 10ha that yielded him RM41,000 in dividends last year. Three months ago, he registered a company, Augustin & Sons, after investing RM200,000 in an earth excavator and a lorry to carry out contract work.
Remembering his difficult childhood, Augustin rewards every child in his village with RM50 for every “A” they score in exams. Under his leadership as village head since 1998, a clinic, church, two community halls, a primary and secondary school and a bridge have been built.
“Some villagers were initially terrified that if the surrounding forests were turned into agricultural land, they could no longer harvest firewood for cooking and bamboo for building houses. We explained that we don’t even need firewood if we have gas stoves and there is abundant food on the table. It took a while to convince them, but you can see the results today.”
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Salcra, oil palm, palm oil, Sarawak, the poor
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