Offering free technical advice and training, KL-based social enterprise Wild Asia sets about to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm in Sabah’s Kg Toniting.
WHEN it comes to oil palm cultivation, Sugumaran Maniam is a veteran of sorts. His five-hectare plot in Sabah’s Kg Toniting has been churning out average yields for nearly two decades. Coupled with his wife’s income from a full-time administrative job, the smallholder’s earnings provide comfortably for his family of three.
Then in 2012, folks from KL-based social enterprise Wild Asia arrived in Sugumuran’s village, telling him and his fellow smallholders that Wild Asia could help them do better.
“My first question was, ‘why are they telling us what to do?’ Those days, we didn’t know anything about RSPO (Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil),” admits Sugumuran during an interview in Toniting, a two-hour drive from Sandakan. “I thought they were wasting their time!”
But Sugumuran decided to hear them out.
One year later, in September 2013, he and 41 other smallholders in Toniting became the first independent smallholder group in Malaysia certified under the RSPO Group Certification Standard. To date, there are only eight groups of independent smallholders certified (under Group Certification Standard) in the world, including groups from Thailand and Indonesia.
RSPO was set up in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products using a multi-stakeholder approach. Members range from growers and processors to consumer goods manufacturers and environmental NGOs. European countries including Britain, Belgium and The Netherlands have pledged to import 100% certified palm oil by 2015. Today, certified palm oil makes up 16% of the total palm oil market.
But beyond meeting market demands and adopting greener practices, certified growers tend to enjoy long-term increase in yields and productivity due to better farm management, as Sugumaran and his peers have found out.
In Malaysia, there are 192,000 independent smallholders cultivating about 14% of the country’s total oil palm area, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).
Smallholders are individuals who cultivate land under 40ha in total. Unlike their supported or “scheme” smallholder counterparts such as Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) growers, however, these independent farmers receive limited training, funding and technical support.
A 2008 study shows that independent farmers are less efficient than other producers, due to their smaller plot size (averaging four hectares) and poor agricultural pratices such as using inferior quality seedlings, maintaining old palms and using scant fertilizers.
Lending a hand
This is where the Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) comes in. Wags provides free technical advice, training and capacity building to help small producer groups meet certification standards and access international markets. Through the initial contact provided by MPOB, Wild Asia identified the Toniting group for their pilot Wags project, dubbed the Wags-Sabah, Beluran project. MPOB and Johnson&Johnson (an American multinational medical devices, pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods manufacturer) funded the pilot.
A new settlement established in the early 1990s, Toniting boasts a population of 420, out of which about 100 are oil palm farmers. They are mainly Orang Sungai and Kadazan who moved from the Ulu Sapi area when the logging companies ceased operations.
“The villagers were given plots of land for agricultural purposes and many started planting oil palm” says Dean Ismail, Wild Asia’s Sabah-based field coordinator for WAGS.