THE rapid expansion of the palm oil industry in the 1980s saw vast swathes of land taken up for oil palm plantations over the last few decades. Up until 2018, the total oil palm planted area in Malaysia is estimated at 5.85 million ha, the bulk of these plantations are in Sabah and Sarawak.
In recent times, the plantation industry has been under the spotlight over negative press coverage. Critics are accusing the industry of irresponsible practices, loss of natural forest reserves and for replacing the diverse natural ecosystem with a monoculture crop, among other things. Oil palm growers have been receiving the bulk of the blame.
As the local plantation industry looks to diversify into other crops, with durians being the recent favourite, there is renewed concerns about farming practices which could be damaging to the environment.
In a time when environmental awareness is at its peak, planters will need to be more cautious in the way they acquire and manage their plantations.
Notably, high profile cases such as the alleged encroachment of forest land by durian plantation companies in Gua Musang, Kelantan, which is home to a sizeable group of indigenous people, has not helped the farmers’ cause.
And with durian farming clearly becoming the next big thing for Malaysia’s agricultural sector, all eyes will be on these large-scale durian plantations, waiting to see if they have adopted good practices including planting on existing agricultural land rather than clearing native forest, planting other crops among the durian trees to avoid creating a monocrop area and reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides used.
However, Newleaf Plantation Bhd founder and managing director Kenny Wan sought to clear the air over the fear of a repeat of forest destruction that may happen in the wake of commercial-scale durian cultivation.
To be sure, durian plantations will not reach the size and scale of oil palm anytime soon, given that the commercial planting of oil palm was way ahead of other commercial agricultural products, according to Wan.
He adds that the vast majority of the land currently used for durian farming were previously timber logging areas and secondary jungles.
One of the requirements for logging concessions is that the timber companies had to carry out replanting efforts to replenish the logged timbers.
“But not all of them are willing or able to meet the requirements. Many are willing to work with plantation companies to rehabilitate the logged areas, hence providing the opportunity for plantation companies to develop new durian farming land.
“As far as we are concerned, no new land is being cleared to make way for new durian plantation. All the plantations are either on existing agriculture land, or lands that are ripe for reforestation. There are still plenty of land available and there is no shortage of land to develop new plantations, ” says Wan. With demand set to grow, more established plantation companies are eyeing opportunities to move into the durian business. Even major plantation companies like IOI Corp and Sime Darby Plantations are also starting to venture into durian farming, says Wan.
Other recent entries include FGV Holdings Bhd, the largest plantation land owner in Malaysia.
Going forward, with the entry of large established plantation players into the durian farming space, the industry may see more technology advancements that can help planters adopt good farming practices and reduce environmental impacts, he says.
Malaysian farmers have generations-old experiences and decades of ecological studies on planting durian, allowing them to cultivate countless varieties of durians that are well known and have export quality. If planters can couple their know-how with advanced technology and good farming practices, the industry could become a strong example of what sustainable farming would look like.
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