KANOWIT: Located about 60km from Sibu, this town of 29,000 predominantly Iban population sits nicely on the banks of Sungai Rajang, the country’s longest river.
From Sibu, it takes about one-and-a-half hours on an express boat to reach this town.
It was the administrative centre for Sarawak’s Central region during the time of the state’s White Rajah.
That is about the best of Kanowit’s achievements during the colonial years.
Now Kanowit is a “success story” for the Sarawak government’s concept of developing commercial oil palm estates on Native Customary Rights (NCR) land. It began in 1996.
Kanowit district was chosen to spearhead this concept and there are some 1.5 million hectares of such land in Sarawak.
By the state’s Land Code definition, NCR land is that which had been occupied and cultivated before Jan 1, 1958.
Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who mooted this new agricultural concept, said it could help in eradicating rural poverty and expedite infrastructure development in the state’s interior.
“Under this concept, there will be a combination of capital brought in by people who have the money as well as regimented labour and management expertise by those trained in modern methods of plantation agriculture,” he said.
Taib said that NCR landowners were only required to allow their land to be used for at least 60 years with options to renew the lease.
Under the agreement, profit would be shared by the developer (60%) and landowners (30%). The remaining 10% goes to the Land Custody Development Authority (LCDA) that acts as a trustee for the landowners.
State assemblyman for Machan, Datuk Gramong Juna, who is also the Sarawak Rural and Land Development Assistant Minister, was instrumental in campaigning for the concept’s eventual acceptance.
It took him almost a year to convince the NCR landowners, most of them illiterate, to accept the concept.
Land is a very sensitive issue for the natives.
Coupled with “spoilers” thrown in by the so-called environmentalists and aspiring politicians, Gramong found himself cornered from all sides.
But Gramong stood his ground. From time to time, his “white knights” included the chief minister himself and Cabinet ministers.
When the dust settled, the first investor to come in was Kuala Sidim Bhd, a subsidiary of plantation giant Boustead Holdings Berhad, on Aug 19, 1996.
The Boustead/Pelita joint venture was then formed.
Under this joint venture, the Kanowit Oil Palm Plantation took shape. To date, it has spent more than RM200mil including RM35mil on a palm oil processing mill.
KOP has planted oil palm trees on 14,000ha of land and is developing another 10,000ha. Last year, it harvested about 160,000 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches.
Gramong said KOP involved 1,685 families from 111 longhouses in Kanowit with a high number of these people being employed in the plantations.
“Of course, the diehard critics are still around, as well as some yet-to-be-met pledges, but it cannot be denied that the project has sparked a new impetus and life for Kanowit and its people.
“If social indicators are anything to go by, we can see a higher standard of living among the longhouse folk,” he said.
Gramong said the longhouse people were able to afford bigger refrigerators and television sets apart from buying motorcycles and electricity generators.
Some bought Perodua Kancil cars while others now had gleaming four-wheel-drive vehicles, he said.
There was also treated water and power supply infrastructure, said Gramong.
Based on official statistics, the project created 76 local contractors who earned between RM3,000 and RM8,000 a month. The average monthly income for each family jumped from RM296 in 1996 to RM720 now.
The owner of a supermarket that occupies four shop lots here, Hock Tong Seng, said his business had gone up.
However, not everyone spend their money here as Sibu was only 60km away, he said.
January this year saw Perak-based Putaran Bijak Sdn Bhd arriving to develop a 7,000ha of oil palm estate. It has an option for another 8,000ha.
Managing director Abdul Rashid Datuk Shaharuddin expected the company to spend RM60mil in development costs.
Another company, Team Plate Sdn Bhd from Johor is preparing a nursery for a 11,360ha oil palm estate. The company was allocated the land late last year.
Some 1,800 families from 83 longhouses are expected to benefit from these developments.
Gramong said that two new areas of 22,980ha and 8,000ha had been identified for future development.
He was hoping for the companies to adopt an integrated concept like rearing cattle and planting fruit trees in their plantations.
On Kanowit’s future, Gramong said there were plans for a government housing scheme, new commercial and light industrial zones paving the way for the birth of a satellite town.
He said a study was conducted for Kanowit to have its own tourism niche based on local culture and traditions.
Gramong’s priority remained in getting more roads built to open up Kanowit’s huge hinterland.
A major ongoing project is the RM50mil Kanowit-Ngemah road that will link the town to the Poi, Dap and Ngemah interiors.
Completion of the RM96mil Sibu-Durin bridge, the last missing link on the Pan Sarawak Highway in September this year, means more visitors and business opportunities will be coming in for Kanowit. – Bernama
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