Raub durian land dispute a very prickly affair

THE durian season may be over, but a prickly and thorny issue has surfaced in Raub, Pahang, the home of the popular but expensive Musang King durian. And sparks have flown.

The issue is simple. On one side is a group of durian farmers who cleared the jungles decades ago, converting the land into durian orchards.

They claim they were encouraged to carry out these farming activities by the government, but the fact is that they never managed to own the land on which they had been cultivating.

These farmers pointed out that they kept applying for titles and licences through the proper channels from the Pahang state government but failed each time.

On the other side is a company that called itself Royal Pahang Durian Produce-PKPP Sdn Bhd.

The Pahang state government has announced that the land would be leased to the company to purportedly legalise it.

RPDR-PKPP is reportedly a joint venture between the Pahang royalty-linked RPD Group and state entity Perbadanan Kemajuan Pertanian Negeri Pahang (PKPP), with the company reportedly aiming to build and operate the country’s first durian processing centre in Raub next year.

According to news reports, the Pahang state government had, on June 24, awarded RPDR-PKPP the lease and rights to use 2,167ha of land in Raub for 30 plus 30 years, with the joint venture partners alleging that the durian farmers had been illegally using the land in question.

The dispute has turned emotional, with a group calling themselves the Save Musang King Alliance (Samka) arguing that they are being pressed into signing an “exploitative contract” requiring them to pay “rent” of RM6,000 per 0.4ha for this year, and an additional levy of up to RM20,000 per 0.4ha based on the durians produced.

The farmers insisted they are getting a “lousy” deal, claiming the contracts offered by RPDR-PKPP required them to pay a levy of RM6,000 per 0.4ha (with about 30 mature durian trees) for this year, which would translate into a RM60,000 levy for a durian farmer who manages 4ha of land.

The controversy is impossible to ignore.

It has generated wide media coverage, and videos of farmers chopping down their durian trees have gone viral. The issue has become a trending topic on social media.

The organisers of the protest, rightly or wrongly, have turned it into an issue where a company is accused of taking advantage of farmers who had laboured with much sweat and tears to produce the fruit.

Never mind that these farmers don’t even own the land.

They claim that it didn’t make sense to pay a huge levy to the company, in addition to also selling their harvest to it, and with a fixed amount every year.

The episode has morphed into a David and Goliath tale of the powerful and well-connected taking on the poor – many of these farmers live in villages at Tras, Sungai Klau, Sungai Chalit, Tula, Cheetang and Kurau.

These names may not ring a bell to most Malaysians but the issue has attracted a following because Malaysians love their durian from Raub or Bentong, two neighbouring districts. It is an issue that they can relate to.

However, the company maintains that after audits, monitoring and compliance with the Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices and environmental regulations, the levy sought for is fair.

RPDR-PKPP said that while it recognised the role of the farmers in cultivating the land spanning several decades, the activities remained illegal.

It noted that the farmers had profited significantly from the government’s efforts in securing China’s frozen whole durian export protocol, adding that it was only right that the state government receive some revenue from land rentals and the Federal Government, some tax revenue.

At 2,167ha, it is easily the biggest piece of land with mature durian trees in Malaysia (other huge lands invested by many tycoons take up to seven years before they get to see any durian.)

There is plenty at stake here because Raub is the main producer of Musang King durians in the world. It has the perfect terrain as the best durians come from hilly areas.

This means that the most expensive Musang King durians come from Raub. Here’s the math – the potential harvest from an acre of mature Musang King orchard per year is RM156,000 against rubber (RM4,000) and oil palm (RM17,500).

Older Malaysians, who love the King of Fruits, will tell you that a decade ago, it was priced at around RM10 per kg but has now shot up to about RM45 per kg because of the growing demand from China and Singapore.

But a simple check online shows that these durians – with their thick and yellow flesh, and creamy, sweet and sometimes bitter taste – can fetch up to RM200 a piece.

We all know there isn’t a fixed price mechanism for durians as it’s a free market system.

The Chinese demand for durian is enormous. The total import of durians by China is 600,000 tonnes, worth a whopping RM7.24bil in 2019, although Malaysian durians actually made up only a small portion of it.

In the first quarter of 2020, the figure came up to RM94mil, which means this – the potential is enormous.

The company and farmers obviously understand the huge amount of money at stake here. Musang King is pure gold. Let’s be frank, the issue here is all about money.

While the farmers have been vocal, egged on by local opposition politicians, the company has chosen to remain relatively silent.

A general election is looming. It doesn’t make political sense to make voters unhappy, especially when many Malaysians perceive that the powerful ones seem to enjoy greater clout over others.

The farmers have said if the state government could legalise the land for the company, why couldn’t the same be done for them?

It would not be a surprise if the dispute goes to court.

The outcome could turn out to be a sweet or a bitter one to the parties involved, much like the taste of the heavenly Musang King.

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