NCR landowners switch to oil palms

Although Felda is a well-known success story for improving the lives of its settlers from its oil palm plantation estates, the story in Sarawak is different. A lot of land there is owned indigenous people and many have just discovered the fortunes of planting oil palms over subsistence crops. OOI TEE CHING spoke to some landowners and found that they need some help to get the ball rolling.

IN THE small town of Selangau in Sarawak, some 50-odd people had waited patiently for five hours. Led by their headman Puji Majan, 65, these are native customary rights (NCR) landowners who want to plant oil palm trees but are asking for the government's financial help.

Soon, Datuk Shahrir Samad, chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), arrived and apologised for the delay caused by a schedule change. He came bearing good news. As the crowd proceeded to the makeshift shelter, Shahrir reassured Puji and his villagers that their application to MPOB for the RM7,000 per ha subsistence is being deliberated. "By October, we should have an answer," he said.

Although Felda is a well-known success story for improving the lives of its settlers from its oil palm plantation estates, the story in Sarawak is different. A lot of land in Sarawak is held by NCR landowners who are essentially the indigenous people there.

The state government wants to help develop these NCR land as a way to lift the people's income. So far, a total of 31 joint-venture companies had been formed to develop NCR land. As at June 2011, close to 56,000ha of NCR land is already planted with oil palms.

Many NCR landowners have seen the life-changing effects of oil palm planting and they want to do the same. The villagers of Selangau from three longhouses now want to plant up 50ha with oil palm trees after witnessing the success of the younger brother of the headman, Jabieng Majan, 60, who started planting oil palms, 12 years ago.

Back then, Jabieng, also an NCR landowner, planted 4ha with oil palm trees. In 1996, Jabieng recalled a friend who was working in a palm oil mill telling him, "if I were a native like you, I would've planted oil palm trees on NCR land. Palm oil prices are good, you can't go wrong with oil palms. The world needs more cooking oil."

Since venturing into oil palm planting with the financial assistance from the Agriculture Department, Jabieng's income has improved significantly. "Fifteen years ago, I used to live from hand-to-mouth. Now, with oil palm fruit bunches averaging at RM600 per tonne, I've settled most of my borrowings. I'm also able to expand my landholding by five times to 20ha," Jabieng said.

Along with the RM7,000 per ha subsistence for seedlings and fertilisers, the villagers highlighted to Shahrir that more funds are needed for basic farmland infrastructure. In Selangau, it costs RM2,000 per hectare to terrace undulating terrains and set out proper drainage. As for gravel roads, it would cost a further RM8,000 per km.

Shahrir told the smallholders to form co-operatives under MPOB so that they can hire heavy machinery to terrace hillsides, establish farm roads and proper drainage when opening up new oil palm estates.

From that meeting point, Shahrir travelled on to another estate owned by NCR landowner Salimah Kanawang, 34. "My husband works very hard out in the sea. It's tough. My children and I don't get to see him as often as we like," she said. Salimah then related her struggles to make ends meet for her two schoolgoing children.

"More than 10 years ago, when pepper price was good, I managed to save enough money to buy this land. Soon after, pepper price plunged. I decided to plant this 1ha plot with rubber instead. Even then, the returns were not consistent," she added.

Five years on, upon the advice of a friend, she decided to chop all her rubber trees and replant with oil palms. "It's the best crop that has worked for me and my family. Now that the oil palm trees are fruiting, we're able to reap a more rewarding and consistent income," she said.

When asked on her plans for the next five years, Salimah replied, "I want to double up my planted area when I'm able to accummulate enough capital. With this kind of returns from selling the oil palm fruits, my hope of sending my young children for tertiary education looks more promising."

Another NCR landowner Maran Entli, 56, works on a 1.04ha planted with 500 oil palm trees. Since planting the trees four years ago, he is harvesting 500kg of fresh fruit bunches a month.

"We used to plant this plot with other fruit trees like durians, pineapples and bananas. Our income was irregular and prices were not always good. Since switching over to oil palms, things have changed for the better," he said.

"Five or six years ago, I didn't have enough capital to hire bulldozers to terrace the land. As you can see my land is very steep. We do experience fertiliser run-off," Maran said. He then expressed hope that with the help of his children, he would like to double up his landholding to plant up 1,000 oil palm trees. "This time, however, we want to do things proper. We're seeking the government's help to terrace the hillside and carve out farm roads," he said.

Gelayak Banyoi, 56, whose farm is just five minutes drive away from Maran's said farming can be very capital intensive. Fertiliser, a necessary mix of crop nutrients, is very expensive. "If the government is able to subsidise fertilisers, it would be helpful," he said.

Five years ago, Gelayak used to only plant hill padi. He recalled the hard times and spoke of his turning point when his children's school teacher advised him to switch over to oil palm planting. "Now that the oil palm trees have started to bear fruits, we get to harvest the fresh fruit bunches every 10 days. Compared to to hill padi, which takes 10 months. Even then, the yield and the price is not as good as palm oil," he said.

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