'Moratorium on oil palm planting unacceptable'

As calls to stop planting oil palms on peat soil resurface, lawmakers tell OOI TEE CHING that timely communication of facts and figures of peat agriculture is imperative for the good of Malaysia's economy.

LAST week, opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim outlined Pakatan Rakyat's policy in taking care of oil palm planters' interests, should the opposition come into power at the federal level.

In his bid to win the hearts of oil palm planters, which make up a significant vote bank, Anwar unwittingly struck a raw nerve when he lobbied Malaysia to stop planting oil palms on peat soil, pending studies on carbon emissions and sequestration.

When met at Putrajaya yesterday, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, who is also Penampang Member of Parliament, rejected Anwar's lobby.

"This is not acceptable. Anwar's lobby for a moratorium seems to be echoing that of western environment non-governmental organisations' (WENGOs) mantra," he told Business Times after officiating at the close of "Branding of Malaysian Palm Oil" workshop yesterday.

Time and again, WENGOs like Greenpeace and Wetlands International, and their local affiliates, have claimed that oil palm planting on peatland causes tremendous pollution in the form of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission when water is drained from the soil.

These groups, however, fail to provide any credible scientific evidence to support their allegations.

"For Anwar to lobby a move that echoes the WENGOs' shows that he is not guided by logic. How can planting oil palms be highly polluting when these trees, like any other forest species, produce oxygen for us to breathe?" he asked.

"Sarawak is Malaysia's final frontier in oil palm planting. If Anwar is a responsible lawmaker serving the best interest of the rakyat, he should go to Sarawak and see how the oil palms, nurtured with good agricultural practices, are thriving on peatland," Dompok said.

The minister also said GHG emission is not really an issue as Malaysia is a net carbon sink country with more than 80 per cent of tree cover provided by permanent forests and plantation crops, including oil palms, rubber, cocoa and coconuts. 

Dompok then sought tighter support from media practitioners to convey the facts and figures of sustainable practices by oil palm planters to quash baseless claims by irresponsible people who have vested interests to lobby against oil palm planting in Sarawak's 1.6 million hectare of peatland.

In a separate telephone interview from Sarawak, Kapit Member of Parliament, Datuk Alexander Linggi, concurred with Dompok that it is of national economic interest that progress studies of sustainable peatland farming is communicated to the relevant channels and done in a timely manner so that investors understand how best to optimise what is available in Sarawak.

Linggi spoke of higher economic potential of oil palm planting compared with other cash crops. 
"Nobody criticises pineapple planting on peatland. So, why are there unfair attacks from environment activists when my people want to plant oil palms?" he asked. 

"The oil palm is an economic security crop for Sarawak and the country," he said, in reference to Malaysia's annual US$20 billion (RM60.8 billion) palm oil exports which support some two million jobs and livelihoods along the sprawling value chain.

Johor Bahru Member of Parliament Tan Sri Shahrir Abdul Samad, who is also chairman of the Malaysia Palm Oil Board, noted that zero burning, good water management and palm nutrition are imperative when planting oil palms in peat soil.

"The intensity of drains depends on the topography of the field and planting density but the primary objective is to keep the water levels at 50 cm to 75 cm from the surface at most times," he said.

This is achieved through a series of stops, weirs and water-gates. Periodic flushing of the acidic and excessive storm water during the rainy season is also carried out, he added.

Shahrir highlighted that in Peninsular Malaysia, oil palms planted on peat soil by United Plantations Bhd is being carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner, even after three generations.