It was reported recently that the world famous KFC group has decided to stop frying chicken in their over 800 outlets in Great Britain in palm oil. The same article reports that palm oil is used widely as cooking oil and employs hundreds of thousands of people in oil palm plantations in developing Asian countries. But as the palm oil has a poor health and environmental record, KFC has decided to use rapeseed oil. Surely, their other outlets all over the world would also follow the same soon.
Further, those who have been to New Zealand and Australia recently must have noticed that there is a vast campaign in those countries against the use of palm oil or palm oil- based products like margarine and soap, purely from the environmental point of view. It has been reported that in Indonesia, the orangutan population is fast declining due to expanding oil palm plantation and many animals and birds cannot survive in the oil palm plantation and hence their population diminishes.
As we all know even in Sri Lanka, most of the birds and animals particularly in Ratnapura, Kegalle, Galle and Kalutara districts live in the rubber plantations, which is the second best home for them next to the rain forest.
Further it is a well known fact that the ground water spouts get dried up fast when the rubber plantation is uprooted even temporarily for replanting purposes.
The situation when such rubber lands are cultivated with oil palm is even worse and we have been able to realize this fact from our own experience from the trial oil palm project started by the RRI at Nakiyadeniya nearly four decades ago.
If another 7500 ha of the so-called low yielding rubber plantations in Kalutara, Ratnapura and Galle Districts were replaced with oil palm as it was planned during 1996-98 period, what would have been the detrimental effects on the environment of our country? What would have been the plight of our rubber-based industries earning as much as Rs 600 million per annum now? Will the protection given by the constitution of Sri Lanka and in election manifestos be there for the Flora and Fauna of our country? Why are policy makers not looking at this issue in a more realistic and positive manner?
It is true that the labour requirement is less for oil palm cultivation and harvesting. But a kg of rubber is selling at over Rs 500 now while the price of palm oil in the market is declining and only Rs 160 now. If so, can this income from palm oil be sufficient to offset the huge fertilizer bill required for oil palm plantation over rubber? Recently it was reported in the newspapers that the entries made by palm oil traders at the Customs are wrong and the Customs are going to inquire the same. A similar investigation must be carefully carried out to ensure the validity of the profits declared by the oil palm growers.
What are the so-called poor yielding rubber fields in plantations? All lands selected for rubber cultivation by estates or plantation companies nowadays, are subjected to careful examination by the officers of the RRI with regard to the soil, annual rainfall and even the rainfall distribution pattern before approval is given for rubber planting. How can they go bad after a few years? That could happen only after a natural calamity like a Tsunami and not by a little extra rain fall or a short drought spell.
From my opinion, as the former Director of the RRI, who had served the longest period as the executive director of this institution, rubber estates planted with the recommendation of the RRI can go wrong only if the management is poor and not due to any change of above cultivation related factors such as soil and the rain fall distribution which had been thoroughly investigated by the RRI at the beginning of the plantation. It is therefore impossible to believe that such rubber lands become poor yielding and unsuitable for rubber.
The RRI’s Dartonfield estate was a liability to the institute as far back as the mid nineties.
The state minister in charge of plantations at that time wanted to give it to private management as it was eating up a substantial amount of cess money allocated to the RRI for research purposes. The offer was advertised in newspapers more than three times without even a bidder for this low yielding estate.
The scientists of the RRI at that time were able to get the approval of the Rubber Research Board and of the Ministry to run the estate by themselves without a superintendent and by adopting recommended plantation practices.
There was severe opposition to that from some board members at that time. But, because there was no other alternative to run this estate which was a burden to the RRI, the board reluctantly agreed to allow a 3-member team of scientists including myself to run the estate without a superintendent.
During this exercise we scientists were able to convert the estate which had been losing over Rs 2.5 million per annum constantly, to a break-even point without a loss within the first 10 months itself.
This was done purely by increasing the intake per tapper to bring the cost of manufacture of rubber down and also by minimizing pilferages and losses during manufacture. Further, within two years, the estate became a unit making Rs 2 million profit in the second year.
It should be noted that these achievements were made while the rubber prices were lowest in the market and before the price improvement in the last quarter of 2002.
With the improvement of rubber prices in the international market, RRI’s Dartonfield estate was consistently recording high profits (in 2010 - Rs 41million) and nowadays partially supporting the research expenditure, provided purely by the Treasury early. Why can’t other rubber estates with better soil and less rainfall do the same? I totally disagree with the lame excuse of plantations that some of their divisions are low yielding and not suitable for rubber.
What happened to the best and the largest rubber estate in the south of Sri lanka which had a world reputation for their crepe rubber? Due to poor management and negligence, today it is in a sad state and almost a liability to that company.
It could happen to any estate if the management is neglected. If all estates listened to the cry of those who are promoting oil palm from 2002 to 2004 saying that rubber is a “Sunset” industry and hence to go for the “Wonder Golden Crop oil palm”, what would have been the plight of our plantations today? Thanks to the cry of RRI scientists, the expansion of oil palm in Kalutara and Galle districts was stopped at 7000 acres level during the last UNP regime.
Had they replaced more rubber land with oil palm selling at just over $1600 a MT today in rubber lands as they planned to do, what would have been their estate income today.
If there is a need to increase oil production in the country for edible purposes, why not select land from other areas in Monaragala and Hambantota districts which are not planted with rubber yet?
It is worth for the decision-makers to note that the demand for rubber will continue to rise steadily and there is no reason for this demand to come down by a big margin.
There can be occasional fluctuations in the rubber price in the international market. But the demand is rising much faster than the growth of supply, according to the International Rubber Study Group. Then why are we switching our valuable rubber plantations over to a crop the demand for which which is slowly dieing?
Hence, with long years of experience in the rubber sector, my humble appeal to the plantations is not to go for oil palm, which is consistently getting rejected by the international community and also is known to be detrimental to the human health and environment, at the cost of any existing rubber land. Rehabilitate low yielding rubber lands with more efficient management practices following the example set by the RRI. Please, be conscious of the environment of our beautiful island and protect them for our future generation.