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Oil Palm Expansion – In Retrospect

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The recent Policy Statement of the President has made the Government’s position on expansion of oil palm cultivation very clear. It will have to be stopped. This statement marks the culmination of a period of great uncertainty on the future of oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka. The former President too made similar remarks on banning oil palm cultivation, but whether there was a legal instrument to implement that decision was unclear. Now it is final.

It would be pertinent to examine the circumstances that led to the expansion of oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka. Oil palm had been planted at Nakiyadeniya Estate near Galle in the late 1960s and gradually expanded to about 2,500 ac. A factory to extract oil was also established. With the land reforms, the State Plantations Corporation (SPC) took over the management of this estate. SPC realised there was no research support for this crop. Following some problems attributed to a disease, the writer was requested by the late Lincoln Perera of SPC to visit the estate and look at the problems. It was my first visit to Nakiyadeniya Estate, and had a guided tour within the estate by Livera, the Superintendent. Whilst the matter of the ‘disease’ was soon sorted out, I was amused and curious to see many people, both men and women (but more women), walking about the estate in a strange costume – a closer examination revealed they were wearing gunny bags. On inquiry, I was told that they were ‘pollinators’, and Livera kindly showed me the process of pollination. These hapless workers would manually climb the trees, and the gunny bags provided protection from the thorny stem of the tree. They would then use a puffer to pollinate the bunch. The process is done ad nauseam. That is how they produced oil palm fruits for extraction of oil.

I was still struck by what I saw, and while driving back remembered reading on an insect that is being used to pollinate oil palm in South America and South East Asia. I managed to retrieve the paper, and having read through it, informed Lincoln Perera about the pollinating weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus. I think he immediately conveyed this message to the Chairman, SPC, the late Ranjan Wijeratne who requested me to meet him – and a detailed inquisitive discussion on the content of the research paper followed. Based on the scientific evidence presented, he decided to import the insect. I then briefed him on the animal and plant quarantine regulations. Following ministerial level discussions, the Quarantine Division of the Department of Agriculture issued a permit to import the insect, and asked the Coconut Research Institute to carry out post-entry quarantine under their supervision.

I was able to arrange the introduction of the insect via the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control, England (now called Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau). One of its Principal Scientists, Dr Peter Ooi from CIBC, Malaysia, personally carried a laboratory-bred consignment of about 700 pupae (inactive immature form before the adult insect) to Sri Lanka. Of this, about 200 pupae were retained by the Quarantine for their own testing. About 300 pupae were found to be dead or moribund and were destroyed. The balance 200 were quarantined at the CRI and extensively researched under the supervision of the Quarantine Division of the Dept. of Agriculture. Within about a month, it was possible to raise about 4,000 adult weevils. After approval from the Quarantine authorities, this consignment was released in a block at Nakiyadeniya Estate in January 1987, after Wijeratne personally released the first batch.

The results were spectacular – within several months, the yield increased by about 400% as the insect is able to move inside the oil palm bunch and pollinate deep-seated flowers. And SPC stopped using manual pollinators – which was a welcome relief to all – and used them for other productive work. SPC’s palm oil production rapidly increased, and the factory was working full-time. In due course, there was interest to expand cultivation in satellite estates within SPC in Elpitiya, Baddegama, Neluwa areas. SPC obtained permission to import high-yielding oil palm seeds from the Pacific Islands – they were quarantined under the joint supervision of the Dept, of Agriculture and the CRI in an estate in Neluwa.

Thus, came the interest to expand oil palm. The Regional Plantation Companies were keen – as oil palm produces the highest amount of oil per unit area of land, and is much more profitable given the lower cost of production. The RPCs saw the economic potential in reducing import of vegetable oils, as the country had to import about 50% of its edible oil requirement. The decision of RPCs to expand the oil palm area was also triggered by lack of profitability from rubber, which has been struggling to maintain adequate profits in spite of increasing local value addition. As a result, the area under rubber has decreased significantly – from about 200,000 ha in the 1970s to about 125,000 ha today. Productivity has been low, and RRI laments that its agronomic recommendations are not properly followed. The outlook is continuing disinterest in rubber. Added to this imbroglio is the gradual reduction of coconut oil production as coconut, at last, is getting value added by conversion to powder and packaged milk – a welcome development as we have been struggling to get away from the traditional copra and oil extraction. The RPCs continued its gradual expansion of oil palm, and a second factory was established.

The then Government in 2016 decided to expand oil palm cultivation up to 20,000 ha, and the cultivation to be done only in uncultivated lands, marginal lands, abandoned lands and cultivated lands which have completed the economic life span. It also permitted crop diversification up to 20,000 ha. Presumably, this decision was evidence-based, for most of the literature on issues highlighted now were available then. Consequently, RPCs invested heavily on importing seeds and raising seedlings, which are now ready for the field. If these are not planted, the loss is estimated to be about Rs 500 million.

It would appear that the government’s decision to stop expanding oil palm is based on a report by the Central Environmental Authority (2018). The report has been commissioned as a result of ‘complaints on oil palm’ received by the CEA. However, these complaints are not annexed to the Report. The report is a collection of sector reports. Due to lack of local research, the report relies on research studies done elsewhere in the world where forests or peat bogs have been cleared for oil palm cultivation. The report does not contain the viewpoints of the main stakeholder, the Regional Plantation Companies.

This report could have examined issues more deeply, and avoid naïve statements. The report highlights issues (generated from secondary data/information) of high water use, changing weather pattern, soil erosion and compaction, high fertiliser use compared to rubber, higher evapotranspiration than rubber, effluent discharge issues, effects on vertebrate biodiversity and negative impact on industries and employment in general. On impacts on biodiversity due to the changes of land uses, it concludes: ‘loss of Biodiversity in areas covered by oil palms and also that some species such as snakes have increased their populations (sic). In addition the soil has dried up in these areas as well. … encourage planting coconut in the marginal lands other than the oil Palm.’ The report also states that according to ‘informants’, ‘floods are more frequent during the rainy season, and occur sooner after rainfall events than in the past, when forests and rubber plantations covered the area’. The Coconut Research Institute, which has been mandated to research on oil palm, recommends planting of oil palm in certain agro ecological zones with added precautions.

The respected Agronomist, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha, in an open letter to the President, draws his attention to the shortcomings of the Report, in particular its recommendations. Professor Asoka Nugawela, who was previously Director of RRI, provides a different scenario. On the key question of high water use, which appears to be the main complaint of the communities, water use in oil palm (34,860 litres/ha) is only slightly higher than rubber (31,500 litres/ha). He contends that given the rainfall in the areas, there cannot be a water deficit. He also highlights an important observation, not found in the CEA report, that oil palm fixes a high amount of carbon dioxide. Contrary to the CEA Report, the Centre for Environmental Justice has presented a very balanced policy paper. Whilst acknowledging the various issues, it also highlights the benefits to the country, and concludes, quite rightly, that no ad hoc decisions should be made by the plantation companies or by the politicians without following the proper investigations, research and adequate safeguards.

The Presidential policy directive has caused much disquiet in the investor sector. Decisions of this nature have long-standing consequences. Investors will be very cautious to approach similar projects, even with Government’s full blessing as has been the case in oil palm. The decision on oil palm should have been made on sound scientific and socio-economic investigations. We have enough expertise to undertake such studies, and funding agencies such as the Council for Agricultural Research Policy (which should have priority on this issue), the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation are few where the Government could request launching an integrated multi-sectoral research programme to gather evidence on oil palm cultivation and its effects on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and communities.

If a ban on oil palm expansion or replanting is to be imposed, then it is suggested that it be reconsidered with a phased out medium to long term time-line, with an exit strategy detailing the proposed actions for land use once the current stand is uprooted, noting that the life-span of oil palm is relatively short. What would be the future of the two factories? CEA has recommended planting coconut – a review of CRI’s soil classification will reveal that this area in the agroecological Zones WL1 and WL 2 are marginal for coconut. In the meantime, the best option would be to allow RPCs to plant existing seedlings which are maturing in the nurseries, and to launch a comprehensive research programme to seek answers to the questions set out in CEA’s report and elsewhere. A final, well-thought out decision could then be made.

On a different but related topic, whilst commending CEA’s interest on environmental effects of oil palm cultivation, it is submitted that it should also look at environmental issues relating to other crops. For example, it is documented that potato cultivation, particularly in undulating lands in the upcountry, causes serious soil erosion due to frequent soil disturbance; equally, vegetable cultivation in these areas is also known to cause erosion, and more importantly, polluting water-ways with agro-chemicals. Mid-country tea holdings have very little topsoil due to heavy erosion. There are blatant violations of the Soil Conservation Act in the mid and up-country. It is fervently hoped that CEA will look at these issues with the same zest so that the resultant damage to the national economy could be reduced.

 

Dr RANJITH

MAHINDAPALA

 

[The writer was former Director of CRI, former Executive Director of the Council for Agricultural Research Policy, former Country Representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sri Lanka, and the Immediate Past President of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka.]


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Opinion

Take Human Rights seriously, not so much the council or office

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By Dr Laksiri Fernando

The 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council started on 22 February morning with obvious hiccups. The Office, to mean the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, finally decided to hold all sessions virtually online, only the President of the Council and the assistants in the high table sitting at the UN Assembly Hall in Geneva. The President, Ms. Nazhat Shammen Khan, Ambassador from Fiji in Geneva, wearing a saree, was graceful in the chair with empty seats surrounding.

In the opening session, the UN General Assembly President, UN General Secretary, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Head of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland (as the host country), addressed remotely the session. In fact, there was no need for Switzerland to have a special place, as the UN is independent from any host country. Switzerland is fairly ok, however, if this tradition is followed, the UN General Assembly may have to give a special place to the US in New York.

 

Initial Addresses

UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres’ address could have been quite exemplary if he gave a proper balance to the developed and developing countries. He talked about racism and fight against racism but did not mention where racism is overwhelmingly rampant (US and Europe) and what to do about it. Outlining the human rights implications of Covid-19 pandemic, he made quite a good analysis. It was nice for him to say, ‘human rights are our blood line (equality), our lifeline (for peace) and our frontline (to fight against violations).’ However, in the fight against violations, he apparently forgot about the ‘blood line’ or the ‘lifeline’ quite necessary not to aggravate situations through partiality and bias. He never talked about the importance of human rights education or promoting human rights awareness in all countries.

His final assault was on Myanmar. Although he did not call ‘genocide,’ he denounced the treatment of Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing without mentioning any terrorist group/s within. His call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders undoubtedly should be a common call of all. However, he did not leave any opening for a dialogue with the military leaders or bring back a dialogue between Aung San and Min Aung, the military leader. With a proper mediation, it is not impossible. Calling for a complete overhaul as the young demonstrators idealistically claim might not be realistic.

High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s address was brief and uncontroversial this time without mentioning any country or region. It is clear by now perhaps she is not the real author of the Report against Sri Lanka, but someone probably hired by the so-called core-group led by Britain. Her major points were related to the coronavirus pandemic trying to highlight some of the socio-economic disparities and imbalances of policy making that have emerged as a result. The neglect of women, minorities, and the marginalized sections of society were emphasized. But the poor was not mentioned. As a former medical doctor, she also opted to highlight some of the medical issues underpinning the crisis.

Then came the statements from different countries in the first meeting in the following order: Uzbekistan, Colombia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Poland, Venezuela, Finland, Fiji, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea, Vietnam, Belgium, and Morocco. The obvious purposes of these statements were different. Some countries were apparently canvassing for getting into the Human Rights Council at the next turn perhaps for the purpose of prestige. Some others were playing regional politics against their perceived enemies. This was very clear when Lithuania and Poland started attacking Russia.

But there were very sincere human rights presentations as well. One was the statement by the President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. He outlined the devastating effects that Afghanistan had to undergo during the last 40 years, because of foreign interferences. The initial support to Taliban by big powers was hinted. His kind appeal was to the UN was to go ‘beyond discourse to practice’ giving equal chance to the poor and the developing countries to involve without discrimination.

 

Controversial Presentations

China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, made his presentation almost at the end of the first day. This is apparently the first time that China had directly addressed the Human Rights Council. Beginning with outlining the devastating repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic he stressed that the world should face the challenges through ‘solidarity and cooperation.’ He broadened the concept to human rights solidarity and cooperation. His expressed views were quite different to the others, particularly to the Western ones.

He frankly said that what he expresses are the views of China on human rights without claiming those are absolute truths or forcing others to believe or implement them. There were four main concepts that he put forward before the member countries. First, he said, “We should embrace a human rights philosophy that centres on the people. The people’s interests are where the human rights cause starts and ends.” Second, he said, “we should uphold both universality and particularity of human rights. Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom are common values shared by all humanity and recognized by all countries.” “On the other hand,” he said, “countries must promote and protect human rights in light of their national realities and the needs of their people.”

“Third,” he said, “we should systemically advance all aspects of human rights. Human rights are an all-encompassing concept. They include civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.” He then emphasized, “Among them, the rights to subsistence and development are the basic human rights of paramount importance.” Fourth, “we should continue to promote international dialogue and cooperation on human rights. Global human rights governance should be advanced through consultation among all countries.”

It was on the same first day before China, that the United Kingdom launched its barrage against several countries not sparing Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, delivered the statement from top to bottom attacking alleged violating countries on human rights. But there was no mentioning of Israel for the repression of Palestinians or the systemic racism rampaging in the United States, including the 6 January attacks on the Capitol by extremist/terrorist groups.

His first sermon was on Myanmar without acknowledging the British atrocities or mismanagement of this poor and diverse country during the colonial period. He was quite jubilant over implementing sanctions and other restrictions over the country. Many sanctions, in my opinion, are extortions. Undoubtedly, Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders should be released, and democracy restored. This is a task of the whole council and when one or two countries try to grab the credit, there can be obvious reservations of others.

His further scathing attacks were against Belarus, Russia, and China. Some appeared factually correct but not necessarily the approach or the motives genuine. The following is the way he came around Sri Lanka. He said,

“Finally, we will continue to lead action in this Council: on Syria, as we do at each session; on South Sudan; and on Sri Lanka, where we will present a new resolution to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.”

‘Action’ to him basically means repeatedly passing resolutions, of course imposing economic and other sanctions. He said, “as we do at each session”; like bullying poor or weak countries at each session. Can there be a resolution against Russia or China? I doubt it.

What would be the purpose of presenting a resolution against Sri Lanka? As he said, “to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.” This will satisfy neither the Tamil militants nor the Sinhalese masses. But it might satisfy the crafty Opposition (proxy of the defeated last government). This is not going to be based on any of the actual measures that Sri Lanka has taken or not taken on reconciliation or accountability. But based on the ‘Authoritarian and Hypocritical Report’ that some anti-Sri Lankans have drafted within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This what I have discussed in my last article.

In this context, successful or not, the statement made by the Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, in rejecting any resolution based on the foxy Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in my concerned opinion, is absolutely correct.

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Opinion

President’s energy directives ignored by the Power Ministry: Another Point of View

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Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya

Dr Janaka Rathnasiri laments (The Island 19 Feb 2021) that the Power Ministry has ignored the President’s directive to draw 70% of energy from renewable sources by 2030. I saw the approved costs of electricity production for 2019, published by the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL).

PUCSL has also approved the prices to sell electricity to customers. Although various customers pay at various “approved” prices, the average income from such “approved” prices in 2019 was Rs 17.02 per unit. It is not only the Ministry, according to Dr Rathnasiri, ignoring the President; PUCSL is also breaking the law, which says prices and approved costs should be equal.

So there is already an illegal gap of Rs 21.59 minus 17.02 = Rs 4.57 per unit of electricity sold. If electricity prices are not to be increased, as stated by many in the government and PUCSL, let us say the following: Distribution costs should decrease by 0.57 Rs per unit. Generation costs should decrease by Rs 4.00 per unit.

PUCSL also published the approved cost of purchasing or producing electricity from various sources for 2019. The actual energy values were different to what was approved, but let us stick to PUCSL approved figures:

I suggest Dr Rathnasiri fills-up the following table, to show how much electricity will cost in 2030 to produce and deliver, if the President’s 70% target is to be achieved and for PUCSL to abide by the law. Let us assume that electricity requirement in 2030 will be double that of 2019.

Since PUCSL has to save Rs 4 from 13.92, the average selling price for energy should be Rs 13.92 minus 4.00 = Rs 9.92. With a target network loss of 7% (in 2019 it was 8.4%), the average cost of production has to be Rs 9.27 per unit. Eight cages have to be filled-up by Dr Rathnasiri.

In 2012, PUCSL approved the energy cost of electricity produced from coal power to be 6.33 Rs per kWh. In 2019, PUCSL approved 9.89 (56% increase). For renewable energy, it was 13.69 in 2012, and 19.24 in 2019 (a 40% increase, but double the price of electricity from coal fired generation). In 2012, rooftop solar was not paid for: only give and take, but now paid Rs 22, against Rs 9.89 from coal. There seems to be something wrong. The price reductions of renewable energy being promised, being insulated from rupee depreciation, are not happening? Either Sri Lanka must be paying too little for coal, or it may be renewable energy is severely over-priced?

On coal we hear only of some corruption every now and then; so Sri Lanka cannot be paying less than it costs, for coal.

 

Enough money even to donate
vaccines

Another reason for the Ministry of Power to ignore the President’s directive may be the Ministry’s previous experience with similar Presidential directives. In 2015, the President at that time cancelled the Sampur coal-fired power plant, and the Ministry faithfully obliged. That President and that Prime Minister then played ball games with more power plants until they were thrown out of power, leaving a two-billion-dollar deficit (still increasing) in the power sector. Not a single power plant of any description was built.

Where is this deficit? You do not have to look far. In the second table, replace 24.43 with 9.89, to reflect what would have happened if Sampur was allowed to be built. The value 12.79 will go down to 8.55, well below the target of Rs 9.27 per unit to produce. Not only would CEB and LECO report profits, but the government too could have asked for an overdraft from CEB to tide over any cash shortfalls in the treasury. All this with no increase in customer prices. Producers of electricity from renewable energy could enjoy the price of 19.24 Rs per unit. And that blooming thing on your rooftop can continue to enjoy Rs 22 per unit. The Minister of Power, whom Dr Rathnasiri wants to replace with an army officer, would have been the happiest.

In the absence of Sampur (PUCSL’s letter signed by Chairman Saliya Mathew confirmed cancellation and asked CEB not to build it), PUCSL approved electricity to be produced at Rs 21.59 and sold at Rs 17.02 per unit. The annual loss would be Rs (21.59 – 17.02) x 15,093 = Rs 69 billion per year of approved financial loss. Sri Lanka has a Telecom regulator, an Insurance regulator, a Banking regulator, who never approve prices below costs. Sometime ago the telecom regulator asked the operators to raise the prices, when operators were proposing to reduce prices amidst a price war. But the electricity industry regulator is different: he approves costs amounting to 27% more than the price, not just once but, but continuously for ten long years !

That is 370 million dollars per year as of 2019, the economy is spending, and for years to come, to burn oil (and say we have saved the environment). Did the Minister of Health say we are short of 160 million dollars to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine? Well, being a former Minister of Power, she now knows which Presidential “order” of 2015 is bleeding the economy of 370 million dollars per year, adequate to buy all vaccines and donate an equal amount to a needy country.

Prices are the production costs approved by PUCSL for 2019. The selling price approved by the same PUCSL was Rs 9.27 per unit.

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Opinion

Confusion on NGOs and NSOs in Sri Lanka

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If you listen to politicians and journalists here, you will hear of that curious creature rajya novana sanvidane, a Non-State Organization (NSO). Where do you get them? In the uninstructed and dead minds of those who use those terms. In the real world, where politicians and journalists have developed minds, there are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The United Nations is an organization set up by state parties, not by governments. It is true that agents of states, governments, make the United Nations work or fail. Governments may change but not the states, except rarely. When Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia, a new state was formed and was so recognised by the United Nations. However, the LTTE that tried to set up another state was crushed by the established state that it tried to break away from, and the UN had nothing to do with them.

This entirely unnecessary confusion, created out of ignorance, is so destructive that organizations completely loyal to the existing state, are made to be traitorous outfits, for they are ‘non-state organizations’ within the state. There are citizens of each state, but no citizens of any government. Government is but an instrument of the state. In most states there are organizations, neither of the state nor of government: religious organizations including churches. But none of them is beyond the pale of the state.

Those that speak of rajya novana sanvidane give that name partly because they have no idea of the origin of non-governmental organizations. NGOs came into the limelight, as donor agencies, noticed that some governments, in East Africa, in particular, did not have the capacity and the integrity to use the resources that they provided. They construed, about 1970, that NGOs would be a solution to the problem. Little did they realize that some NGOs themselves would become dens of thieves and brigands. I have not seen any evaluation of the performance of NGOs in any country. There was an incomplete essay written by Dr. Susantha Gunatilleka. NGOs are alternatives to the government, not to the state.

Our Constitution emphatically draws a distinction between the government and state, and lays down that the President is both Head of Government and Head of State (Read Article 2 and Article 30 of the Constitution.) It is as head of state that, he/she is the Commander of the Armed Forces, appoints and receives ambassadors and addresses Parliament annually, when a prorogued Parliament, reconvenes. He/she presides over the Cabinet as head of government. The distinction is most clear, in practice, in Britain where Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and head of government. However, in principle, Johnson is the Queen’s First Minister appointed by the sovereign, and resigns by advising her of his decision to do so.

In the US and in India the term ‘state’ has special significance. In India there is a ‘rajya sabha’ (the Council of States) whose members represent constituent States and Union Territories. Pretty much the same is true of the United States. In the US, executive power is vested in the President and heads the administration, government in our parlance. The Head of State does not come into the Constitution but those functions that one associates with a head of state are in the US performed by the President of the Republic. The US President does not speak of my state (mage rajaya) but of my administration, (mage anduva). Annually, he addresses Congress on the State of the Union. Our present President must be entirely familiar with all this, having lived there as a citizen of the US for over a decade. It is baffling when someone speaks of a past state as a traitor to that same state. It is probable that a government was a traitor to the state. ‘Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their (States’) enemies, giving them aid and comfort’. That a state was a traitor to the same state is gobbledygook.

Apart from probable confusion that we spoke of in the previous paragraph, it is probable that a president and other members of a government, including members of the governing party here, find it grandiloquent to speak of his/her/their state (mage/ape rajaya), rather than my government (mage anduva) or Sirisena anduva’ and not Sirisena state; it was common to talk of ‘ape anduva’ in 1956; politicians in 1956 were far more literate then than they are now.

When translating from another language, make sure that you understand a bit of the history of the concept that you translate. A public school in the US is not the same as a public school in the UK.

 

MAHADENAMUTTA

 

 

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