Article first published as Black Gold: Oil Palm Crop Boosts Malaysian Economy, Defies Rain Forest Defense on Blogcritics.
The oil palm tree is neither beautiful nor imperious like the oak, mango, or neem. Oil palm trees usually spread a canopy above with branches venturing out in all directions. The trunks of the trees are generally broad, thick, and brown. They display a grand elegance.
The oil palm tree is lanky with dark black trunks and a cluster of green fronds at the top. There are scales in the trunk which depict a peculiar insert. In between the fronds we can locate the black fruits. The fruit consists of thousands of black berries which turn yellowish-red when they ripen.The tree yields fruits all throughout the year.
Oil palms earn much revenue, outscoring tea and coffee plantations. They have replaced the rain forests of Malaysia. Conservationists believe that their presence poses a threat to the environment. The rain forests controlled greenhouse gas emissions. The growth of oil palm plantations in Malaysia has also endangered the flora and fauna of the region, although the composure of the plantation is such that there is vegetation amidst the trees sufficient to protect the orangutans.
The concept of sharing is in vogue in the cultivation of the oil palm. Land sharing helps in conserving the species and acquiring good revenue. Most plantations are not manned. There is free movement of animals and reptiles. Man and animal co-exist without harming each other. The cry from the Western world goes unheeded in this part of the world. Westerners feel that rain forests are being destroyed for man’s greed. No. it is not so. They are being cleared for man’s survival. The West says the orangutans are being eliminated. But Malaysians defend themselves by pointing out that they cultivate the oil palm for their betterment, they grow oil palm for their prosperity. If the West bans oil palm products there is an even bigger market ready in China. Restrictions set by Western countries would not dampen the Malaysian spirit.
Harvesting the fruits is an experience in itself. The harvester uses a long rod fitted with a sharp sickle. He looks up at the tree and identifies the ripe fruit. Then he accurately places the sickle on the frond that holds the fruit. He pulls it first, then sharply hacks the fruit. It falls down with a thud. Ripe fruits should be plucked. Unripe fruits yield less oil and affect the quality so would be rejected by the oil mills.
The fruit weighs between 20 and 25 kilograms. The harvester moves to the next tree. Some may hold two or three, some only one. The plucking needs great experience and greater skill. Less skilled workers collect the fruits and dump them in mounds near the paths so lorries can motor in and load the fruits. Each lorry accommodates 7 to 7.5 tonnes. About 350 fruits go to make up 7.5 tonnes. The harvesting is carried out once in 15 days.
Oil palm is affably referred to as “black gold.” It’s true that this fruit is a money spinner. It requires timely application of fertilizer and periodic application of pesticide. It is a high consumer of nitrogen. It needs no irrigation as it is in rain-fed areas. Trenches are dug between the rows of oil palm trees to contain the moisture.
Malaysians have become affluent. Their standard of living has gone up. We find small plantations by the roads, near the houses, next to the kiosks. Every fortnight the small grower earns a handsome amount of money. The country has a robust economy. The people have become self-sufficient. There is a remarkable difference in the approach to life. Some three decades back the scenario was pathetic, but at the moment there is good cheer and happiness all around.