A standard oil palm nursery (on left) and what the nurseries in Sri Lanka look like today
Plantation companies will sustain a cumulative loss of more than Rs 500 million within months due to policy inconsistencies and vacillation by the government on a well-regulated expansion of Sri Lanka’s oil palm cultivation, the sector’s apex industry association has warned.
The Palm Oil Industry Association (POIA) said 356,000 oil palm plants imported on the strength of a government decision to expand cultivation have been maturing in nurseries for more than three years, due to the government’s failure to address concerns arising from falsehoods and disinformation spread by misled activists and lobbyists with vested interests.
“About 40 per cent of these trees may already be unviable and we fear that the entire stock may have to be destroyed within the next two months, unless the government resolves this matter expeditiously,” POIA President Dr Rohan Fernando said.
The Palm Oil Industry Association represents cultivators as well as refiners, processors, manufacturers, marketers and sellers of palm oil and other products of the oil palm, who have cumulatively invested Rs 26 billion in the industry. Sri Lanka has less than 11,000 hectares under oil palm – just over 1 per cent of the extents under tea, rubber and coconut – and plantation companies had been mandated to increase the total area under oil palm to 20,000 hectares under strictly-enforced guidelines that ensure the industry is environmentally non-invasive, before the government back-pedalled on the plan.
Dr Fernando said the industry’s appeal to the government for permission to plant whatever viable trees are left in the nurseries, would enable the plantation companies to reduce the losses they are faced with and help increase local production of palm oil at a time when imports are being restricted to conserve foreign exchange. He said even if the entire stock of trees had been planted, the country’s extent under oil palm would only have increased by about 2,750 hectares.
“We are also aware that the government is looking at expanding coconut cultivation to which we have absolutely no objection, but experts have calculated that it would take at least 20 years to reach a point where the country’s edible oil requirements can be met by locally-grown coconut,” Dr Fernando said. “There is also concern that coconut oil production is more costly and requires more land than oil palm.”
He pointed out that baseless vilification of the local palm oil industry had resulted in the country producing just 23,000 tonnes of palm oil per annum and the import of a staggering 220,000 tonnes of crude palm oil into the country each year, at a cost of approximately Rs 22 billion.
The government decision to encourage cultivation of oil palm and to increase the country’s extent under the crop to 20,000 hectares was backed by comprehensive conditions and guidelines that would ensure there will be no environmental degradation, no deforestation and no replacement of other viable crops, Dr Fernando added. However, lobbyists had used the haphazard, unregulated and rapacious early expansion of oil palm cultivation in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia to create a baseless fear psychosis about the industry, disregarding the fact that Sri Lanka has cultivated less than 11,000 hectares in 50 years.