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He said that where the plantation industry was concerned, Sri Lanka needs to look at countries like Malaysia and learn from them to ‘take the right decisions at the right time’ – implying, like how Malaysia went from being one of the largest suppliers of rubber to palm oil, Sri Lanka too can re-look at what crops are more viable and prioritize accordingly

If adequate government patronage is extended, oil palm, commonly known as ‘katupol’, can overtake rubber and even tea as Sri Lanka’s main and most profitable commercial crop, Geeth Kumara Dayananda, the General Manager – Low country of Aitken Spence Plantations said.

He said that where the plantation industry was concerned, Sri Lanka needs to look at countries like Malaysia and learn from them to ‘take the right decisions at the right time’ – implying, like how Malaysia went from being one of the largest suppliers of rubber to palm oil, Sri Lanka too can re-look at what crops are more viable and prioritize accordingly.

According to Dayananda, oil palm is a tropical tree that can produce fruit for more than 30 years once planted. Palm oil, extracted from oil palms, is used as cooking oil as well as an ingredient in manufacturing cosmetics. Indonesia is currently the biggest supplier of palm oil to the global market. He says Sri Lanka has just as much potential given that the country’s climate is ideal for oil palm.

However, a challenge facing oil palm planters at the moment is that there is a great deal of resistance from locals and environmentalists claiming that the crop tends to cause irregularities in the water table. “One of the greatest issues we have as planters is trying to convince villagers that oil palm is not harmful to the environment as they have been made to believe by various parties with vested interests,” Dayananda said.

He also added: “There are all sorts of myths and ‘urban legends’ surrounding oil palms. In fact, I did my postgraduate thesis on twelve such allegations that included whether it changes weather patterns, it causes loss of fur in animals, it causes snake populations to increase and all that which were proved false and baseless in the end.”

Dayananda said any research and development in relation to oil palms should be done by the Coconut Research Institute but the academia, or the government, has not paid adequate attention to the crop.

“Currently about 95% of the local demand for palm oil is imported. We are currently looking at converting some of the rubber plantations into oil palms because we realize that this crop is more profitable in the long run,” he said.

According to Dayananda, oil palm trees are considered too old when they go beyond 60 feet in height. He said that the tree will have to be uprooted and replaced with a new plant which will take up to three years to grow and produce fruit for harvesting.
“Villagers prefer other plantations over oil palms because in the case of oil palms there is nothing they can steal,” claimed Dayananda. What he meant by this was that oil palms unless processed is of no use to the average villager, unlike in the case of coconuts which can be consumed without going through a process.

In terms of labour, oil palms require less manpower compared to other crops. Dayananda said that the requirement of workers per hectare is about 0.5.

Professor Asoka Nugawela of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Wayamba reaffirmed that oil palms have the potential to become one of the country’s key exports and in that regard, the government had to step up and do the needful – especially in areas of Research and Development.

“Here in Sri Lanka, there is potential for oil palms to be cultivated on a larger scale given that the environment is ideal and conducive,” he said. “There is a mandate in place to do research and development in relation to oil palms but whether or not this happens is a question.”

According to Professor Nugawela, the species of oil palms that is locally cultivable is a hybrid called Tenera which is a result of cross pollination between Dura and Pisifera.

He said that currently the seeds are imported from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia but the cross-pollination process can be done locally provided the necessary facilities and resources such as ‘seed gardens’ are made available.

“It is important that Sri Lanka starts developing Tenera locally because relying on competitors for seeds is not ideal”, said Nugawela.

Commenting on environmental concerns related to oil palms, he said that a number of studies have been carried out on the subject by different students in the faculty but nothing has been revealed so far to support the claims that it is harmful in any way to the environment.

“Unlike in Indonesia, Sri Lanka does not do large-scale deforestations to grow oil palms. What happens here mostly is that we take land that is already available, either rubber or dedicated for some other crops, and convert it to oil palms. If oil palms absorbing too much water is the concern, then, it can be grown in areas in the wet zone that gets ample rainfall,” he said.
In this regard, Nugawela proposed that the government can formulate a land use plan identifying areas where oil palms can be grown to avoid conflict.

A study conducted by the University of Moratuwa however claims that due to the absence of industry specific standards for palm oil in Sri Lanka, wet extracting of crude palm oil from palm fruits generates large quantities of wastewater. Oil palms produce two types of oil – palm oil which is extracted from the fruit and palm kernel oil which is extracted from the kernel.

Introduced to Sri Lanka in the late 1960s, oil palms are a relatively new crop to Sri Lanka of which the benefits are yet to be realized. At present, oil palms are cultivated in around 10,000 acres in the southern part of the country in plantations belonging to four main companies – Elpitiya, Agalawatta, Watawala and Namunukula.
It was revealed that the country still however has one palm oil mill located in Nakiyadeniya which processes around 13,000 metric tons of palm oil per year which amounts to about 5% of the local demand at present.

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