Palm oil peril?

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By Gary Covington

Looking In

Sunday, July 20, 2014

ORIGINALLY from tropical West Africa the oil palm in the wild is more a large bush than a tree; a stubby bole draped with an untidy girdle of scratchy, tear-at-your-clothes branch stems. The fruit is a nut encased in pulpy flesh and it's this last which renders down to a carotene-rich oil. A Nigerian or Cameroonian adobo gleams a deep and lustrous orangey-red. Malaysia and Indonesia produce vast quantities of palm oil responding to increased demand for 'safer' cooking oils (Including the Philippine fast-food industry) and palm oil as an supplement to bio-fuels. Question is - should we grow it in Paquibito District?

It's a suggestion which prompted the usual cut-and-paste rhetoric from mouthy environmental groups; what no-one mentioned is that every project - whether it's growing beans in the backyard or palm oil in Paquibito - is unique. Will lola trip over the bean sticks? What consequences, good or bad, would palm oil plantations have on Paquibito District? It's upland. Hilly, rolling country with a young drainage pattern. It has no primary forest, little mature secondary growth and a lot of grassy hillsides - we see them often enough on the early evening news. Where is the 'degredation of forest' or 'large-scale forest conversion' which Panalipdan fears? (Panalipdan Southern Mindanao, a combo-environmental group, bottomless hyperbole)

Another of Panalipdan's concerns is soil erosion and I'll ask 'What soil?' Upland soils are notoriously poor and thin. Look at any road cutting, recent landslip or borrow pit excavation. A darker band of soil - four or five inches if you're lucky - and then the ochre or reddish brown of laterite and marls. Tropical vegetation has adapted to this paucity of soil and thrives on its own leaf litter and the nutrients provided by the decomposing carcasses of insect and animal life. Trees have evolved shallow root systems, no tap root diving down, instead a fan of rootlets just below the surface. It's why so many tropical trees have buttress roots - those fins stretching up a trunk - so they keep upright and thus why it's nonsense to point out, as if it were relevant, that 'numerous types of tree were toppled during Typhoon Pablo'. Any tree in full leaf and a shallow root system would have blown down.


Panalipdan makes much of the 'critical loss of habitat' and 'biodiversity' which might well apply to primary tropical forest in Kalimantan and even to mature 25+ years secondary forest but not to Paquibato. Or how about 'People are downgraded as workers at the mercy of the corporations'? A large-scale plantation is a busy place offering employment in a variety of trades, even more so if processing capability is on site. It's a self-sufficient community - housing, stores, fitting shops for servicing machinery and vehicles, a clinic, recreational facilities, maybe a modest school. The road infrastructure will be improved to export the product and import supplies, power generated or brought in via overhead lines. Neighboring country people and subsistence farmers have a choice: work part or full-time for the plantation or continue farming and supply the now enlarged community.

We're talking about the wasted and unused grassy hillsides of Paquibito District, not some precious mountainside conservation area. A properly planned, managed and regulated palm-oil plantation – start modest, get bigger - has to be a good thing quite capable of co-habiting alongside small-scale farming and upland villages. The only flies I see in this particular ointment are the Filipino penchant for avarice and governmental regulating agencies and bodies which don't.

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on July 21, 2014.


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