Peatland – the last frontier of oil palm industry

 Peatland – the last frontier of oil palm industry

04 August 2016

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Indonesia — THE Tropical Peat Research Laboratory (TPRL) Complex is Sarawak’s pride not only in terms of infrastructure but also research.

To the State government, it encapsulates a commitment to address scientific and credible development on tropical peatland for agriculture as well as its effect on global warming and climate change.

To TPRL director Dr LulieMelling, however, it espouses several specific objectives: (1) to address environmental issues that go beyond climate change, carbon and water footprints related to agriculture development; (2) to support plantation industries, especially oil palm and sago;(3) to identify and quantify environmental parameters for developing adaption and mitigation technologies; (4) to increase land productivity; (5) to develop technology for pest and disease control, and (6) to adopt molecular technique in research and development.

“TPRL has become an essential backbone of scientific research and development frontier for Sarawak,”Lulie said while giving the media a tour of the Complex.

It’s a fact that Sarawak has not been known for its R&D (research and development). However, TPRL has made a breakthrough by coming up with ground-breaking findings, substantiated with primary data,showing that peatland compaction to turn peatland into arable land does not increase carbon flux.

The scientific findings are able to counter foreign lobbythat peatland development in Southeast Asia is “going down the drain and up in smoke,” causing huge carbon dioxide emissions that contribute significantly to global climate change.

Moreover, TPRL has also managed to develop peat soil science that has proven successful in increasing palm oil production, maintaining its sustainability, and reducing peat fires.

It’s thus Lulie’s aim to make TPRL a leading research hub in the state that will continue to strive for scientific achievements and, in consequence, inspiregreater interests in scientific research and development among locals.

“TPRL has started research works in Sarawak where the research tradition is not strong and in-depth scientific studies significantly insufficient. What we would like to do is igniting the research spirit that will pass from one person to another – from this generation to the next.

“What we are doing at this stage may not shake the world. Our efforts, however, have made a substantial difference in the state and even some neighbouring countries,” she said.

One good example is Indonesia, which suffered serious peat fires last year.

The efficacy of Lulie’s peat compaction theory in controlling peat fires in Sarawak had led to the Indonesian authorities seeking her expertise in tackling the red-hot problem.

“We are ever ready to share with whoever is ready to listen to what we have learnt about peat and related matters,” she assured.

Collaborative research

According to Lulie, TPRL will ultimately be an “all in one campus” research institute with comprehensive facilities that encourage collaborative research and development between public and private sectors, academia and industry as well as local and international scientists.

Under Lulie’s guidance, TPRL, apart from being a research institute of international standard, has beenperforming ‘miracles’ of sorts. Set up only in 2008 as the sole research unit in the Chief Minister’s Department, it has,in less than 10 years, not only earned its spurs in the scientific world by producing research that is recognised and cited globally but also a place to call its own –the TPRL Complex, which hosts at least two foreign researchers every month.

The Complex is also collaborating with eight universities and research institutes in Japan on peatland studies.

“Presently, we have three researchers furthering their studies in Japan and one in the US. All four are privately sponsored,”Luliedisclosed.

Construction of the TPRL Complex started in 2013 on 75 acres of land in Kota Samarahan and was completed two years later (2015). The focus of the RM40 million facility is on tropical peatland studies, at the same time, serving as an international locus standi on peatland research.

“In general, our vision is to be a world leader in tropical peat research and our mission is to develop scientific, technical knowledge and understanding on tropical peatland,”Lulie said.

According to her, amongTPRL’s objectives are to address global issues regarding the disqualification of Sarawak’s land development policy on the ground that there should be no manipulation of peatland and no deforestation; generate and disseminate scientific knowledge and understanding on sustainable utilisation of tropical peatland for any agriculture development; develop research and development to support the oil palm industry in terms of productivity, and speed up research by promoting R&D collaborations with the world’s leading research institutes.

The Complex was designed by Lulie herself with the purpose to create a functional, yet conducive,research environment.

“To prune expenses, I did the design myself. I bought nine books on architecture and studied them. Then, I visited labs in other countries whenever the opportunity arose and picked up tips, at the same time, trying to avoid their mistakes. Of course, I got advice from local architects, interior designers and contractors who haveall been most helpful.”

TPRL has been designed to create an environment responsive to present needs but also capable of accommodating future research and development demands. The guiding principles of the building design range from functionality, sociability, transparency, flexibility and accessibility to advanced information technology and environmental suitability.

“In my design, I was aiming to create a space allowingfor administration and research as well as a place conducive enough for ideas and opinions to be projected freely and meet,” she explained.

The building’s functionality was especially emphasised to ensure efficient experimental work flow and contamination control.

“For researchers, there are no office hours. So the building must be one that operates 24/7. Moreover, it must be a building that encourages interaction and team-based collaborative research. These are some of the things I have in mind when designing the building.

“To ensure transparency, glass partitions are used. There is flexibility in my design to accommodate future lab expansion and extension. The building is well poised for advanced IT infrastructure to meet researchers’needs. It’s also environmentally sustainable to minimise impact on the natural world,” she added.

Part of bigger plan

The present infrastructure at TPRL covers only Phase One of the project. In Phase Two, a three-storeyed staff and researchersquarterswith sports and recreational facilities will be built.

“TPRL is part of what will be a Life Science Park consisting of the Complex itself and a medical research centre. What you see now is only part of a bigger plan,” Lulie said.

She pointed out that there was an urgency to complete the project because the state had been expanding its oil palm areas, and R&D support was crucial as peat land is the last development frontier forthe state.

“Scientific progress will determine the success of Sarawak’s oil palm industry, and for this to crystalise,a critical mass for scientific discussions has to be developed.”

With the mission to develop scientific and technical knowledge and understanding of tropical peatland, the Complex aims to meet the state’sdevelopment needs as well as support and protect the oil palm industry.

“Our vision is to be a world leader in tropical peat research. Within two years of TPRL’s establishment, we have been able to put our organisation on the world map. So a properly structured and organised lab is crucial for us to fulfill our objectives. More crucially, in view ofthe threats posed by foreign NGOs, collection of R&D-based data is vital to counter their propaganda.”

Credit for the rapid development of TPRL has to go to Lulie. She has led over 20 tropical peatland research projects with many accredited publications and reports in various international journals to her name. She also pioneered the publication of data on greenhouse gas emissions from tropical peatland.

Lulie received her Bachelor of Science degree from University of Malaya in 1990 and obtained her second degree — Master of Agriculture Science in Soil Science from Reading University, UK, in 1997. She continued to pursue her studies in soil research and earned her PhD from Hokkaido University, Japan, in 2005.

She began her career as government research officer cum soil surveyor in the Department of Agriculture in 1991. Her own continual curiosity on peatland and other soil types, coupled with the state’s commitment to research to enhance agricultural produce, have led to the birth of TPRP under the Chief Minister’s Department.

Lulie does not confine her involvement in research to the local environment. She is also an active member of the Malaysian Soil Science Society (MSSS), the Malaysian Peat Society (MPS), the International Peat Society (IPS) and the International Union of Soil Science (IUSS).

Her latest assignment is presiding over the International Peat Congress (IPC) as the Congress General. The prestigious quadrennial Congress has for the past 60 years been held in Europe and North America but will be hosted for the first time ever in Kuching from Aug 15 to 19.

Lulie pointed out that peatland is the country’s last frontier of the oil palm industry.

“Though Sarawak may have a huge land-size of 12.4 million ha, only 28 per cent is suitable for agriculture. The remaining 72 per cent is taken up by steep land (58 per cent), peatland (13 per cent) and infertile land with acid sulphate(one per cent).Tropical peatland constitutes 13 per cent of our total land area — that means 1.6 million ha of the State’s total land area. This has to be manipulated into arable land to generate income for Sarawakians, especiallythe rural folk,” she explained.

Presently, out of the 1.6 million ha of peatland in Sarawak, a quarter has been used for the oil palm industry, which employs more than 40,000 people. Any plan to turn the 750,000 ha of peatland into productive arable land certainly merits serious consideration.

According to Lulie’s calculation, if the state government can develop 750,000 ha of oil palm, the yearly yield will be about 18 million metric tonnes. Based on the average price of RM500 per tonne, the potential revenue from the 750,000 ha will RM9.3 billion from FFB (fresh fruit bunch). And taking into account the five per cent Sales Tax on the oil palm industry alone, it means a state revenue of RM400 to RM500 million annually.

“Furthermore, if you have travelled to the interior such as Selangau, Suai and other oil palm areas, you would have known that oil palm is a cash crop that brings wealth and development to our natives.

“Many of the native families are able to send their children to private colleges, universitiesand overseas for tertiary education because they are oil palm small holders themselves.”

That’s why despite western NGOs casting aspersion on the oil palm industry,Lulie still believes one of the most effective waysto tackle rural poverty is through oil palm cultivation which has great potential to replace fossil fuels in future.

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