Sarawak is endowed with a relatively large land mass of 12.4m ha. Land is thus treated as one of the most important resources that can be developed to generate economic growth for the state and the people. Consequently, Sarawak is setting aside about 4m ha of land for the plantation and agriculture sector. These lands are located in the rural areas where the bulk of the poor and impoverished are found. Although they own an estimated 1.5m ha of native customary rights (NCR) land, the native rural landowners remain poor, as their lands are largely underutilised. Thus, opening land for large-scale plantations and commercial agriculture will expedite the development of rural areas and the socio-economic transformation of the rural population. The government is also extending various forms of assistance to rural landowners to cultivate their idle land with oil palm and other crops.
The plantation and agriculture sector creates employment opportunities with steady and good incomes for rural citizens. The owners of idle NCR land in particular are benefitting from good returns from land that was formerly unproductive. The sector provides job opportunities in the support services relating to the palm oil industry including transportation and supplies of goods and services. Thus, the palm oil industry alone in Sarawak employs more than 30% of the total workforce. The plantation and agriculture sector also brings about better connectivity between the rural settlements and the town centres through a network of estate and farm roads that link these settlements to the main roads. This improved connectivity with the towns enables rural farmers to sell their produce in the towns and their children to have better access to educational institutions. Thus, directly and indirectly, the sector has contributed significantly in increasing the incomes of rural households.
The emphasis on rural development has enabled these communities to participate in mainstream development and thereby benefit from as well as contribute to the growth of the state’s economy. Their participation is further enhanced with the development taking place within the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), which spans over more than 7m ha in the central region of the state. Palm oil, fishing and aquaculture, and livestock are three out of the 10 core industries within SCORE that have been identified as having the highest economic impact on Sarawak.
As the development of plantations is largely privatesector-driven, the ministry maintains close networking with private sector companies, and disseminates information on the opportunities for investment in the sector, particularly the development of NCR land, through the use of the social media and personal contacts. In fact, about 78% of the oil palm areas already developed are controlled by private sector companies.
In our efforts to develop the sector we continue to keep our focus on sustainable development. The sector is closely monitored by a number of agencies. In this respect one critical requirement is for an environment impact assessment study to be carried out for the development of agricultural estates or plantations of an area exceeding 500 ha. It is mandatory for the study report to be approved before any development can take place. In addition, the sector is highly regulated, especially the development of the oil palm plantation sub-sector, which is subject to both federal and state laws in all aspects of the operations that are geared towards sustainability. Although oil palm is the main plantation crop, the state also encourages the cultivation of other commercially viable crops such as rubber and pepper, and the production of goods that are in demand by both domestic and global markets.
The plantation and agriculture sector has been facing a shortage of workers, with the oil palm plantations experiencing a shortfall of at least 30,000 workers. The severity of this shortage in the oil palm plantations can be gauged by the estimated annual loss of RM1bn ($304.2m) suffered. Unfortunately the state does not enjoy the luxury of having vast areas of flat land, a condition that is conducive for mechanised operations.
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