KUALA LUMPUR, July 31 (Bernama) -- Do FELDA plantations around the countryface the risk of being abandoned because of the lack of able-bodied labourto actively undertake planting, harvesting and estate managementactivities?
In a worst case scenario, such grim prospects are there over the longterm. This is because many, if not most, of Felda's early pioneer settlerswho have been toiling on the land for almost three decades are now gettingold.
And most of the "second generation" settlers, comprising the pioneersettlers' children, are not too keen on a career "on the farm".
Viewed against this backdrop, the preservation of large tracts of land forlarge-scale commercial cultivation like when they were first opened up forthe purpose 30 years ago is of prime concern to Felda, the agencyentrusted with agricultural land development, even though the settlers hadalready obtained entitlement to the land they cultivated on.
This determination stems from the fact that Felda wants to tackle theissue head on. This is to save the future of the Malaysian plantationindustry on land schemes, a massive programme initiated by the governmentfor the betterment of the livelihood of the rural population.
Felda's deputy director general (operation), Khamis Md Som, said in aninterview that at present, the majority of the first generation ofsettlers were above 50 years old.
"When the time comes for them to replant their crops, they find that theylack the energy to do so," he said.
Such a scenario is prevalent in most Felda plantations, which are mostlyplanted with oil palm and rubber.
In the long term interest of the settlers, Khamis said FELDA hasestablished a body to help settlers manage their plantations when theirtree crops needed to be replanted. For this purpose, Felda has set up awholly-owned subsidiary, Felda Plantation Sdn Bhd (FPSB).
"To manage the lands mostly owned by the settlers, FPSB needs to obtainapprovals from them first," Khamis said."If FPSB fails to get approvalfrom them, then replanting work could not be done."
Getting approval would also ensure that their plantation land werewell-tended by FPSB even after ownership had been transferred to thesettlers, he said.
Under FPSB's replanting scheme, the settlers are encouraged to hand-overthe management of their land to FPSB. At harvesting time, FPSB holds theright to appoint contractors to gather the crops.
So how is the profit from the sale of the produce to be divided? Thesettlers will receive a monthly income after FPSB has deducted managementcosts.
Since 1993 until now, FPSB has managed replanting programmes on 38,400hectares of land involving 9,270 settlers.
Before 1993, Khamis said replanting activities were conducted by Feldacovered 15,800 settlers on 64,293 hectares of land.
But a few settlers have refused to join replanting programmes conducted byFPSB.
"This group (which is actually small in number) wants to manage their landby themselves. They believe that they can do it as most of them have morethan 20 years of experience in plantations."
To date, a total of 3,467 settlers have managed replanting work involving13,275 hectares of land on their own.
In the early stages, Khamis said these settlers were somewhat confident ofreplanting by themselves before they undertook their tasks.
"But when the time came for them to do it, their old age did not permitthem to do so (effectively)," he said.
Khamis said self-replanting programmes were not really that successful asthose who had done so encountered problems like lack of manpower durngreplanting and their inability to afford proper maintenance costs.
As a result of the low quality of maintenance and and poor management,their tree crops were not able to produce high quality yields, he said.
"These settlers can rely on FPSB as it can give them better benefits byproviding sufficient quality in terms of (plantation) management," hesaid.
FPSB could also provide them with better quality seedlings produced viaFelda's research institute and this in turn would guarantee higher returnsin output.
Khamis stressed that FELDA now wanted settlers to understand theimportance of replanting in groups rather than doing it on their own.
"What we really want to do is to create an estate-style plantation forthem. We don't want the land to be segregated," he said.
By managing the replanting programme in groups, maintenance costs could beslashed because of the economies of scale.
"It is more economical if we do it on a larger scale because themaintenance as well as manpower would be under one roof, which, in thiscase, is FPSB," he said.
Md Husain Menggong, FPSB's senior general manager, said the company's rolein the replanting programme was simple: it just wants to simplify andtighten management and maintain the productivity of the land.
"As an agent of the management, we are responsible for ensuring that theland could give significant yields and thus provide the settlers withhigher returns," he said.
Md Hussain said in the current phase of the plantation industry, Felda'splantations needed to be competitive to compete against the "big boys" inthe industry.
"In this era, we cannot afford to be left behind by using old plantingmethods. We need to be professional in handling the business.
"That is why the various tracts of plantation land have to be consolidatedand placed under the care of one professional supervisory body," Md Husainsaid.
What is the feedback from settlers?
Khamis said the majority preferred to rely on FPSB as they would not haveto face problems in the day-to-day running of their plantations whichcould even affect their cash flow.
One of them, Akmar Abd Muluk from FELDA Jengka 15, Pahang, said that hehanded over the management of his land to FPSB as it would be easier forhim.
"It's better for FPSB to handle the replanting job as it could guaranteebetter productivity on our land," he said.
Akmar said that since he has a side-income by making "songkoks", it wasmore suitable for FPSB to undertake the plantation work on his behalfwhile he concentrated on the headgear business.
Where does the "second generation" go from here?
In this regard, Khamis said Felda has tried persuading them to take overtheir parents' plantation activities.
But their response has been relatively lukewarm.
"There are a few factors why these people are not too keen to continuetheir parents' work. One is that these children preferred to workelsewhere such factories or offices," he said.
Another reason is that the brighter ones also chose to become doctors,teachers and engineers.
"Those with good careers do not have the time and attention for theirparents' plantation land as they themselves are too busy with their owncareers. But we cannot fault them as in the beginning Felda evenencouraged these people to pursue their studies to as high as theywanted," Khamis explained.
But he said Felda was still monitoring this situation and would continueto persuade the settlers' children (especially those who did not proceedto higher studies) to inherit their parents' responsibilities on the land.
Besides this, Khamis said Felda would also persuade settlers who did notjoin FPSB's replanting schemes to accept in view of the long-term benefitsso that their land would be productively-used.