Reforesting palm oil plantations

2000s – Dr. Billy Tang and his team of researchers at a newly acquired palm oil plantation

Restoring the biodiversity on abandoned palm oil plantations through agroecology practices or bioremedification is possible as proven by Dr Billy Tang and his team in Johor.

Text by Samantha Mok Hsu Wei

Since 2018, Malaysia’s oil palm industry has been challenged with multi-dimensional issues, and is in critical need of an action plan that could fuel the industry towards a sustainable vision. Coupled with the COVID19 pandemic and conversations surrounding food security versus planetary health, it is becoming apparent that the pressing need to address the problems with the palm oil industry is unavoidable.

Economically, palm oil tops the other crops in terms of efficiency, producing more oil per land area than all other types of vegetable oil crop. To put it in perspective, palm oil supplies more than a third of the world’s vegetable oil demand while taking up only 10% of the land. To obtain the same volume of other type of vegetable oils like soy or coconut, it would require four to 10 times more land than palm.

Unfortunately, despite its economic success and land use efficiency, our trade-offs include heavy environmental damage from deforestation, biodiversity loss, contaminant leeching, as well as socioeconomic issues surrounding labour and human rights breaches.

Conversations on boycotting palm oil has skyrocketed over the years, but boycotting the industry and its products will not heal the damage that has been done. Moreover, throwing climate change into the equation adds more layers of complexity in tackling the palm oil industry’s existing environmental, economic, social, and technical challenges.

Unconventional Solution

“The plantation was dying, the palm trees were diseased, that’s why it’s cheap.”

During our discussion on regenerative agriculture with Dr. Billy Tang, private researcher and paraplegic farmer – he weighs in his experience on reforesting 73 plots of plantation land with his partner researchers in Chaah, Johor.

“In the 2000s, these palm oil plantations were bought for a low price from plantation owners; the ground was mostly composed of clay and peat soil,” Tang explains the chronology of his research.

2000s – Dr. Billy Tang and co-researcher Abdul Rahman Salleh in front of a restored palm tree intercropped with various local herbs.

“Having successfully restored cut-and-fill lands along the North South highway to grow 100,000 teak trees, it gave our team of researchers the confidence in restoring the biodiversity on these abandoned palm oil plantations.”

In 2020, we were invited by Tang to visit the research sites in Johor, along with Dato’ Yatimah bt. Sarjiman, the Director of Agriculture Division under Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit. As our trucks made their way through the red clay roads, the paraplegic farmer reminded us that he has not returned to visit the farm ever since his accident five years ago which damaged his spinal cord.

Upon arrival at the plantation, the group was greeted by a rich biodiversity that has been revived on dying soil; the ground was covered with over 100 species of edible herbs and ulam, and palm trees were thriving alongside various other trees like rubber, banana, moringa, guava, dokong, etc.

“With this, we are demonstrating that through agroecology practices – it is possible to restore the soil,” says Tang, adding:“In just 10 years, we can revive our lands and reforest our plantations through bioremedification.”

He stresses however the most important factor to upscale this impact is a political will in protecting the environment through sustainable standard operating procedures (SOPs).

From the tour, it was evident that intercropping (or multicropping) was a jarring missed opportunity in agriculture. On top of the aforementioned trees, the restored plantation has been growing bananas and MD2 pineapples, along with various yam and bamboo species. Through intercropping, land owners can yield more profit from a biodiverse flora & fauna profile while reducing costs on fertilizer and pesticides usage.

“When the land’s biodiversity is restored, each microbe, fungi, plant, and animal plays its own role in the ecosystem to help one another thrive,” explains Tang. “This is proof-of-concept that food security does not necessarily compromise the environment. It is possible to feed multitudes and reintroduce nutrition into our food systems – simply by restoring the soil.”

Agriculture gold?

Biodiversity restored in 73 palm oil plantations across Chaah, Johor.

In the international academic space, scholars are debating over the statement – that Earth has fewer than 60 years of farmable soil left. In the near future, top soil may even be hailed as agriculture ‘gold’ due to global scarcity. Thus, there is an increased hype surrounding soil-less farming and indoor farming, as scientists and capitalists race against time to solve the problem of depleting soil.

“Restoring soil health is an additional input cost that does not yield overnight results – that is why we do not hear many stories of it being done at least not yet in Malaysia,” Tang notes.

Diverse range of flora species grow on rocks in the presence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

He adds that scientific interest and knowledge in this area is very low in Malaysia, considering that the country has lost 20 years of agriculture wisdom to industrialization.

“We have only seen small stakeholders in agriculture, such as urban farmers, expressing an interest and passion in restoring nature. It is a good start, but for us to see any significant positive change – big players must play a role as well.”

If you are interested in innovations that could help your business end deforestation, restore the environment, and fix the current destructive food system without compromising business interest, you may reach out to Dr. Billy Tang via billytang@ pwdsmartfarmability.com

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