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Life changers

Many Malaysians in rural areas overcame poverty thanks to earnings from oil palm./The Star

Publication Date : 23-04-2014

 

How the M'sian land development authority changed the lives of thousands of settlers

 

When the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) Model was introduced, many Malaysians in rural areas overcame poverty, thanks to earnings from oil palm.

Mohd Hussin Yahya is a man of few words, but his facial expression well articulates a sense of gratitude for the comfortable livelihood he now enjoys owing to his oil palm land. At his single-storey brick house built on a 0.1ha piece of land ensconced within Felda Scheme Krau 1 in Mempaga, Pahang, the 69-year-old breaks into a small smile when we comment that it feels like a bungalow by rural area standards.

A peek inside shows cemented flooring and tiled walls, complete with spacious halls and a flat-screen television set in the living room. It is a dream abode – one that he never quite imagined he would own considering his humble roots (he even lived without electricity and water supply).

Back then, his house was a simple wooden build-up bereft of modern conveniences, until about five years ago when he managed to save enough from his monthly earnings as an oil palm landowner to renovate and rebuild the place.

A Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) settler now for 30 years, his poor background had been key to his eligibility for land ownership. Prior to that, he was working as a labourer at a Felda mill in Trolak, taking home a monthly income of about 300 ringgit (US$91.87), and to better support his family, he became a part-time religious teacher and a mosque leader (imam) in the evenings.

Time For Change

Natural rubber was first cultivated as the core crop, and he received 4.1ha, given to every successful applicant of the land scheme. He remembers how on rainy days, he wasn’t able to tap rubber, and that meant zero yield, with zero takings. It didn’t help that rubber prices were also fluctuating widely.

This, and the fact that rubber can only be planted, at most, twice before the soil would have been fully optimised, opened a pathway for oil palm to be introduced. Mohd Hussin says he was not afraid of giving the new crop a try when the officers came to ask him to convert his rubber tree plantation.

Today, he takes home a monthly income of at least 1,500 ringgit, thanks to the solid demand and high prices fetched from the fruit. “Most times, when there are additional yields for the month, I could pocket home an extra 1,000 ringgit,” he shares.

It is estimated that a 4.1ha piece of land grown with matured trees can generate between 10 and 15 metric tonnes of palm oil per month, and prices for a metric tonne of Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) can sometimes go as high as 1,000 ringgit.

About 10 years ago, Felda appointed Felda Technoplant as its management agency to manage the estates as well as to replant the trees as a lessee on behalf of the settlers, which means they need no longer toil on their lands. Felda Scheme Krau 1 manager Suroto Ahamad says having Technoplant manage the plantations enables the settlers/landowners to take on other part-time jobs to supplement their income, like Mohd Hussin, who is now a school canteen operator.

“Of course, the landowners are welcome to go down to the ground to monitor the workers or the replanting methods or bring up any problems they have regarding the crop. It’s their land, after all, and by exercising their responsibility towards it, they are able to get better returns and yields,” says Suroto.

The Felda scheme works in a way that in the first three years of planting (before the trees mature), each settler receives an advanced livelihood wage of 1,300 ringgit monthly. Once the planting reaches the fourth year, the trees would have matured enough to start producing fruits, and this translates to an increase in the settler’s wages to between 1,400 ringgit and 1,500 ringgit.

It will take about 10 years or more for Felda to break-even with the palm oil returns, and at this stage, whatever monies that were paid to the settlers over the years would be offset through small monthly deductions.

Generational Support

Mohd Hussin’s second son Mohd Rashid has also used part of his land to run his pedigree cat trading/breeding business Lamera, and is grateful to have a headstart from his home base.

“Felda has enabled my father and many other settlers to afford and build proper homes while providing us, the second generation, with enough capital to do some business. For example, our wooden house here has been upgraded to this brick one with a 20,000 ringgit interest-free housing loan from Felda. My family was poor, and it was with Felda’s assistance that I could go to university, as did my younger siblings, though my elder brother didn’t manage to,” says Mohd Rashid, 36, who graduated as a landscape architect from Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Of all his five siblings, three are now working, while the youngest has just completed his SPM examinations. “I was fortunate that Felda helped support me with pocket money while I was studying.”

His architect job has allowed him to save enough for a sound investment in the cat business, which costs nearly 100,000 ringgit. He hopes to borrow an additional 20,000 ringgit from Felda to open up a new pet shop in Raub to add to the existing one he has in Gombak.

“I feel blessed (with what I have in life so far). And some day, in return, I wish to give back to the other settlers’ children here,” he says.

Various Benefits

Felda public relations senior executive Aman Shah Alladin says Felda Cooperative has also been established to encourage savings among the settlers, so those who have invested in shares (sold at 1 ringgit per share; each settler can buy up to a maximum of 250,000 shares) are entitled to yearly declared dividends.

“For the higher education needs of the settlers’ children, Felda offers education loans and incentives (up to a Bachelor’s degree). There is also Felda Foundation that provides soft skills training and certificate courses for students after their SPM. Currently, an annual budget of 50 million ringgit is allocated for these activities.”

Landowner Woon Kim Seng, 67, is an ex-Air Force officer who joined Felda in 1988, after receiving an offer to apply for the land. He did, and received 10-acres which he planted with rubber before switching to oil palm in 2005.

“In the early 1990s, the value of synthetic rubber was so low that it was selling at less than 1 ringgit per kg, and I could only take home 300 ringgit to 400 ringgit a month after deductions, which was well below the poverty line! When Felda came to me with oil palm, I was very confident about making the conversion to this crop that they spoke highly of. A lot of people in our New Village also looked forward and embraced the change, except for a few who resisted it,” says Woon, who adds that his pension monies helped him pull through the tough times when rubber was of little worth.

Woon, who is the Felda Krau 1 Block 9 chairman (there are nine blocks in total under the Krau 1 scheme), also helps communicate the settlers’ problems to Felda. He says the benefits of oil palm outweighs those of rubber – like how it is more versatile for different uses, which translates to more side income for the planter. “There’s also less labour and other work involved, compared to rubber where your daily income depends on how much you tap for the day.”

Though it was his pension that helped put his three children – all now working professionals – through higher education, he secretly wishes that oil palm had been introduced earlier, so he wouldn’t have had to slog and scrimp so hard.

“There are people who still complain and are unhappy about things. I feel people should be thankful, as I am, for there is no government that will provide you with land and I need only wait for income to be banked in every month,” he says.

An Attractive Option

Second-generation Felda settler Abdul Razak Mastor, 54, says he became interested in Felda after learning how his uncle was earning fairly well as a settler. He left his hometown in Perak after school to follow his uncle, an ex-army personnel, to Pahang to gain some experience. When he turned 24, he got married, and applied for the scheme.

“I wasn’t working at that time and just wanted to try my luck. I saw friends who were working hard but earning little, so I wanted to be a land owner for a change. So I’m very thankful to have my application approved. I believe that if we want something bad enough, we must make it happen, and be bold enough to take that step. Otherwise, we will be left behind,” says Abdul Razak, who is the head villager/chief settler for Felda Krau 1.

“Felda Technoplant is also doing a good job in managing the plantations. They have so many trained officers who look into different aspects and their research is well established. If, say, our crop was to contract diseases, help will be rendered to us immediately,” he says, adding that he still goes down to his plantation daily to potter around.

The luxuries he now enjoys include a comfortable home which he describes as “a far cry from his growing up days in his village” and owning three lorries with hired drivers. His third child, who is currently studying for his diploma, does so with financial help from Felda. If he achieves a certain grade, he only needs to repay a small portion of the funds.

According to Felda assistant regional manager (agriculture) Afzal Hanis Hamid Abd Kadir, Felda Krau 1 Scheme is just one of the 317 schemes distributed throughout Malaysia, except for Penang and Sarawak, where Felda does not operate. “We have over 13,000 settlers here in Mempaga Region owning 118ha of plantation lands, while on a nationwide scale, we have 112,635 settlers,” says Afzal Hanis.

Felda Technoplant Krau 1 scheme assistant manager Abdul Rahman Mohamad Nazri says they are concerned with the three main aspects of the oil palm estate, namely harvesting, pruning and fertilising. He has 71 workers carrying out these tasks in plantations under this scheme. While research and development are carried out from time to time to test soil samples for better fruit returns, he admits that the hilly terrain and topography pose a challenge to optimum palm oil yields.

“Oil palm is more suited for flat grounds, and in these ideal situations, the fruits can be harvested about three rounds each month. Here, however, we are only able to harvest, at most, two-and-half rounds, which is why we meet with the settlers regularly to help them as much as possible,” says Abdul Rahman.

*US$1 = 3.27 ringgit

 

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