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Postcards from the Field: Owls to catch rats


In the second instalment of Postcards from the Field, PT SMART intern and Environmental Science student, Clairie Ng, continues her journey of discovery on a palm oil estate in Riau. 

To my delight, the next item on our agenda was on bio-controls for pests. Here we saw the owls, otherwise known as Burung Hantu in Indonesian, which are used as bio-controls to keep the rodents which feed on palm oil fruit in check. Using bio-controls like these is a less costly and environmentally friendly way to combat pests compared to using chemical pesticides which have harmful side effects.

Owls are used to control the rat population on palm oil estates

After meeting and petting the owls, we returned to the estate to meet a 60-year old agronomic specialist with a wealth of experience. He began by introducing us to the basic biology of the palm oil fruit.

As seen in the photo, the orange mesocarp is the part of the fruit that gives us Crude Palm Oil (CPO) processed into cooking oil and biofuel, the white kernel in the middle gives us kernel palm oil, which is of a higher grade and is used as a component of cosmetics. Not forgetting the brown kernel shell, which is burnt for energy in mill and refinery processes.

We then witnessed the harvesting of the fresh fruit bunches by a skilled local worker. Using a long pole, the height of the palm, the worker employed a tactic unique to palm oil harvesting to hoist the pole up. At the end of the pole is a very sharp knife which is used to cut and release the Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB). After each successful cut, the large FFB falls spectacularly to the ground in a loud satisfying thud and scattering of loose palm fruits.

Workers then gathered and lined up the FFBs in formation of threes, in preparation for pickup by tractors with specially fitted claws a great example of mechanisation in the harvesting process. Women workers collected the loose fruit in buckets. Pointing at one of them, our guide appreciatively explains, “That’s where the money is! Loose fruits contain the most oil!” Such was the dedication of the workers on the ground that no loose fruit was overlooked.

The specialist went on to talk about using empty fruit bunches (EFB) as fertiliser. This helps reduce costs and the need for irrigation. The EFB contains essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous and aids in moisture retention (critical for palm oil plantations). It was inspiring to see how the different components of palm are recycled.

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As we concluded our afternoon with the specialist, I was grateful to return to the cosy mess for dinner. Although the day had been hectic, it was also full of eye-openers. I learnt that agronomy was more than just the science of the land – true agronomy comes with experience and interaction with the land. It calls for a harmony involving the soil, the plant and the weather.

As our guide explained, “Growing good palm is like taking care of children: if they are unhealthy as babies, they will be unhealthy teenagers”.

We need to remember that behind the big brand names and corporate image,  lies the humble nurturers who safeguard and put into practice the valuable knowledge that keeps our food production going.

The knowledge about when to apply fertiliser; how to apply fertiliser (in a circular diameter around the tree and not close to the trunk so it is closer to the root tips); or which trees can be harvested (when a certain number of loose red fruits have fallen) sets into motion a biological chain of reactions that bring us CPO and food. It is this tending of the land that people often forget. Everything starts from the priming of the land and the planting of the seed. If people cared more about the source of our food and if we were all as humble as the small farmer who loves his land, we would be better stewards of this earth.

In the next instalment, Clairie goes on a tour of the SMART Research Institute

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