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Volume 30, Number 6November/December 1979

In This Issue

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Arab Aid

In Malaysia

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

With obvious pride, John Lim, an agricultural adviser in Malaysia's Palong, pointed to the neat new village nestled among the palms where happy, olive-skinned children in crisp blue-and-white uniforms skipped by on their way to school, and rows of sturdy rubber trees stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see. "Ten years ago," said Lim, an official with Malaysia's Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA), "this was nothing but jungle."

This transformation - of thousands of acres of Malaysian jungle into rubber plantations - is clearly a massive undertaking, especially as its key point is to resettle poor families and give them an income. Yet each stage of its implementation can be seen in a single day; by 1979 some parts were complete while others were just starting. The75,000-acre land resettlement project is divided into 14 "schemes" and early in 1979 it was possible to witness jungle being cleared at Palong 10, settlers moving into Palong 4 and rubber trees being tapped at Palong 1 - while Palong 11 to 14 were still covered by impenetrable jungle.

At Palong l, the projects first segment, work to clear the jungle began in 1969, at Palong 4 in 1973 and at Palong 10 in 1978. But the method was essentially the same. First, waves of machete-wielding men cleared the dense, snake-infested undergrowth. Then came loggers, who felled the giant trees with portable chain saws, hauled off whatever timber was usable and left the rest to dry for six weeks. Finally they burned the timber, let it dry again, burned it a second time and then removed the debris. At Palong 10 early this year the results of that first phase were eerie: huge blackened tree stumps jutted crazily from the scorched earth, the smell of charred wood hung heavily in the air, and the land, oddly silent, seemed dead.

On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be very much alive. In the second phase Pueraria and Centrosema, fast-spreading, leguminous cover crops, had been planted immediately after the second burning to prevent soil erosion, keep down weeds and regenerate the soil. Applied like bandages to a wound, the cover crops were already beginning to recarpet the denuded earth while, simultaneously, row upon row of tiny rubber seedlings had begun to sprout.

A long and delicate process, the raising of rubber trees begins about 15 months after the jungle is cleared, when the seedlings are planted. Six months later, when the seedlings are a finger high, the infant trees are grafted with high-yielding rubber-tree "clones" - after which there is little to do but weed the plantation and fertilize and prune the trees for two and a half years. But because Palong is involved in resettling people as well as growing rubber, the waiting period is also a busy one. Planners, during that two-and-a-half-year period, select and prepare centrally-located village sites to serve each segment of the project or, in some cases, urban town sites to serve several segments.

On those sites, as projects get underway, laborers rip up the remaining tree stumps and level the land, architects design the community, engineers lay out roads and install water and electricity lines, and craftsmen build homes, schools, mosques, clinics and - not forgetting the rubber - latex collection centers. Meanwhile, as the community is being built, the settlers who will eventually live there are being selected by FELDA officials from the thousands of eager applicants. As the emphasis is on the poor, FELDA officials give preference to large, landless families with an income of less than $50 a month but, because rubber is a hard crop to tend, they also lean to families with a rural background whose head is no older than 35.

By the time the rubber trees are three years old - halfway to maturity - the settlers have begun to move in to the new villages or towns. Each, family is given a simple unfurnished frame house, a quarter-acre garden and 10 acres of rubber trees. Even then FELDA officials continue to help. Agriculturalists like John Lim, who supervises 20,000 acres, help the new settlers nurse their rubber trees to maturity over a period of three to four more years - and until their crop starts coming in, FELDA pays each family a living allowance of $50 a month and provides utilities, fertilizer, machinery, medical care and education free.

As the rubber trees mature, so too does the settler community. In most cases the new settlers first set up committees to run village affairs and organize social, religious and sporting activities, and then turn to their individual needs. Soon, as a result, flowers begin to bloom in settlers' once-lifeless gardens among rows of vegetables, young pineapple plants, banana trees and miniature coconut palms. When, finally, the rubber trees are ready to be tapped, the settlers begin to earn their keep; under the supervision of the FELDA agriculturalists they begin the slow process of draining the latex - a white sticky liquid - from the trees.

To do this, they first make diagonal incisions around one side of the trunk, cutting into the lactifer network beneath the bark, and insert a small spout at the base of the cut, with a plastic cup beneath the spout to catch the latex as it oozes from the tree.

Every two or three days, when the cup fills and is emptied, they make a new incision just below the previous one, gradually working their way down one side of the tree and then starting again on the other side. Once the tree is mature, tapping by this "Ridley method" takes place all the year round except during the rainy season. Even when the latex is collected, FELDA continues to oversee the project; the latex is weighed and packed at FELDA-run centers, transported to FELDA-owned factories for conversion into "dry" rubber, and then sold by the FELDA marketing organization. Thus FELDA not only resettles Malaysia's poor but helps to swell its rubber production, already the largest in the world.

As for the Palong farmer, he is paid by FELDA for his produce at current market prices - minus approximately $75 a month for 15 years in repayment for the land, trees, home and other facilities provided by the government agency.

This is by no means an exorbitant charge. In fact, it is a bargain. As the economic life of a rubber tree is about 25 years, and the average annual yield of "dry" rubber per acre is about 1,000 pounds, at current rubber prices a once-impoverished, landless settler family can look forward to a net income of about $150 a month for the first 15 years and $225 a month for the following 10 years; this is more than four times the family's previous average income and, for Malaysia, prosperity. In addition the settler takes possession of a home and a plantation - worth, at 1979 prices, $2,500 per acre - that insures his dependents a prosperous future.

By early 1979, more than 1,500 families had been resettled at Palong and by 1999, when all 14 schemes are due to be completed, the total will be 7,500. Palong, furthermore, is only one of many jungle conversion projects undertaken by FELDA. Since it was set up in 1956 the program has cleared a total of 1.2 million acres - much of it thanks to Arab aid.

The total cost of the Palong land resettlement project is estimated at $150 million, of which two-thirds of the foreign exchange costs - about $28 million - is being provided by the Kuwait Fund in the form of a 20-year loan at five percent interest with a 10-year grace period before repayment begins.

Elsewhere in Malaysia, the Saudi Fund is helping finance a similar rubber plantation project at Ulu Kelantan, and the Saudi and Kuwait funds are putting $26 million and $8.5 million respectively into conversion of jungle to palm oil plantations. Arab funds are also backing projects other than rural development. The Saudi Fund for Development, for example, has financed the purchase of $35.7 million worth of electronic equipment for Malaysian universities.

Early in 1979 this equipment was already being put to good use in training young doctors and engineers, vital to Malaysia's future economic growth. At Kuala Lumpur's University of Technology, for example, engineering students could be seen measuring and analyzing electrical pulse heights in one of the most sophisticated nuclear instruments laboratories in Southeast Asia.

Equally advanced teaching equipment was in use in the University's general instruments, microanalysis and high vacuum physics laboratories while, across town at the medical faculty of the National University of Malaysia, students were conducting sensory experiments with instruments bought with Saudi funds, and other technicians were using rows of shiny new physiograph equipment, also purchased with Saudi aid.

The equipment bore such trade marks as Narco Bio-systems Inc., of Houston, Texas; Corning Scientific Instruments, Medfield, Mass., and Farrand Optical Co. Inc., of New York - a pertinent reminder that while developing countries like Malaysia benefit from Arab aid, the developed countries profit from it too.

This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the November/December 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1979 images.