We are helping Ricky transform the oil palm plantation on his 7.25 acre family land to a food forest based on permaculture principles. The oil palm monoculture was planted about 20 years ago but has been left fallow since then. No one has been harvesting the fruits. Over time, the understorey has been vegetated naturally and become dense with shrubs and small trees.
Ricky became interested in permaculture a few years back and we met when I gave a talk on permaculture at a farmers’ market in Johor. We kept in contact but it was only recently that he resolved to turn his dream into reality. He wants a piece of land where his kids can play in nature, instead of spending weekends in a mall. We talked about industrial agriculture, societal issues, environmental destruction, etc, where we shared similar views.
Oil palm monocultures have become the most common landscape in Johor; a drive around here will convince you of that. They have a bad reputation for causing deforestation (by burning or mass clearing), eutrophication of water bodies through use of chemical fertilizers, reduced biodiversity, soil erosion, and other issues. After two cycles of planting, the soil will be completely degraded and the land unproductive. We are reversing the clock – turning an old oil palm plantation back into a polyculture forest using ecological methods. We have not seen any precedents and hope that whatever we learn can be used by many others to heal the land.
We will not be mass clearing the oil palms or undergrowth, unlike what happened at Project Lombong. These unfertilized oil palms do not have the dense foliage of healthy vigorous oil palms. They let in lots of sunlight through their sparse canopy. Grown in a monoculture, the oil palms need chemical fertilizers to appear healthy (albeit in an artificial way).
Looking at the type of weeds also indicates that lots of sunlight is reaching the undergrowth. Lalang, sendudok, macaranga, simpoh air, resam, mallotus – all pioneer species that require ample light. With such sufficient light levels, we will try to interplant useful trees within the oil palms. There are concerns that the oil palm roots will suffocate the young trees but we think they will be fine; in fact we think that they will help the young trees grow better. But if that is indeed an issue, we might have to selectively thin some of the oil palms.
Because the land has been left fallow with weeds growing freely without any chemicals, the soil is not degraded compared to most monoculture plantations. The organic content is quite high and one can see the humus from the dark colour (see photo on the right). There is crumb structure which isn’t common for projects we work on. However this fertility can be easily leached by our torrential tropical rain when vegetation is cleared.
Before planting and other matters, Ricky is currently building a house and storage. He took down a few oil palms to make space and it would be good to use those trunks as mulch boxes or raised beds.
A Mangrove Beside
Ricky is very fortunate to have a beautiful mangrove beside his land. It’s a mangrove reserve along Sungai Johor (Johor River) which means it will be maintained that way. However, the government has been harvesting some of the mangrove wood giving dubious reasons like the trees are old and might collapse. The chopped trees will most likely end up as high quality charcoal, which is fine as long as it’s harvested without damaging the mangrove. Ricky is planning to rear some fish and prawns in the brackish water.
More to come! Read more about Project Panchor.