Magazine article Geographical

Pearls from Palms

Magazine article Geographical

Pearls from Palms

Article excerpt

The devastating impact of palm oil plantations on the rainforests of Southeast Asia and the negative environmental effects of many biofuels have been widely scrutinised. But on the coast of Sarawak, a Malaysian state in the north of Borneo, the Melanau people have been harvesting another palm, the humble sago tree, on a sustainable basis for centuries. But there are now plans to develop the crop on an industrial scale as part of Malaysia's biofuel programme.

Along the black peaty inlets around Mukah, a small town on Sarawak's northern coast, a couple of stocky labourers, their backs glistening with sweat, are busy Wing together 80-centimetre-long slices of sago palm trunk before leaving them to float like a raft on the river. Above the logs wafts the burnt-biscuit smell of roasting sago, accompanied by billowing smoke from a ramshackle sago bakehouse, a wooden shed raised up on stilts in the swampy ground. In a few days' time, when the sago raft is long enough and the local mill ready for a new delivery, the logs will be dragged upstream for processing.

'The labourers have bought the standing trees from the landowners,' says Diana Rose, a local ethnic Melanau of aristocratic descent. 'They then fell the trees and sell the logs to the mills. The difference between the mill price and the landowner's price is their profit.'

In Mukah's sago mills, the logs are cut lengthways and the pith extracted by machine before being turned into sago starch or flour for export and use in the local food processing industry. Some of the flour finds its way back to the village workshops, where local women cook the sago and bake crispy, wafer-thin biscuits.

'We mix the flour with salt and water and a little rice bran,' explains Rose as we crouch in a smoky bakehouse. She and her neighbours then put the mixture on a raffia mat and rapidly flap it back and forth until the paste forms small, round pellets--sago pearls--about the size of peas. Another woman then roasts the pellets on a large clay stove, rolling them with a whisk until they're dry and brittle.

In and around Mukah, Melanau villagers have been harvesting the wild sago forests for generations as a staple crop and to supply a small export market with sago starch. But over the past 20 years, the industry has been undergoing a major transformation. Following the development of the first sago plantation in the 1980s, the area of sago forests has almost tripled as the government of Sarawak tries to transform this former subsistence crop into a significant agricultural product.

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RENEWABLE RESOURCE?

Indigenous to Southeast Asia, the true sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) has long been used on a subsistence basis in parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, where the local tribes gather it from wild stands. Sago is one of humanity's oldest food plants and thrives in waterlogged, acidic soils in which few other plants will grow. In peninsular Malaysia, most of the sago forests have been cleared in recent decades to make way for palm oil, but they persist in Sarawak, a state in northern Borneo, where some of the largest sago tracts are found in the region around Mukah.

Tropical agronomists have long considered sago to be an underused and neglected crop. If exploited in situ, it's environmentally friendly, relatively sustainable and has been heralded as 'the starch crop of the 21st century' by Malaysian researchers. Unlike palm oil plantations, where the forest is cleared and drained before planting, sago forests are self-regenerating, and the industry is based on the exploitation of existing forests.

If managed correctly, large tracts of peat forest are left virtually intact during sago harvesting, which helps the forest to maintain its function as a carbon sink. 'But sago palm can only be an environmentally friendly renewable resource if the trunks are processed in the field where they grow,' says Dr Michiel Flach, sago expert and former professor of tropical crop science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. …

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