Sime Darby should reverse zero cattle policy in estates

On 28th February 2024, 15 cattle farmers in Sg Siput were summoned to a meeting by Sime Darby. These 15 cattle farmers are former workers or children of workers in the estates owned by Sime Darby in Sg Siput. Their families had started rearing cattle on the estate more than 50 years ago, with the permission of the estate management at that time.

At the 28/2/24 meeting held in Elphil Estate, Sime Darby announced that they have now adopted a “Zero Cattle” Policy for all their estates in Malaysia, and that the cattle farmers had 3 months to transfer their cattle out of the estate. Any cattle found on the estate after that date would be caught and the owner fined. Senior officers from the Sg Siput Police Station had also been invited to this meeting – to underline the seriousness of this newly defined “crime” of grazing cattle on estate land perhaps?

“Zero Cattle” is a ridiculous proposition. Sime Darby should know, that there are no vacant lands in the vicinity of Sg Siput where these farmers can transfer the 900 head of cattle they are currently raising on the estates. Sime Darby’s “zero cattle” policy will result in the demolition of the cattle rearing industry in Sg Siput, and in many other parts of the country, as well as the loss of the knowledge and skills that a group of our farmers have honed over the course of 3 generations. This knowledge and skill are national assets that should be preserved and utilized to bolster our self-sufficiency in food.

Given the fact that our self-sufficiency in beef is only about 17% currently and that we are spending far too much on importing food (around RM 70 billion per year) Sime Darby’s new policy appears very selfish and short-sighted.

Experts in agro-economics are in agreement that it is beneficial to the nation to use oil palm plantations as grazing areas for cattle. Natascha Grinnel et al in their paper entitled “Cattle – Oil Palm Integration: A viable strategy to increase Malaysian beef self-sufficiency and Palm Oil sustainability” published in Livestock Science Vol 259, May 2022 enumerate the benefits – cattle eat the undergrowth and reduce the need for herbicides, cattle dropping are useful manure, deforestation can be avoided and national food security enhanced. Theirs is just one of several similar academic papers extolling the benefits of “cattle – oil palm integration”.

The issue of deforestation and palm oil sustainability needs to be taken seriously. At present about 70% of the 8.4 million hectares designated as agricultural land in Malaysia is used to cultivate oil palm. If all plantation companies adopt Sime Darby’s whimsical decision to insist on “Zero Cattle” then the country has 2 options – import more beef and milk, or cut down some forest to create new grazing grounds for cattle. Given these facts, it would be irresponsible for Sime Darby to insist on this policy.

Sime Darby has to consider the possibility that the anti-palm oil lobby in Europe will label oil palm production in Malaysia as “non sustainable” and in contravention of the RSPO guidelines because of the potential for deforestation that emanates from this ill-advised policy.

The 15 affected cattle farmers turned to PSM for help. We have drafted a letter to the top management in Sime Darby Plantations asking that they pause the implementation of the Zero Cattle policy, and instead have meetings with the cattle farmers to iron out the problems that they might be creating for plantation management.

We hope that Sime Darby will respond by having a rational dialogue with the cattle farmers. The plantation sector has been turning in handsome profits for the past 60 years despite doubling as grazing grounds for cattle. It is in the interest of the nation for this practice to be continued. It will also be good for the palm oil industry for this issue to be resolved without too much fuss.

Jeyakumar Devaraj
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

5th March 2024

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