Durian boom exposes ugly land tussles in Malaysia’s Pahang, home of Musang King cultivar
- A clampdown on ‘illegal’ durian farmers in Pahang state shows the fraught land politics at play in the country’s increasingly lucrative Musang King industry
- The arrest of 18 farmers this month for ‘trespassing’ on land they had cultivated for decades has thrust the issue back into the spotlight
Singapore’s durian supplies hit by poor weather and the Covid-19 pandemic
Raub, deep in the central Malaysian state of Pahang, has become synonymous with Musang King thanks to the large number of older cultivar trees the area is home to.
But while there is great pride in Pahang about being home to the “king of kings” among durians, the frenzy of harvest season has also exposed the ugly local land tussles that have sprouted as a result of the increasingly lucrative Musang King industry.
The country’s second highest court weighed in on the matter in January, granting 204 small hold farmers a stay from eviction and giving them the de facto green light to continue cultivating pending a full hearing on their dispute with the Royal Pahang Durian Group and other associated agencies.
The RPDG – which has links to royalty and the state government – claims that the farmers encroached on state land and had proposed a quid pro quo for them to continue operating that included several requirements including obtaining certifications required for export, maintaining a high yield and selling it to the consortium at a fixed price.
The Save Musang King Alliance (Samka), representing the farmers, said the proposal was deeply exploitative.
While the January ruling by the Court of Appeal brought about a truce of sorts, the dispute was thrust back in the spotlight in early July, after 18 farmers were arrested for “trespassing” on the Batu Talam permanent reserve, where they had for years cultivated durians in a land parcel spanning 101 hectares.
Authorities said the men arrested on July 4 were “aggressive”, and the police’s light infantry unit, the General Operations Force, was deployed to cordon off the area.
The farmers, between the ages of 17 and 60, were released on bail two days later.
Over the last week, state authorities have begun clearing the durian trees in the area, saying the stay order granted by the Court of Appeal did not apply to this particular land parcel.
Chow Yu Hui, a state assemblyman representing the Tras district in Raub, told This Week in Asia he believed the authorities’ recent actions were aimed at sending a signal to all other smallholders holding out against the RPDG.
Contrary to the Pahang authorities’ assertions, Chow – who was arrested alongside the farmers before being released – claimed the Batu Talam area was in fact covered by the court order.
It was important for global durian consumers to understand the fraught land politics that are playing out as demand rises, said Chow, who is from the Democratic Action Party that is part of the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance.
“The world knows that the motherland of Musang King is in fact Raub and that some of the farmers who spend decades cultivating the fruit are accused of farming on so-called illegal land,” the lawmaker said.
Wilson Chang, the chairman of Samka, said he hoped there would be a speedy de-escalation of the situation even as authorities have recently stuck to their guns.
“It is extremely frightening and shocking when the director of the Pahang Forestry Department threatens to destroy 101 hectares of durian plantation within a month,” Chang said. These actions amount to “treating the farmers the same way as terrorists”, he said. “Samka hereby urges the state government to temporarily halt all operations of destroying the durian trees and to have a dialogue with the farmers as soon as possible in order to look for a win-win solution.”
For their part, Pahang state authorities have not signalled they will bow to public pressure and insist they were merely enforcing the law.
Faced with murmurs that the recent enforcement action may be linked to corruption on the part of officials, local forestry department director Mohd Hizamri Mohd Yasin said on July 8 that his agency had “no problems” with facing an anti-corruption probe.
“But if we don’t conduct an enforcement operation now, then when? It’s been 20 years and we have to put a stop here,” he was quoted as saying by the national news agency Bernama.
“There are those who question why [the operation was conducted] during the fruiting season, but if we don’t do it, when should it be done as durians fruit two or three times a year?,” he said. “If we don’t do it, farmers will return to the plantations when the season comes and we cannot continue to place guards to monitor the area.”
Chow, the politician, said authorities needed to recognise the fact that the “illegal” cultivators felt a deep sense of injustice, as they had been working on the land since the 1970s with little interference, only to be targeted now that demand for the Musang King variety is soaring across Asia.
A “scorched-earth” policy was not a long-term solution to the land tussles, he said.
“Why won’t the state government issue a land lease to the farmers to come to a win-win situation? The Musang King durian trees have been there for 20 years, why do you need to chop them down?”