Understudied, underappreciated tropical peat soil

By Patricia Hului
[email protected]


Attendee examining different type of peat soils at the exhibition.

Tropical peat is the last frontier of arable land available for industrial agricultural development, especially for oil palm cultivation.

Speaking during the launching ceremony of the renamed Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute on Nov 7, its director Lulie Melling emphasised on the importance and need of peat research in the state particularly with Sarawak owning 63 per cent of all Malaysia peat land.

“Being the last form of exploitable land resources available and its barren qualities, it is understandable why it is the least researched and understood soil type among tropical soils,” said Lulie, who is optimistic that the centre will contribute towards the sustainable utilisation of peat land for oil palm, pineapple and other cash crop for the state economy.


Peat moss found in temperate peat on display..

The first of its kind in Malaysia, Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud who officiated the launching ceremony, also announced the change of name from Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Laboratory (TPRL).

The all-in-one campus design complete with science research parks and comprehensive facilities built on 75 acre plot of land in Samarahan, can accommodate 50 scientists and 150 supporting staff. RM40 million was allocated by the state government for the setting up of the complex.

“The establishment of TPRL is to meet the challenge posed by the former chief minister, our present governor, who wanted the unproductive peat land to be turned into a sustainable asset for Sarawak,” she said.

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem, in a speech delivered by Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan, said the political and public slur and slander made by NGOs against the state created confusion about this understudied soil.


Example of managed peat (front) and unmanaged peat (back).

Adenan said that many of these allegations were based on studies equating tropical peat with temperate and that the latter was less complex.

This made the need to overcome the scientific challenge in trying to unlock the soil secrets of tropical peat much greater.

Adenan added that the state government recognised the impacts of any form of development on the environment and its communities.

“This is why, as an environmentally and socially-responsible state government, we has established the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory in 2008 with the objective of developing the scientific, technical knowledge and clear understanding on the sustainability of oil palm cultivation on tropical peat.”


Visitor looking through microscope at the exhibition.

Acknowledging how the palm oil trade was criticised by certain quarters, Lulie still believed in the importance of this particular cash crop.

“They make up unfounded environmental and sustainability issues against it. However, to me their efforts are futile. ”

According to Lulie, trading oil palm is not only important as a source of revenue for the government but also giving employment.

In response to an open letter signed by 139 scientists on the environmentally sustainable move of developing tropical peatlands after the 15th International Peat Congress held in Kuching, she explained the R&D output of TPRL strives to provide the fundamental science which will develop both the standard operation and code of practice for the management and sustainable exploitation of tropical peat land for planting oil palm and other cash crops.


Some of the visitors reading through the exhibition.

“And with the standard operating procedures and code of practice fully in place, the detractors’ claims will lie unjustified,” she said, adding that oil palm was now a very important economic security crop of the state, nation and Southeast Asia region.

She further stressed that the knowledge derived from their researches is conclusive and undisputable.

“Thus leads to practical applications and development that permeate throughout a multitude of arenas, ranging from our local economy that benefit smallholders, through to influencing international scientific perceptions on the utilisation of peat land,” she said.

Other activities of the launching ceremony included exhibition and peat fire demonstration.

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