By Kurniawati Kamarudin The vast tracts of agricultural land abandoned by their owners due to old age or other reasons are a matter of concern. If put to good use, its output can help the nation to slash its yearly food import bill that now runs into billions of ringgit. This third of a four-part series of articles looks at the Department of Agriculture's initiatives to develop idle land.
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- The development of abandoned agricultural land first came on the radar of the Department of Agriculture (DoA) when the Eighth Malaysia Plan (2001-2005) was implemented.
However, it was only in 2007 that the department introduced the Idle Land Development Programme to encourage owners of unused land to cultivate their plots or lease it out to others.
The programme was aimed at optimising the nation's valuable land resources and preventing them from going to waste in order to increase food production capacities and reduce the nation's dependence on food imports.
However, more than 10 years later, the response from landowners to the programme has been far from satisfactory.
Out of the 119, 273 hectares of idle agricultural land recorded in Peninsular Malaysia in 2014, the DoA only managed to get 7,944.97 ha developed as of 2018, with a total of 5,964 people participating in the programme.
Department of Agriculture (DoA), Strategic Planning Division principal assistant director Nur Dalinna Ibrahim.
--PIX Courtesy of DoA Malaysia
Landowners who fail to see the economic value of developing their land are the main reason why the DoA's efforts to develop idle land have not been that fruitful.
Another serious impediment is the multiple ownership of various plots of land as the difficulty in securing the approval of all the owners can throw a spanner in the works. Many of the owners would have died and their children who inherited the land would have migrated to the urban areas.
It is said that in Negeri Sembilan, the Customary Land Tenure Enactment is a stumbling block to the development of idle land with customary land status.
However, research carried out by academics proved the contrary. Apparently, the enactment does not object to the land being used or leased out for agricultural activities and that the poor attitude of the landowners is to be blamed for leaving their land unused.
These are among the challenges faced by DoA, besides the tedious task of identifying the idle land and their owners, according to the department's Strategic Planning Division principal assistant director Nur Dalinna Ibrahim.
"We can't force the owners to develop their idle land. What we're doing is having discussions with them to find ways to develop and optimise their land so that it becomes productive," she told Bernama, recently.
The District Agriculture Office is tasked with identifying idle land, as well as their owners, in their respective district.
The office also takes on the role of facilitator to match landowners without the financial resources with farm operators who wish to develop their land for agricultural purposes.
But the "matchmaking" may not always result in successful ventures due to factors such as defects in the land and the high cost of developing it, said Nur Dalinna.
"Usually, the operator will assess the plot of land that they want to rent or lease. If the conditions are good and suitable, the land will be taken up for development but if it is prone to flooding or located in a remote area and lacks basic infrastructure, it will remain undeveloped until finally, the owner gets someone who is really committed to developing it," she said.
According to Nur Dalinna, DoA offers incentives of up to RM20,000 a hectare -- subject to a maximum of five ha per individual -- to landowners or others who wish to develop abandoned land.
The incentives are given in the form of infrastructures such as irrigation system and land clearing activities or farm inputs such as seedlings, fertiliser and technological assistance.
"The incentives given would depend on the location of the land and what is needed there. A site assessment will be done in advance to find out the suitability of its location and types of crops to be cultivated there," she explained.
The DoA allocates a total of RM2 million yearly for this purpose.
Pahang has the highest number of participants under the Idle Land Development Programme (1,130), followed by Terengganu (1,051), Kelantan (811), Kedah (772), Penang (617) ,Perak (423), Negeri Sembilan (384), Johor (357), Melaka (190), Perlis (134), Selangor (63) and Federal Territory of Labuan (31).
Nur Dalinna said DoA is targeting to develop 100 ha of idle land every year, involving a total of 50 participants, under its idle land development scheme.
"We will monitor the participants regularly and provide our advisory services to them. We will also ensure that the land developed by them remain productive," she added.
After studying the soil conditions of the idle land selected for development, the DoA will recommend the types of crops that can be cultivated there.
Despite the incentives given to them, some of the Idle Land Development Programme participants have met with failure, the reasons for which include the shortage of working capital, especially at the preliminary stages of cultivation.
"We don't encourage them to be totally dependent on our department. They should also prepare their own additional capital.
"The government only gives incentives in the early stage of the land development, the rest depends on their commitment. They have to buy the agricultural inputs using their own capital," she said, adding that they would also have to hire workers to cultivate the crops and maintain the farm.
"This requires additional capital as the workers have to be paid."
TYPES OF CROPS
The DoA encourages the cultivation of permanent and short-term crops on idle land.
The short-term crops like vegetables, corn or bananas help the farm operators to enjoy harvests within a short period whilst waiting for their permanent crops to mature in three or four years.
Nur Dalinna said the DoA's choice of permanent crops include durian, coconut, mango and other types of fruits.
Meanwhile, landowners wishing to participate in the Idle Land Development Programme can send their applications to the relevant District Agriculture Office.
"Among the criteria for participation is they must have land to be developed. If they are the landowners, they have to show their land grant; those with leased land must possess an official agreement," she said.
She said they should also have a plan outlining how they wish to implement their project and also details of their capital.
She also said that this year, DoA would step up its activities to educate owners of idle land to develop their land and reap economic benefits from it.
Meanwhile, the DoA's website www.doa.gov.my provides information on abandoned agriculture lands that have been put up for lease by their owners.
Translated by Rema Nambiar