Oil Palm: The Golden Crop of The Last Five Decades

Oil palm, a perennial plant belonging to family Palmae and subfamily Cocoideae, is a unique tree with higher economic value. The scientific name of it is Elaeis guineensis.

Oil palm covers 7% of the total cultivated lands for vegetable oils globally, but has the highest output, producing 40 % of all oils and fats.

M. Jerry Wales, a European Planter, commenced the cultivation of Oil Palm in Sri Lanka in 1968 at Nakiyadeniya Estate by planting 68 oil palm plants covering an extent of 0.50 Ha. Since 1968, oil palm cultivation has rapidly increased throughout the Low Country Wet Zone of Sri Lanka as it was seen as an economical and profitable crop for the last 50 years.

Since 1968, oil palm cultivation has been going through various changes in the Plantation Management Practices such as:

  • Nursery Management
  • Replanting techniques and agronomic practices
  • Harvesting operations and agronomic practices in a mature area
  • Development in human skills
  • Mechanization
  • Digital-aid plantation monitoring system
  • Sustainable environment management

Also, the livelihood of the people and the villages around the plantation have been sustainably developed.

Each management practice mentioned above plays a significant role to achieve the optimum oil yield per hectare through improving the bunch weight, number of bunches and oil in a bunch. This has resulted in a higher yield per ha (YPH) as well. Watawala Plantations has achieved the highest YPH amongst the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) during the past.

The significant achievements of yield and sustainability were the result of the company’s innovative and persevered approach in “doing things differently for improved results”. Accordingly, Watawala Plantations has set a vision for the year 2025 through a strategic road map to achieve a YPH of 20 tons. The company expects to reach this achievement of excellence, through motivation, developing the human capital and by the process of participatory management.

We are also proud that we reached the next milestone in our development of sustainable oil palm plantations, achieving the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification for the palm oil mill and our concessions in Galle District in October 2020. The momentous recognition makes us the first plantations company in South Asia and Sri Lanka to be certified with this coveted accreditation.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: Is oil palm an environmentally harmful crop?

A:There are no specific adverse effects to the environment from oil palm. It’s a plantation crop similar to tea, rubber or coconut with inputs like water and fertiliser differing in smaller scales to each crop type. Oil Palm is basically like a coconut tree.

The fact that oil palm is a harmful environmental crop is a notion largely associated with Malaysian and Indonesian oil palm plantations which have planted oil palm in lands deforesting natural forests. However, this doesn’t apply to the Sri Lankan context at all.

Q: Is it true that oil palm plantations significantly affect the water table or erode the quality of freshwater streams?

A: Whilst one oil palm tree consumes more water than a rubber tree, it has not yet been scientifically proven that oil palm plantations significantly affect the water table. The number of oil palm trees planted in one hectare is lesser than the number of rubber trees planted in a hectare; meaning water consumption from oil palm is less than the same extent of rubber planted.

The water consumption to produce 1 MT of raw material for both Rubber and Oil Palm is as follows.

• To produce raw Rubber 1 MT – 32410 m3 water
• To produce raw Palm oil 1 MT – 19148 m3 water

Furthermore, the quality of freshwater streams is not affected by well-managed oil palm plantations. For example, the WPL sites own a large number of freshwater streams, and even some Rare, Threatened and Endangered (RTE) species were found in these streams as per assessments conducted by the company.

Q: Has WPL converted diverse, virgin forest ecosystems into oil palm plantations?

A: No. All oil palm plantations of WPL were initiated in blocks where either rubber or tea was planted previously. WPL owns legal ownership to these lands and the right to plant any agricultural crop within the boundary. No oil palm trees are planted beyond these boundaries.
In addition, WPL has identified shrub-like areas abandoned for some years, which were left to grow naturally as secondary forests to improve biodiversity.

Q: Why has this foreign crop been introduced to Sri Lanka so recently?

A:The fact that it was recently introduced is a misconception. Compared to other agricultural crops like tea, rubber and coffee, oil palm is newer. But M. Jerry Wales, a European Planter, commenced the cultivation of oil palm in Sri Lanka in 1968 at Nakiyadenia Estate by planting 68 oil palm plants covering an area of 0.50 Ha. Since 1968, oil palm cultivation has rapidly increased throughout the Low Country Wet Zone of Sri Lanka as it was seen as an economical and profitable crop. And with the degradation of the rubber market, oil palm cultivation improved due to its high economic factor.

Comparative profit data is as follows.

Crop Coconut Tea Rubber Oil palm
Price of 1 nut/ 1kg (Rs.) 55 550 300 50
COP (Rs.) 15 520 280 15
Productivity (nuts/ kgs per hectare) 7000 1500 1000 18000
Profit (Ha/Rs./Year) 280,000 45,000 20,000 630,000

Q: Is oil palm a threat to Sri Lankan biodiversity?

A: As this has been a highly concerning factor, WPL conducted a High Conservation value assessment and Freshwater species survey in the region. The results implicated that there are various types of species that reside in the region.

Ex. HCV assessment results

Type of species Quantity found
Critically endangered 02
Endangered 05
Vulnerable 08
Near threated 07
Least concern 26


The freshwater species survey also points to endemic species found in the area.

Q: Does oil palm cause soil compaction?

A: According to the Soil Compaction and Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) Yield in a Clay Textured Soil January 2010 American Journal of Agricultural and Biological Science 5(1) The results showed a beneficial effect of soil compaction on the oil palm yield.

Oil palm significantly increased the yield with increased soil bulk density. The transportation frequency played a greater role than the trailer weight. After six years of soil compaction, there was a positive relationship between mean soil bulk density, porosity and oil palm yield. As such, compaction may not often be a problem.