R&D collaboration with international researchers vital for Sarawak’s plantation development

Prof Wickneswari delivering her speech.

KUCHING: Research and development (R&D) collaboration with international organisations has been identified as an important factor to strengthen plantation development in Sarawak.

Prof Dr Wickneswari Ratnam said the Sarawak government had embarked on industrial forest plantations (IFPs) since 1997 to reduce pressure on natural forests and to ensure sustainable supply of raw materials for the timber industry.

“Tropical acacias comprise a large proportion of Sarawak’s forest plantations and a target has been set for one million hectares of IFP by 2025.

“In order to achieve the target, the state government had urged relevant agencies and licensees to intensify R&D to enhance production of high-quality planting material, pest and disease control, forest management, harvesting and production of higher value-added products,” said the IUFRO Working Party 2.08.07 coordinator.

She was speaking during the opening ceremony of the 3rd International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) Acacia Conference here on Tuesday (Oct 26).

IUFRO is a global network for forest science cooperation that unites thousands of scientists from over 120 countries, and is a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

IUFRO is open to all individuals and organisations dedicated to forest and forest products research as well as related disciplines.

“It is a non-profit, non-governmental and non-discriminatory organisation with a long tradition dating back to 1892. Scientists cooperate in IUFRO on a voluntary basis through more than 180 Working Parties addressing specific topics, Working Party 2.08.07 on Genetics and Silviculture of Acacias is one such group.

“The primary concern of this IUFRO Working Party is industrial tropical acacias but we welcome those who are working on temperate species and arid zone taxa.”

Prof Wickneswari explained that major uses of acacias ranged from mainstream industrial fibre, solid wood, and tannin production through a suite of multi-purpose uses, including fuelwood and poles, fodder and food, site amelioration and even floristry and perfume production. 

She said the relatively minimal silvicultural inputs, fast growth rate and ability to fix nitrogen made acacias suitable candidates for biomass energy generation and carbon fixation where policy settings are favourable.

“Acacia mangium was only introduced from Australia to Malaysia in the 1960s and there are now around two million hectares of plantations of this species, its hybrid with A.auriculiformis and the related species A.crassicarpa.  

“Optimal silvicultural regimes for long term sustainability of these plantations remain to be demonstrated, however problems including fungal diseases and wind stability and the potential for weediness need to be understood as well as managed in some environments. 

“Domestication is proceeding fast in some countries but in general genetic improvement is not as advanced as in eucalyptus. There are many technical challenges and opportunities associated with reproductive biology where hybridisation and polyploid breeding are active research fronts.

“Understanding of molecular genetics is increasing but there is no Acacia Genome project yet.”

She added that such commercially important taxa warrant investments and expressed hope for encouragement in some actions as there is a clear need for continued R&D in both growing and breeding acacias as well as downstream processing of its timber.