Chinese hunger for ‘world’s smelliest fruit’ threatens Malaysian forests

Fans rave about their creamy texture but many detractors liken their intense aroma to sewage or sweaty socks. (AFP)
Updated 06 February 2019
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Chinese hunger for ‘world’s smelliest fruit’ threatens Malaysian forests

  • Grown across tropical Southeast Asia, the durian is hailed as the “king of fruits” by fans, who liken its creamy texture and intense aroma to blue cheese
  • Growers in Malaysia are increasingly shifting from small orchards to industrial-scale operations

RAUB, Malaysia: Soaring demand for durians in China is being blamed for a new wave of deforestation in Malaysia with environmentalists warning vast amounts of jungle is being cleared to make way for massive plantations of the spiky, pungent fruit.
Grown across tropical Southeast Asia, the durian is hailed as the “king of fruits” by fans, who liken its creamy texture and intense aroma to blue cheese.
But detractors say durians stink of sewage and stale vomit. The strong smell means many hotels across the region have banned guests from bringing them to rooms, while Singapore does not allow the fruit on its subway system.
Nevertheless, they are a hit in China, and the increase in demand has prompted exporters to vye for a bigger share of the burgeoning market.
Growers in Malaysia are increasingly shifting from small orchards to industrial-scale operations — a trend that environmentalists warn presents a new threat to rainforests already challenged by loggers and palm oil plantations.
“Right now durians are gaining a lot of attention from the Chinese market,” said Sophine Tann, from environmental protection group PEKA, which has studied land clearances to make way for the fruit.
“This deforestation for planting of durians is in preparation to meet that demand.”
In the jungle-clad district of Raub in central Malaysia, swathes of rainforest have recently been chopped down to make way for a new plantation, with durian seedlings protected by netting planted across bare hillsides.
The plantation is next to an area of protected forest, which is home to a kaleidescope of animals from monkeys to exotic birds.
A river, now murky and filled with trunks and branches from logging, runs close by.
A sign outside the plantation said it was run by Ample Harvest Produce but company staff refused to comment when contacted about the loss of trees in the area.
PEKA said the land’s status was changed by the local government to allow logging, but local authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
In a Beijing mall some 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) away, a stall named “Little Fruit Captain” is doing a brisk trade selling Malaysian durians.
Shop manager Wang Tao said his customers “fall in love” with durians from Malaysia due to their particularly sweet taste, often preferring them to those from rival exporters, such as Thailand.
He imports frozen durians from a facility in Malaysia and sells them in plastic containers or in other forms — a kind of baked dessert, in ice cream or fried up as crisps.
Customers are kept up to date about the shop’s stock via the WeChat messaging app.
“I first tried durian as a child and acquired a taste for it,” said university student Liu Zelun, who visits the shop once a week for her durian fix.
“Thai durians have a stronger flavour and you tend to get sick of it after a while, but not the ones that I buy from here.”
The most popular variety — and one of the most expensive — is Musang King, known for its thick, golden flesh. A single Musang King was on sale at the Beijing stall for 800 yuan ($120), several times more expensive than in Malaysia.
“Our customers aren’t concerned about the prices, they just want the best,” said Wang.
With the price of key Malaysian export palm oil, used in everyday goods around the world from soap to margarine, in a seemingly inexorable decline, farmers are increasingly turning to durians.
The government has backed the expansion of the industry, hoping to cash in on growing demand from the world’s second-biggest economy.
The value of durian shipments from Malaysia to China in the first eight months of 2018 hit 7.4 million ringgit ($1.8 million), more than double the value in the same period of 2017, according to the agriculture ministry in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia hopes a deal struck in August to pave the way for the export of whole, frozen durians to China will boost shipments, and are aiming to more than double production to 443,000 tons by 2030.
Previously, Malaysian durians could only be shipped to China in pulp and paste form.
Despite the looming production boom, the agriculture ministry insisted plantations will expand slowly and said it was encouraging growers to use existing orchards and revive unproductive trees.
“Deforestation for new areas is not encouraged,” Agriculture Minister Salahuddin Ayub told AFP in a statement, adding that if trees were logged for plantations, strict environmental rules must be followed.
In the northeastern state of Kelantan, tribespeople last year set up blockades to stop a company from logging their ancestral lands to set up a Musang King plantation.
The central government has taken up their cause, suing the state government for failing to uphold their land rights.
But environmentalists warn the overall picture is bleak.
Durian cultivation is “driving yet more deforestation and biodiversity loss in Malaysia,” said environmental group Rimba, warning it was leading to “destruction of critical habitat for wide-ranging animals such as tigers, elephants, primates, and hornbills.”


One million species risk extinction due to humans: draft UN report

Updated 23 April 2019
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One million species risk extinction due to humans: draft UN report

  • Biodiversity loss and global warming are closely linked, according to the 44-page Summary for Policy Makers
  • Delegates from 130 nations meeting in Paris from April 29 will vet the executive summary line-by-line

PARIS: Up to one million species face extinction due to human influence, according to a draft UN report obtained by AFP that painstakingly catalogues how humanity has undermined the natural resources upon which its very survival depends.
The accelerating loss of clean air, drinkable water, CO2-absorbing forests, pollinating insects, protein-rich fish and storm-blocking mangroves — to name but a few of the dwindling services rendered by Nature — poses no less of a threat than climate change, says the report, set to be unveiled May 6.
Indeed, biodiversity loss and global warming are closely linked, according to the 44-page Summary for Policy Makers, which distills a 1,800-page UN assessment of scientific literature on the state of Nature.
Delegates from 130 nations meeting in Paris from April 29 will vet the executive summary line-by-line. Wording may change, but figures lifted from the underlying report cannot be altered.
“We need to recognize that climate change and loss of Nature are equally important, not just for the environment, but as development and economic issues as well,” Robert Watson, chair of the UN-mandated body that compiled the report, said, without divulging its findings.
“The way we produce our food and energy is undermining the regulating services that we get from Nature,” he said, adding that only “transformative change” can stem the damage.
Deforestation and agriculture, including livestock production, account for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and have wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems as well.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report warns of “an imminent rapid acceleration in the global rate of species extinction.”
The pace of loss “is already tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years,” it notes.
“Half-a-million to a million species are projected to be threatened with extinction, many within decades.”
Many experts think a so-called “mass extinction event” — only the sixth in the last half-billion years — is already under way.
The most recent saw the end of the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago, when a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid strike wiped out most lifeforms.
Scientists estimate that Earth is today home to some eight million distinct species, a majority of them insects.
A quarter of catalogued animal and plant species are already being crowded, eaten or poisoned out of existence.
The drop in sheer numbers is even more dramatic, with wild mammal biomass — their collective weight — down by 82 percent.
Humans and livestock account for more than 95 percent of mammal biomass.
“If we’re going to have a sustainable planet that provides services to communities around the world, we need to change this trajectory in the next ten years, just as we need to do that with climate,” noted WWF chief scientist Rebecca Shaw, formerly a member of the UN scientific bodies for both climate and biodiversity.
The direct causes of species loss, in order of importance, are shrinking habitat and land-use change, hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts, climate change, pollution, and alien species such as rats, mosquitoes and snakes that hitch rides on ships or planes, the report finds.
“There are also two big indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change — the number of people in the world and their growing ability to consume,” said Watson.
Once seen as primarily a future threat to animal and plant life, the disruptive impact of global warming has accelerated.
Shifts in the distribution of species, for example, will likely double if average temperature go up a notch from 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) to 2C.
So far, the global thermometer has risen 1C compared with mid-19th century levels.
The 2015 Paris Agreement enjoins nations to cap the rise to “well below” 2C. But a landmark UN climate report in October said that would still be enough to boost the intensity and frequency of deadly heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms.
Other findings in the report include:
- Three-quarters of land surfaces, 40 percent of the marine environment, and 50 percent of inland waterways across the globe have been “severely altered.”
- Many of the areas where Nature’s contribution to human wellbeing will be most severely compromised are home to indigenous peoples and the world’s poorest communities that are also vulnerable to climate change.
- More than two billion people rely on wood fuel for energy, four billion rely on natural medicines, and more than 75 percent of global food crops require animal pollination.
- Nearly half of land and marine ecosystems have been profoundly compromised by human interference in the last 50 years.
- Subsidies to fisheries, industrial agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, mining and the production of biofuel or fossil fuel energy encourage waste, inefficiency and over-consumption.
The report cautioned against climate change solutions that may inadvertently harm Nature.
The use, for example, of biofuels combined with “carbon capture and storage” — the sequestration of CO2 released when biofuels are burned — is widely seen as key in the transition to green energy on a global scale.
But the land needed to grow all those biofuel crops may wind up cutting into food production, the expansion of protected areas or reforestation efforts.