Ah… the durian; the King of Fruits that has caused much divisiveness.
The fruit’s pungent smell has been unfavourably compared to rotten seafood or raw sewage. Anthony Bourdain once said they make your breath smell like “French-kissing your dead grandmother,” and food writer Richard Sterling opined that “its odour is best described as pig-s–t, turpentine, and onions, garnished with a gym sock.”
The fruit is so smelly it’s even banned on public transport in Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong!
And yet people can’t get enough of those yellow or red nuggets of creamy custard-like pulp with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Durians remain a special treat in Southeast Asian households and at RM61 a pound, they’re not cheap. Perhaps the most prized and expensive of the breeds is the famous Musang King, with a single tree earning farmers up to RM4,732 a year.
The King of Fruits has, however, been at the centre of a dispute regarding farmers’ land rights and the protection of forest reserves. With many of our precious rainforests in danger of being torn down, will our love for this pungent fruit be one of the reasons for this?
An International Market
In recent years, durian’s commercial value has risen dramatically, with China in particular becoming a major buyer of the King of Fruits, importing some RM8.04 billion (US$1.7 billion) worth of durians in 2019.
In 2020, a durian festival in China sold out $15 million worth of Musang King in 60 minutes, and flocks of Chinese tourists have been paying to visit Raub’s plantations. Durian is now China’s No. 1 fruit import by value, and the country bought RM10.87 billion ($2.3 billion) of it in 2020. Although Thailand still continues to be the country’s main source of spiky fruit, a 2019 deal with Malaysia to sell frozen durian has seen Chinese interest in Malaysia’s Musang King varietal skyrocket.
Already in 2018, the value of durian shipments from Malaysia to China in the first eight months of that year hit RM7.4 million ringgit (S$2.5 million), more than double the value in the same period of 2017, according to the Agriculture Ministry in Kuala Lumpur.
Musang King’s popularity in China has become the main method of promoting Malaysian culture and cuisine in the country. This was seen in the three-day Rasa Malaysia Festival which took place on September 1st, 2023, and featured nasi lemak, sate, Ipoh curry mee, lion dance and Malay martial arts, among others.
Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China (MayCham) chairman Loh Wee Keng said that the festival involving 30 stalls from Malaysia and 10 from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and China covering Beijing and several other provinces, will also boost the country’s tourism sector.
Musang King is getting more attention and is in high demand among people in China. Many have expressed interest and can’t wait to try it. In line with the name and theme of the ‘Rasa Malaysia’ festival, I hope visitors can feel the Malaysian culture directly. – Loh Wee Keng, Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China (MayCham) chairman
The Musang King Capital
Our story begins in the former mining town Raub, home to over 100,000 people. According to Raub resident and Save Musang King Alliance (Samka) president Wilson Cheng, settlers moved into the district in the early 1970s as part of a resettlement effort.
The scheme was meant to help those who aided in the government’s efforts against the communist insurgency. They were resettled here and were promised land to work on. – Wilson Cheng, Raub resident and Samka president
According to Cheng, many started planting rubber trees, cocoa and other commodities on the land. In the early 2000s, he said the farmers moved on to a commodity ― durians, specifically the Musang King variety.
I would say it all started in 2003 or 2004. That is when people started to plant Musang King durians abundantly, among other variants of durian. – Wilson Cheng, Raub resident and Samka president
Since then, Raub has become the “durian capital of Malaysia” with most of the world’s Musang King durians coming from the township’s durian plantations. For these farmers, one hectare of Musang King trees can yield RM155,250 a year (based on the price of RM25 per kg) — nearly nine times the RM17,500 harvest from a hectare of oil palm according to Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek.
A Spiky Situation
As the demand for Musang King surged, it led to a major land rights dispute between the Pahang governmental bodies and local durian farmers.
On June 24, 2020, the Pahang government awarded a 30+30-year lease and the right to use over 5,357 acres of land in Raub to the joint ventures. A month later, the affected durian farmers in Raub were given the ultimatum of accepting a sub-lease of 10+10 years with the joint venture company or risk being evicted for illegal land occupation.
The proposed sublease contract required that each farmer pay a levy of RM6,000 per acre and sell their Grade A Musang King to the joint ventures at a fixed price of RM30 per kg for two years starting from 2021. Unsurprisingly, the durian farmers did not appreciate this new proposal, feeling that the state had colluded with a private company to unfairly extract their hard-earned profits.
A month later on July 24th, durian farmers in Raub received a red notice from the district land office ordering them to vacate their farms cultivated on state land within 30 days, failing which they would be evicted. Following that, the affected farmers organised into the group Samka and claimed they were being driven into a situation they described as “modern slavery” through a legalisation scheme of their farms and the literal fruits of their labour.
Things escalated when these durian plantations started getting torn down without acknowledgement from the farmers.
In mid-July of 2021, the Pahang Forestry Department chopped down over 15,000 durian trees. This included the entirety of Tan Wai Kiat’s 13-acre durian plantation. Tan and other farmers believe that the destruction of the 15,000 trees is meant as a warning to other durian growers since the area cleared only spans around 250 of the total 5,537 acres involved in the dispute.
When Tan heard that his plantation was being destroyed, he and other affected farmers rushed there to negotiate with on-site officials, he told Insider. A video of the confrontation shows that tensions were high. State authorities had sealed off the area, and the group was arrested on charges of trespassing and detained for 48 hours. Days later, Tan’s entire farm was wiped out.
I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. It feels like there is no rule of law in this country. – Tan Wai Kiat, durian farmer
For these durian farmers, the Musang King was their sole source of income; before losing his plantation, Tan used to bring in around RM217,442 a year.
Chiang Heng Mun, another farmer whose 20-acre plantation was completely cleared this month and the sole breadwinner for his family, claimed that the state forestry department and consortium are creating a culture of fear among the Musang King growers.
These are the trees that I put my tears and sweat into for years.
We have been trying to meet with them to work things out, but they don’t respond. We just want fair treatment, because we have been working here for many years. – Chiang Heng Mun, durian farmer
It must be noted, however, that not all of these durian farmers had planted their crops legally. Many durian farms – like Tan’s – are located on government-owned land and are technically being run without permission from state authorities.
Pahang Forestry Department director Datuk Dr Mohd Hizamri Mohd Yasin stressed that the department only gets involved in cases of durian trees being illegally planted within protected forest reserves, and avoids farms that are operated by the Royal Pahang Durian Resources-PKPP Sdn Bhd.
It is a routine enforcement conducted at illegal farms operating in forest reserves. There is nothing unusual as we have already conducted similar operations several times. – Pahang Forestry Department director Datuk Dr Mohd Hizamri Mohd Yasin
Already, large swathes of rainforest in Raub have been cleared to make way for durian plantations (legal or otherwise) to meet demands in China and elsewhere – a trend that environmentalists warn presents a new threat to rainforests already challenged by loggers and palm oil plantations. Sophine Tann, from the environmental protection group PEKA, which has studied land clearances to make way for the fruit, warns:
“Right now durians are gaining a lot of attention from the Chinese market. This deforestation for planting of durians is in preparation to meet that demand.”
Back in 2018, residents in Fraser’s Hill, some 8km from Raub had spotted land clearing and open burning activities on a hilltop in the Hulu Sempam area, to make way for a Musang King plantation. This was troublesome as the 404ha plot borders the Batu Talam Forest Reserve, which is classified as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Rank 1 in the Pahang Structural Plan 2050 draft.
WWF-Malaysia noted that such development is worrisome as the Hulu Sempam area is vital to the survival of the critically endangered Malayan tiger. WWF’s Siti Zuraidah Abidin said that the area was also identified as an Expected Tiger Habitat under the National Tiger Action Plan for Malaysia 2008-2020 and its surrounding forests a confirmed tiger habitat.
Land clearing at Hulu Sempam can cause the wider forests to be fragmented, which in turn can affect the wildlife movement. – Siti Zuraidah Abidin, WWF
Paradoxically, the clearing of rainforests to make way for durian plantations is also detrimental to durian yields as well. Durians are unable to self-pollinate and rely on animals like fruit bats to do so. Indeed, research from Rimba indicated that fruit bats from the Pteropodidae family are one of the most efficient natural pollinators of durian trees.
However, these animals face many threats. The fruit bats known as flying foxes, for example, are already threatened by hunting, said Rimba. Thus, further loss of their forest habitats would affect their numbers even more – and reduce their effectiveness in durian tree pollination.
Deforestation for durian plantations not only causes the destruction of critical habitats for wide-ranging animals such as tigers, elephants, primates and hornbills, but it also reduces the numbers of the very pollinators that are necessary for durian fruit production. – Sheema Abdul Aziz, president of Rimba
Besides animals, the extensive, non-stop growth of durian farming has also been detrimental to many residents in Raub. Although durian tourism had led to a boom in business and socioeconomic activities, particularly construction and homestays, it also caused an increase in traffic jams, especially on weekends during the durian season as well as a strain on Raub’s water supply.
Pensioner Mohd Azmi Yahya, who moved from Kelantan to Raub in 1998, said the frequent water cuts for the past year or so was a hassle.
We were told that there’s a problem with the local water treatment plant – too much sedimentation. It’s very troublesome because we have three to four people living at home at one time. I can’t even use my washing machine. – Mohd Azmi Yahya, pensioner
A Tragedy in Baling
The controversy over the clearing of forest reserves to make way for durian plantations came to a head following the tragic Baling Flood of July 2022, where illegal durian plantations were blamed for creating a situation where such a terrible flood would occur.
The plantation in Baling which has been linked to deadly flooding received Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approval, and the public deserves to know who was responsible for greenlighting that project. – Rimba Disclosure Project (RDP)
The Gunung Inas Forest Reserve was initially greenlit as a forest plantation. However, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan stated that Musang King durian trees were not among the approved tree species that could be planted within the reserve. He further said the state government had approved the cultivation of Musang King durians for more than 20% of the allowed area in 2019.
The Peninsular Malaysia Forestry Department (JPSM) sees this as a violation of terms because the Musang King is not a forest plantation species and despite that, 5,000 trees were planted in an area of 52ha on Gunung Inas. – Natural Resources Minister Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan
Despite this, the project to plant a durian plantation on Gunung Inas went ahead anyway. Unsurprisingly, this plantation project met much resistance and protest from villagers, environmentalists and non-governmental organisations.
According to some locals, the plantation occupies 12,000 hectares of land. As Kedah Agro Sdn Bhd was unable to manage such a large area, the next administration under Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah allowed another company, ECK Development Bhd, to convert the area into a durian plantation in 2016.
This led to tragedy on July 4th, 2022, when 12 villages in the town of Kupang, Baling were struck by some of the worst floods on record, killing three people and displacing more than 1,400 others. More than 800 houses were affected, with 16 houses being swept away and 18 others destroyed, according to local reports.
In the past, despite two days of downpours, it was nothing like this. The water catchment pond has also overflowed. All the shops here have been washed away by the floodwaters. I think this has been the biggest flood in decades. – Tahak Lahamat, Baling villager
Naturally, the blame was placed on the durian plantation. When calling out for the cancellation of the project, the CSO Platform for Reform in Malaysia highlighted:
- A need for transparency on the due processes for the permit allocation of the said project. This includes the approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report in 2013 for the cultivation of Latex Timber Clones and not for the Musang King Durian tree species.
- Musang King Durian tree is not listed under the Forest Plantation Development Programme by the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia and the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry. It is also not a recommended tree species for reforestation by the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia.
- The plantation is located on 25-degree steep slope areas that should be protected as per the EIA. These hills pose soil erosion risks, as evidenced during the Baling floods that saw tree trunks and sediments washed down to the villages by the heavy rainfall.
- The project is also located on the Ecological Network Area of the Central Forest Spine (Primary Linkage 5), as detailed in the Central Forest Spine (CFS) Masterplan and National Physical Plan. The CFS has critical mountain watersheds and catchment areas that supply water for 90% of the country’s population. It provides climate regulation, soil protection and carbon storage while a range of flora and fauna including the endangered Malayan tiger subspecies and Asian elephants call it home.
Two-time former Kedah First Minister and Jitra politician Datuk Seri Utama Mukhriz Mahathir questioned whether the EIAs that were provided were enough to justify the planting of large-scale durian plantations on Gunang Inas, further adding that the tragic flood could have been prevented if the forest reserve had been untouched, or if replanting efforts were completed satisfactorily.
While replanting trees may cause some soil disturbance, it would not result in soil erosion or flooding. As shown by PAS’ handling of the Ladang Rakyat project in Kelantan, flooding can occur if replanting work is not done properly. The disaster would also not have happened if the forest reserve had not been logged for its high-value trees and approved for development before 2013. – Datuk Seri Utama Mukhriz Mahathir, former Kedah First Minister and Jitra politician
Can We Protect Our Forests and Satisfy the Demand for Durian?
The demand for durian will only continue to grow; currently, Malaysia accounts for less than 1% of China’s durian imports but these sales are expected to jump to 22,061 tonnes by 2030 from 2018’s likely 14,600 tonnes, as trade is widened to include the whole fruit (as opposed to the previous restriction of durian pulp and paste).
The durian industry is transforming from local to global, large-scale farming due to the great demand from China. Before the boom, a durian farm in Malaysia would be a leisure farm… Now, they are hundreds of acres and bigger, and many more will come. – Mr Lim Chin Khee, durian industry consultant
So the question is how do we continue mining this agricultural goldmine without sacrificing our natural treasures?
Rimba proposed that durian trees can be grown in a way that would ensure the survival of pollinator communities. This includes avoiding deforestation by growing durian trees on previously tended agricultural land instead of forests, and by practising low-impact, organic farming.
This will also help to guarantee the long-term longevity and viability of our local durian industry. – Rimba
Without bat pollination, the farmers will need to hand pollinate, which with Malaysian-style agriculture is almost impossible or very, very labour intense. So it’s in the farmer’s best interest to take care of wildlife habitat.
She added that durian lovers who care about the environment should support small, boutique farms which keep their old trees and practise pesticide-free farming.
At the very least, the EIAs regarding the creation of durian plantations in or near forest reserves must be made transparent. The Rimba Disclosure Project (RDP) and other environmental NGOs have called for these EIAs to be made available to the public, stating:
Data on EIAs are essential for us to monitor projects, such as logging and land reclamation, mining and quarrying, infrastructure, and others. These projects are of public interest as they may potentially involve environmental destruction, impacts on communities, exacerbate climate change and have exposure to corruption.
RDP highlighted how in Malaysia, EIAs are only made available for public viewing only in physical offices, arguing the inadequacy of such a method, especially since offices may restrict access to and photography of EIAs. In a statement, the RDP says:
This lack of transparency makes it very difficult for non-governmental organisations and the public to act as check and balance to the environmental regulators, as we are left in the dark about what projects have been approved and are being planned in sensitive areas.
In any case, the growing love for the King of Fruits is not likely to slow down anytime soon. And the well-being of durian tree crops is intricately tied to the rainforest ecosystem that, ironically enough, is being endangered by this very fruit. As such, we should follow Lindsay’s advice and support small, environmentally-friendly boutique farms if we want our durian fix.
After all, without our forests, we wouldn’t have durian in the first place.
Explore our sources:
- M. Loh. (2021). A battle is unfolding over the world’s smelliest fruit, and farmers in Malaysia say their entire livelihood is being wiped out at the worst possible time. Insider. Link.
- C. Lee. (2021). A thorny dispute over land and profits. Durian plantations in Raub, Malaysia. IIAS. Link.
- The Straits Times. (2019). Chinese hunger for durians blamed for deforestation in Malaysia. Link.
- Bernama. (2023). Musang King’s popularity helps promote Malaysian food and cultures in China and beyond. The Star. Link.
- D. Dzulkifly. (2020). Raub farmers vs Pahang: How Malaysia’s iconic Musang King durian became a court case. Malay Mail. Link.
- C. Yeap. (2018). Choosing between oil palm and durian trees. The Edge Malaysia. Link.
- T.N. Alagesh. (2021). Forestry Dept operations only involved durian farms in forest reserves. New Straits Times. Link.
- The Star. (2018). Demand for durians threatens tigers, water supply in Malaysia as jungles razed. The Straits Times. Link.
- A. Tan. (2019). The link between durian and climate change: IPCC report says how we use land affects planet. The Straits Times. Link.
- S. Ho. (2022). ‘How did a forest farm become a durian plantation?’ Transparency of Malaysia’s EIAs under scrutiny. Eco-Business. Link.
- The Star. (2022). ‘Musang King not for forest farm’. Link.
- E. Syazmeena. (2022). “Stop the Musang King durian plantation on Gunung Inas Forest Reserve”. Focus Malaysia. Link.
- C. Myn. (2022). Land mismanagement lands communities near Malaysia’s Gunung Inas in deep water. Eco-Business. Link.
- Reuters. (2018). Durian set to become Malaysia’s next major export on demand from China. The Straits Times. Link.