Thu, Feb 07, 2019 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Chinese love of durian threatens Malaysian forests

AFP, RAUB, Malaysia

A non-governmental organization staffer walks through a new durian plantation in Raub, Malaysia, on Dec. 19 last year.

Photo: AFP

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, although detractors say durians stink of sewage and stale vomit.

They are a hit in China, and the increase in demand has prompted exporters to vie 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 say 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 kaleidoscope of animals from monkeys to exotic birds.

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 about 4,000km 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 flavor 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 (US$120).

“Our customers aren’t concerned about the prices, they just want the best,” Wang said.

The Malaysian government has backed the expansion of the durian industry, hoping to cash in on growing demand from China.

The value of durian shipments from Malaysia to China in the first eight months of last year hit 7.4 million ringgit (US$1.8 million), more than double the value in the same period of 2017, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry.

Malaysia hopes a deal struck in August last year 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 tonnes by 2030.

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