KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 20 ― Farmers of the popular Musang King durian in Pahang today claimed that they were being driven into a situation akin to “modern slavery” through a contract with a joint venture between the Pahang government and royal family.

Calling themselves the Save Musang King Alliance (Samka), the group of durian farmers alleged they are being pressed into signing an exploitative contract that would require them to pay “rent” of RM6,000 per acre for this year, and an additional levy of up to RM20,000 per acre based on the durians produced.

Previously accused of “illegally” occupying the durian orchards’ land without licence, the group said in a statement today that the farmers had been constantly applying for land titles and licences from the authorities through the proper channels but were not granted such papers from the Pahang state government.

Samka claimed that the durian farmers were however offered an “exploitative and unequal” contract with Royal Pahang Durian Resources-PKPP Sdn Bhd (RPDR-PKPP) after the Pahang state government announced that the land they were occupying without permit would be leased to this company to “legalise” the land.

RPDR-PKPP is reportedly a joint venture between the Pahang royalty-linked Royal Pahang Durian Group (RPD Group) and state entity Perbadanan Kemajuan Pertanian Negeri Pahang (PKPP), to carry out the legalisation scheme of land in the Raub district that had been affected by alleged encroached farming.

RPD Group and PKPP had also formed another joint venture named Royal Pahang Durian Produce-PKPP Sdn Bhd (RPDP-PKPP), with the company reportedly aiming at building and operating Malaysia’s largest durian processing centre in Raub by June 2021.

According to news reports, the Pahang state government had on June 24 awarded RPDR-PKPP with the lease and rights to use 5,357 acres of land in Raub for 30 plus 30 years, with the joint venture partners alleging that durian farmers had been illegally using those land.

In the same statement, Samka listed the details of the contract, including requiring the farmers to pay a levy of RM6,000 per acre (with about 30 matured durian trees) for this year or which would translate into a RM60,000 levy for a durian farmer with 10 acres of land.

“Unfortunately, in the name of ‘legalising the land’, the private corporation can easily carve up the fruits of farmers’ labour without hard work while completely disregarding the efforts and costs put in by the farmers,” Samka said when commenting on the RM6,000 levy per acre for the year 2020.

Asserting that the average market price is RM45 per kg for Grade A Musang King durians, Samka also said the contract provides that the company would from 2021 to 2022 buy such durians at a fixed price of RM30 per kg from the farmers.

“To answer this, the private corporation claimed that they will be paying the farmers RM40 per kg, yet the additional RM10 will be deducted for land levy. If this were true, by assuming that 1 acre of land will have 2,000kg of fruits, the rent will be RM20,000 per acre. In other words, a land with 10 acres will cost a levy of RM200,000 every year,” Samka said in its statement.

Samka contrasted this with the current levy of RM50 per acre imposed by the Pahang state government on durian farms, questioning the alleged “exorbitant levy” imposed by a private company on durian farmers.

Samka said the contract also requires durian farmers to sell a fixed amount of durians harvested to the private company every year, with farmers barred from trading freely or hoarding the durians or saving them to be shared with family and friends.

“An entry permit is required for the farmers to go to their durian farms. Also, the farmers could even be forced to make reparation if they choose to stop farming.

“Therefore, by signing this unequal contract, personal freedom, property and fruits of labour are all controlled by the private corporation, thus leaving farmers to be the ‘modern slaves’ under the private corporation,” Samka claimed.

Samka clarified however that the durian farmers have always stood ready to work with the Pahang state government to develop the durian industry and pay a levy to the state government for the past and future use of the land, adding that the farmers were also willing to pay a commission to the state government for each kg of durians produced to help boost state revenue and for environment and water catchment areas conservation.

Samka said it was ready to take the matter to court via its appointed lawyers, adding that it plans to ask the court to issue an injunction to stop the Pahang state government and the private company from taking action against the durian farmers.

In July, local daily The Edge reported that durian farmers were being offered a sub-lease of 10 plus 10 plus 10 years (with further 30 years extension subject to state authorities’ approval) in order to continue farming there instead of being evicted for illegal occupation of the land leased to RPDR-PKPP, but with certain terms and conditions under the legalisation scheme that the farmers had to accept by August 9.

On July 15, Pahang’s Tras state assemblyman Chow Yu Hui had also highlighted the issue, cautioning that durian prices may skyrocket under a monopoly of the Musang King durian market and that durian farmers may be forced to plant low-quality durian trees to meet the alleged “unreasonable” levels of durian production required under the “unequal contract” and that Malaysia could eventually lose its reputation as the world’s top Musang King producer.

On August 12, The Edge had reported the Royal Pahang Durian Group as explaining however that the legalisation scheme it was undertaking together with the Pahang state government would avert a potential disaster for the Malaysian durian industry.

A Royal Pahang Durian Group spokesman had reportedly highlighted China only allows the import of Malaysian durians from Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (MyGAP)-certified farms, while illegal farms could not obtain such certification due to the lack of land titles.

The Edge report had stated that the durian farmers have to pay RM6,000 per acre for this year only in exchange for land usage costs and for being able to freely sell their durians this year at market prices.

The Edge also reported the fixed price of RM40 per kg for Grade A Musang King durians for 2021 and 2022, which would see durian farmers ― for the first 2,000kg of such durians per acre ― receiving RM30 per kg while a legalisation levy of RM10 per kg would go to the company, while the full RM40 per kg would go to the farmer for any excess amount beyond the first 2,000 kg per acre.

The yearly price for the durians that will be bought from farmers will be based on mutual agreement within a certain price range for 2023 and subsequent years, while farmers will not be penalised for failing to produce 2,000kg of Grade A Musang King per acre subject to terms and conditions, The Edge reported.

The Edge reported that Grade A Musang King durian prices have ranged between RM25 to RM50 per kg in the past two years, also reporting Royal Pahang Durian as stating the fixed price offered to the farmers were fair as the latest cost to send such frozen whole durians to China this June had ranged from RM52 to RM58 per kg.