Understanding Contemporary Durian Developmental Policy from a Historical Point of View

Understanding Contemporary Durian Developmental Policy from a Historical Point of View

Published: 2022.04.26
Accepted: 2022.04.26
8
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

Durian is native and semi-cultivated in continental Southeast Asia in South Tenasserim Lower Burma, and Indo-Chinese countries like Thailand and Vietnam, maritime southern Philippines provinces of Mindanao and Sulu, the Visayas Islands, Luzon Island, and the Malay Archipelago. One of the first late modern historical references to the wild durian was found in studies carried out by British colonial administrators in Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia. Traditionally, in kampong villages in peninsular Malaysia, the fruit is often cultivated along roads, orchards or small landholdings known as “dusun.” They were initially perceived to be non-commercially profitable compared to commercial crops like oil palm, rubber and cocoa but the rise of durian prices changed all these perceptions. As mass cultivation took root in Malaysia, durian clones were registered by Malaysia’s Department of Agriculture since 1934 but only D24 was planted on a sizable basis of up to 100 acres (approximately 40 hectares). There are different traditional naming systems of durians species in Southeast Asia but, as commercial cultivation of durians took root, the Association of Durian Growers and Sellers was established in 1959 to have a uniform benchmark for quality and marketing norms and, in Malaysia, 100 species are benchmarked for size and quality. In the 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia’s Department of Agriculture distributed thousands of durian seedlings to farmers under the Orchard Rehabilitation Program. Due to the value of the durian crop, it was highlighted as a fruit of focus in the Malaysian National Agro-food Policy. Much of the knowledge depended on experiential planting and local experimentation of traditional farmers.

Keywords: durian, Malaysia, Southeast Asia, history, Musang

HISTORY, BACKGROUND AND MODERNIZATON OF DURIAN CULTIVATION

The understanding of durian history from the perspectives of archaeology, biology and to its ethnobotanical diversities is important. While the fruit has been eaten for centuries in Southeast Asia, biological and ethnobotanical studies are rather contemporary in vintage. In that way, knowledge about it was de-privileged as a crop, as the consumption of the fruit was rather parochial within Southeast Asian circles until its contemporary globalization for exports to other world regions (so much so that even Western countries like Australia have started cultivating this fruit). Understanding the ethnobotanical origins facilitates our understanding of why Malaysian musangs are well-sought after and why it has relatively not been grown on a larger scale compared to Thai durians, given its high sensitivities to climatic, soil and biological conditions (in particular, tropical fruit diseases).

Ethno-anthropological studies and archaeological evidence may also indicate the difficulties of transplanting the musang variety to other landscapes and ecological systems while traditional harvest methods can instruct contemporary cultivators on how to protect the integrity of the ripened fruit. Such knowledge will come in handy in the downstream packing and logistical activities of the value chain management. Finally, curating historical food cultures related to durian consumption may result in potentially innovating industrial processes to produce downstream processed durian food products. Stakeholders from cultivators, culinary cultural curators to logistical packers can learn from the historical experiences of the traditional durian industry.

Archaeological findings ascertain that Borneo, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia are the originating sites of durian with the first primitive material artifact of durian cultivation discovered in Java Island revealed on panel carvings about 1,300 years ago in the Borobudur Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Zakaria, 2020). Besides the Malay Archipelago, it is also believed to be native and semi-cultivated in continental Southeast Asia in South Tenasserim Lower Burma and, approximately 400 years ago, there was a bustling trade in durians between Lower Burma and Upper Burma where they were coveted by the aristocrats in the Palace (Morton, 1987).

Much later, the other Indo-Chinese countries like Thailand and South Vietnam (during the Cold War) became significant durian producers and, although there are more than 300 Thai durian species, only a few are commercial crops (Morton, 1987). Out into the archipelago in Southeast Asia, the durian is also cultivated in the southern Philippines provinces of Mindanao and Sulu, the Visayas Islands and on Luzon Island, starting out with limited numbers of trees (Morton, 1987).

The first European reference to the durian that scientifically classified it as Durio zibethinus was in 1774 and it was based on the words durio (first used in 1763 and derived from the Malay word duri which means “thorns”) and zibetto (Italian for ‘civet cat’) which characterizes the pungent smell (Dass, 2020). One of the first late modern historical references to the wild durian was found in studies carried out by British colonial administrators in Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia. The fruit was identified by Henry Nicholas Ridley (pioneering Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens) who published his findings in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1916 and he indicated that it was found in Bukit Timah, Ang Mo Kio, Seletar, Johore Bahru and Mount Austin in Singapore (Dass, 2020). The fruit known as the Durio singaporensis (or ‘Singapore Durian’ in English named after the country where it was discovered) and has only been sighted in Nee Soon Swamp Forest and near Upper Seletar and MacRitchie Reservoirs (Dass, 2020).

Traditionally, in kampong villages in peninsular Malaysia, the fruit is often cultivated along roads or in orchards (Morton, 1987). These small landholdings were known as “dusun” with half or one hectare each and multi-cropped with other fruit plants as durians were initially perceived to be non-commercially profitable compared to commercial crops like oil palm, rubber and cocoa but the rise of durian value changed all these perceptions (Zakaria, 2020).

Historically, durians can be consumed and utilized in various ways in Southeast Asia. This can include fermenting and smoking its flesh in earthen-wares (Palembang culinary culture), mixing paste with pumpkin in Thailand, salting the flesh for preservation as a side-dish for rice in Malaysian cuisine, extracted sapwood for Malay hut construction and making leaf decoction as a febrifuge for fever treatment (Malay traditional medicine) (Morton, 1987). The Malays also traditionally mixed prawn paste to salted preserved durian flesh (known as tempoyak), or preserve it with brown sugar before boiling or frying (lempok cooking method) or consume it in the modern form of desserts such as durian puffs, durian chendol and durian ice-kachang (Dass, 2020).

The Malaysian harvest seasons usually occur in the March/April and September/October months when kampong farmers clear the area around the trees, construct makeshift straw huts for camping over 6-8 weeks to harvest the fruits that fall naturally on the ground (while avoiding being hurt by their spikes as they fall) (Morton, 1987). Their hunters then set up traps in the area to catch gamey preys and edible birds attracted to the fallen durians in the durian plantations and surrounding forests (Morton, 1987).

As mass cultivation took root in Malaysia, durian clones were registered by Malaysia’s Department of Agriculture since 1934 but only D24 was planted on a sizable basis of up to 100 acres (Zakaria, 2020). There are different traditional naming systems of durians species in Southeast Asia with Malaysians having durian names starting with the letter D, followed by a number (e.g. D10 and D24), the Thais characterize the fruits based on their physical qualities (e.g. Mon Thong or “golden pillow” taking after the shapes of the variety), while the Indonesians named their durian varieties after their place of discovery (Dass, 2020). As commercial cultivation of durians took root, the Association of Durian Growers and Sellers was established in 1959 to have a uniform benchmark for quality and marketing norms and, in Malaysia, 100 species are benchmarked for size and quality (Morton, 1987).

In the 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia’s Department of Agriculture distributed thousands of durian seedlings to farmers under the Orchard Rehabilitation Program but very few seedlings managed to thrive and many withered due to the lack of post-planting care/maintenance, therefore mass cultivation survived only in a handful of agencies like Sime Darby, FELDA, Eden Farm, and Ladang Sin Hock (Zakaria, 2020).

Bats (mostly Eoncyteris spelea, usually working nocturnally) and bees (usually in early afternoons) pollinate the flowers when they extract its nectar when the flowers are most alluringly fragrant from 5 pm to 6 am before withering by 11 pm (leaving behind only the pistils) (Morton, 1987). The durian is very tropical in its climatic requirements, needing heavy rain, alluvial loamy soil conditions and cannot be cultivated on highlands more than 2,300 feet (700 m) in the Philippines and 2,600 feet (800 m) in Malaysia before their seedlings emerge after 7 years (or less than 4 years on grafted trees) in Malaysia (Morton, 1987).

Durians in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysian durians like Musang (Mao Shan Wang in Chinese or sometimes literally translated as ‘Cat Mountain’), are acquired taste delicacies in the Southeast Asian region (including Singapore).  Besides Musang, there is another variety known as the D24 which has its original trees in Bukit Merah Perak that enjoy strong yearly rainfall but extended drought prevents the east coast from successfully ripening the D24 trees (Zakaria, 2020).

There are some natural stresses of the durian trees such as drought, diseases and pests. Drought conditions in Johor and Pahang can only be overcome by irrigation, while stem canker disease can infect the whole plantation without proper treatment, humid tropical conditions can cause disease, leaf blight (Rhizoctonia solani), mixed orchard pests that are seed and fruit borers, squirrels that hide in closely-planted trees (they destroy up to 50% of the plantation at low fruit season) (Zakaria, 2020).

Throughout its history, diseases associated with durians were sparingly reported with a few exceptions like the West Malaysian patch canker caused by Phytophthora palmivora in 1934. Before it infected roots, stems and collar of seedlings release brownish-red gum and move up the tree trunk and down into the roots before becoming entirely overwhelmed at the base and perish (Morton, 1987). To prevent such diseases, planters found that pruning injuries lead to infections, close-planting that covers the soil from sunlight results in dampness that encourage infection,  proliferation of weeds, grass and mulch around the collar increase infections, pruning budding trees with low-lying branches that are often cracked are the main reasons for the infections; and so, prevention of such planting methods and rapid treatment of pruning wounds with fungicides are the only ways to prevent infections effectively (Morton, 1987).

Commercial competition for retailed durians is keen in the global durian market with Thai durians domination. Diseases decimated many Malaysian farms so farmers are turning to local kampung (literally translated as ‘wild village’) varieties which were disease-resistant, tough, high survivability despite hard conditions but even these varieties have their pay-off too as the fruits were of low quality since fertilizer application was minimal and yields were low (Zakaria, 2020).

Nicknamed the ‘king of fruits’ (especially in Southeast Asia), durian may not be the fruit for everyone’s taste but it is indeed a valuable crop, judging by demand for this fruit. Due to the value of the durian crop, it was highlighted as a fruit of focus in the Malaysian National Agro-food Policy (2011-2020), especially since the Musang King durian broke RM100.00 (US$24) per kg in July 2017 (Zakaria, 2020).

Aesthetically, durians do not look pleasing with its sharp thorns and green husk but inside, the soft and tender flesh that melts in the mouth like butter or custard delights many consumers. The flesh may be yellow, red or orangey in color. They differ in colors and tastes according to cultivars. Some of the most exotic durians are also found in northern Malaysia, for example Raub in Pahang state in Malaysia.

But the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is really the ‘emperor’ or ‘king of fruits’ which is the species known as the Musang King. It is nicknamed ‘gold that grows on trees’ as each tree can net up to US$1,000 (depending on the quality of the fruit in question) for each farmer annually and, amongst the Musangs, perhaps those the old mining district of Raub (population: 100,000 or the "durian capital of Malaysia") are most prized due to the optimal conditions of its soil and weather conditions (Loh, 2021).

Durian has a long maturity process, deterring researchers from studying them and relegating it to a low priority research crop in the 1980s and 1990s, the numerous research proposals rejections, lack of technical support for production technology resulted in cultivators resorting to less scientific trial and erroneous planting methods. Therefore, much of the knowledge depended on experiential planting and local experimentation of traditional farmers.

CONCLUSION: POLICY SUMMARY

Given the increasing value of the durian crop, it may be useful for Southeast Asian countries, perhaps through the framework of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to come up with an easily-accessible universal naming and grading systems for the durian species in Southeast Asia. Given the increasing value of the crop, there may also be incentives for knowledge on durian cultivation hitherto dependent on experiential planting and local experimentation of traditional farmers to encapsulate the knowledge in manuals and online databases. ASEAN durian-growing countries can also get together to adapt technologies that can come in handy to cooperate in packing technologies for more efficient logistical transportation.

ASEAN museums, archives and academic institutions can curate traditional ways of preparing durian meat for consumption. This may be useful for food industries to manufacture processed food for exports. Such industries can help local communities in durian cultivation areas to enjoy an additional source of income. Pharmaceutical laboratories may also benefit from studying the medicinal qualities of the fruit. Given the important accent on preserving ecological integrity of eco-systems nowadays, understanding the tropical diseases that affect the durians or the insects and mammals that pollinate them can contribute to the pan-Southeast Asian eco-system in the interest of environmentalism. Given that there is a disease-resistant kampong durian, it may be useful for ASEAN collaboration on how to make this species commercially-viable instead of leaving it in the wild. This can increase the income of local communities with such trees growing in their midst with responsible and ethnical use of fertilizers to increase their yields.

REFERENCES

Dass, Annalisa, "Durian" dated 31 Dec 2020 in National Library Board (NLB) Singapore Infopedia [downloaded on 31 Dec 2020], available at https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_871_2005-01-11.html

Loh, Matthew. 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.com, 28 July 2021. Retrieved from https://www.insider.com/malaysia-farmers-durian-raub-pahang-legal-battle...'s%20Musang,perfect%20for%20growing%20the%20fruit

Morton, Julia F. Durian. Fruits of warm climates (Purdue University), 1987. Retrieved from https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/durian_ars.html, pp. 281-291

Zakaria, Abdul Aziz. An Overview of the Durian Cultivation in Malaysia. Universiti Putra Malaysia Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), 25 November 2020. Retrieved from https://tncpi.upm.edu.my/article/an_overview_of_the_durian_cultivation_i...

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