Palm plantations in Malaysia, the world’s second largest producer of the commodity, must be allowed to operate during the two weeks of movement curbs ordered to rein in the spread of a coronavirus, a group of growers said on Tuesday.
Malaysia’s measures on borders and internal movement announced this week run from Wednesday until March 31, after its infections climbed to the highest in Southeast Asia, with only essential services, such as ports and transport, exempted.
If plantation operations are forced to stop for two weeks, bunches of fresh fruit will rot and millers will have to process bad-quality oil when they resume, said Nageeb Wahab, chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association.
"Even if we are allowed to export, we will have nothing to export, as stock levels are low," Nageeb told Reuters.
"It will take two to three months for things to return to normalcy after the shutdown."
The association has flagged its concerns to the government and appealed to be allowed to operate, adding that plantations are already observing social distancing, among best practices to contain the outbreak, it said.
Industry regulator the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) is waiting for a decision from the plantation ministry, it said.
"MPOB is confident the ministry is doing its best to protect this very important industry and will take into consideration the importance of the supply chain without neglecting workers’ wellbeing," its chief, Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir, told Reuters.
The curbs also threaten to disrupt the livelihoods of foreign workers and 650,000 smallholders, Nageeb added, saying the industry should be considered essential, as its output goes into cooking oil.