Pakistan has been gifted with natural climate and soil for olive plantation
By Tahir Ali
The frontier province and the tribal belt have a vast potential for olive production. Realisation of this potential can cater to Pakistan's edible oil requirements. Sustained and well-directed efforts will have to be taken in this direction.
Pakistan Oilseed Development Board (PODB) has been trying to achieve this goal by seeking conversion of fruitless wild olive to fruit-bearing species and by cultivation of new olive plants. But as it remained dormant for around 15 years, it is still a long way to go to tap the full potential. The gigantic task would be accomplished sooner if an increased public-private partnership is ensured.
Olive cultivation has not been on the priority list of successive governments. Private sector has not paid heed to this sector. The emphasis has been more on the traditional sources of edible oil. The problem of law and order in NWFP and tribal belt are some of the reasons why olive cultivation and olive oil production has been neglected.
There are about 50 million wild olive trees, namely the olea feruginea and olea cuspidata species, are believed to be present in the country. They are mostly grown in NWFP and FATA. Italy, one of the world's prime olive producers with 1.2 million hectares under olive cultivation, is helping Pakistan to convert its barren wild olive groves into fruit-bearers, establish new olive plantations and give birth to a new industry in olive oil production.
The Italian ambassador to Pakistan has recently acknowledged that Pakistan has been gifted with natural climate and soil for olive plantation in NWFP and Potohar region. According to Mushtaq Ahmed, provincial director of PODB NWFP, at present more than 45 million established wild olive trees are there in the country. "NWFP and FATA house over 31mn of these trees. These trees can easily be brought into oilseed production by converting them into European type olive through budding/grafting procedure."
Ahmad says PODB has so far successfully converted 7.5 million out of the target of 8mn olive plants into the European type. "Out of these, 4mn plants have been converted in NWFP alone while the rest were converted in Balochistan and Punjab," he says.
Conversion of the remaining 26mn wild olive trees in NWFP and FATA in the next few years should be foremost priority of the government as it will help produce an estimated 75,000 tonnes of olive oil, saving about $1.5bn annually.
According to experts, Batagram. Kohistan, Swat, Dir, Malakand, Buner, Swabi, Mardan, Abbotabad, Haripur, Bannu, Kohat, Karak and Hangu in NWFP and sixty percent of FATA is suitable for cultivable olive production and wild olive species. According to official figures, over 46 percent and 38 percent of the total area in Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies and 23, 15, and 21 percent of the North/South Waziristan and Kurram agencies respectively is suitable for olive production.
A study conducted by an Italian expert, Raffaele Del Cima, who is also project officer for Italian government's olive oil promotion scheme, reveals that NWFP and Balochistan have plenty of cultivable land in at least 14 districts suitable for olive cultivation. Out of these 668,278 hectares, 444,574 hectares are situated in NWFP, the study finds. According to another estimate, over 880,000 hectares of wasteland is ripe for olive cultivation.
If the above cultivable land is utilised for olive cultivation, it will increase income of the farmers, help eradicate poverty, and save precious foreign exchange for the country. Besides the existing oilseed crops, if the country targets the potential olive and palm oil plants for oil production and they are established in their proper habitats, Pakistan can become an exporting country within a span 10-15 years.
"Availability of vast uncultivated and cultivable area in the high rainfall zone of the country, conducive temperature for olive production, presence of suitable soil texture and structure, low production cost and high output with abundant cheap labour force, etc., are some of the factors that speak of a good future for the sector," says Ahmad.
According to the official, PODB intends to bring over two million acres of land under olive cultivation and plant around 220 million trees in the next ten years. "It will produce about 2mn tonnes of edible oil, saving and earning billions of dollars annually for the country."
PODB was also asked to produce 0.300 million olive saplings. "Out of it 0.227 million olive plants have been produced and distributed among the farmers. PODB also trained 668 army personnel, NGO workers, and progressive growers for this purpose. Besides, 364 acres orchards were established by PODB in NWFP at Tarnab, Sangbhatti, Pirsabak, Turu Khass and Khawoo. An olive model farm for research and development has also been established in Mardan where about 17000 to 18000 olive plants have been developed on 150 acres area," Ahmad adds.
He says plants that have been converted have started growing successfully. "Oil extraction has been started and will soon be commercialised. For this purpose, PODB has installed two olive oil extraction units in FATA and NWFP. These plants are movable and provide oil extraction facility to the farmers at their doorsteps. Within a few years, the commercial production will be started from different locations of Public and Private Sector," says the official.
In order to improve production technology in the olive sector and to conduct various research works on different aspects of olive tree, a project titled "Development of Olive Model Farm for Olive Research and Development Activities" was launched in July 2008 to produce 10,000 numbers of certified olive saplings. "This will make available certified olive plants to the farming community on reasonable price. The project will facilitate farming community for cost-effective olive production thus increasing their profitability. It will also assist to create self employment in the rural areas," informs Ahmad.
Pakistan faces a huge gap between edible oil requirements and domestic production -- the total edible oil requirements stood at 2.820 million tonnes last year but local production was only 0.684MT. Rest of the requirement was met through import of edible oil and oilseed worth over $2 billion. This import bill can be curtailed by a huge margin if the required quantity of edible oil is produced through vertical and horizontal increase in oil-seeds, particularly olive trees.
By providing quality seed, modern training, and providing marketing mechanism to olive farmers, the country can achieve the goal of promoting olive cultivation and self-sufficiency in oil needs. The government and private sector should join hands to improve cultivation and harvest techniques in olive production, species selection, nursery management, and oil analysis.