An Investment that Bears Fruit for Centuries
Olive tree has unique importance from botanical, economic, medical and religious viewpoints. From botanical perspective, it can be successfully cultivated in mountainous, rainfed and irrigable areas. From economic aspect, it is a source of hefty incomes as precious olive oil is extracted from its fruit. Medically, it has many such properties that make this oil a cure for many diseases. From religious viewpoint, it has been mentioned in divine books. In all, olive is a multifariously beneficial tree having undeniable importance.
Commercial cultivation of oil started in Pakistan in the year 2000, about 20 years ago. What is the present condition of olive cultivation in Pakistan? To know the answer to this question, this scribe contacted Dr Muhammad Tariq, National Project Director (Olive-PSDP) at Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) who said: “At present, olive is being cultivated on an area of over 25,000 acres. Another 5,000 acres have been added to this area during the ongoing year, and we expect to grow this crop on around 37,000 acres within a few years from now. In order to meet the growing demand of olive in Pakistan, we need to plant around 0.2 million olive trees annually.”
Responding to this question, Dr Tariq says, “Keeping in view the surveys on climatic conditions of different areas across the country, we import high-quality plants of various olive varieties from Italy, Spain, Turkey and other countries. In the past fiscal year alone, we imported as much as 675,000 plants. These are being grown in accordance with the principles of grafting, budding and other methods. At present, there are more than 15 registered nurseries that are providing high- quality plants to farmers. In Balochistan, some public sector nurseries are also providing their services in Quetta, Khuzdar, Loralai and Panjgur. Moreover, there are private sector nurseries in Potohar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is very heartening that private sector is increasingly getting attracted towards this domain. Moreover, the registration of many nurseries with FSC & RD is still under process.” According to Dr Tariq, olive is best suited to areas where agricultural productivity is low or they have less water available for irrigation purposes. Further, on the one hand, it needs far less investment than other regular crops do, whereas it yields much higher profits, on the other. It is because olive plant is less prone to pest attacks and plant diseases as compared to other fruit-bearing plants. However, it is to be noted here that it is very important to keep olive plant healthy as it can start bearing fruit within three to five years and if pruned and looked after properly, it continues doing so for more than a century.
Commenting on olive plantation in Sindh and Balochistan, Dr Tariq said, “Although there have been no trial breeding of olive in Sindh, it is now being done in various parts of the province. And, in order to encourage the cultivation of olives on lands that are barren or yield minimal agricultural produce, most plants are distributed within Balochistan.”
With regard to the targets set for olive cultivation in Pakistan, Dr Tariq said, “In Pakistan, an area of around 4 million acres is suitable for olive cultivation. We have set a target of planting trees on 50,000 acres under the National Olive Programme and this target will be achieved soon.”
Regarding the production of olive oil in the country, he said, “Although olive oil production is still in its infancy in Pakistan, we are working at farmer level to transform this sector along scientific lines. We expect that within a few years from now, we will be able to bring the import of olive oil to zero and even to export the oil to other countries. At present, we have only 19 machines to extract olive oil – out of them, nine have been installed under the Project of Olive Promotion. Three units of these – installed at Attock, Quetta and Loralai – have a capacity to extract 600 kgs of oil per hour while six others – at Islamabad, Chakwal, Dir Lower, Shinkiari, Zhob and Barkhan – can do so at 100 kgs per hour. Oil-pressing facilities are also present in Quetta, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Chakwal, Pirsabaq, Sangbhatti and Swat. In the private sector also, there are three units that can extract 200 kgs of oil per hour. Recently, an agreement has been signed between Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and industry and Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology for reverse engineering of such units.”
As regards the quality and international marketing of olive oil produced in Pakistan, Dr Tariq commented that after a detailed chemical and organoliptical analysis, the oil produced in Pakistan has been found of high quality. However, since it is still insufficient to meet the indigenous demand, “we are not in a position to export it. However, as soon as its production is increased, we will be able to export it. For that purpose, we have suggested a brand name Pakolive that private sector will be able to register with the concerned authorities. Moreover, we will also establish a quality-checking laboratory.” He further stated that efforts were being made to include olive tree in the government’s ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project so as to further reinforce this sector.
Answering a question on reaping commercial benefits from the wild olive found in Pakistan, Dr Tariq said, “Wild olive is indeed a huge asset for Pakistan. A project for grafting this variety was started in Pakistan, but it could not proceed owing to some inevitable reasons. The foremost among them was the fact that most wild olive trees are found on mountains or in areas with no known owner due to which no one accepted the responsibility of grafting. However, keeping in view social and scientific consideration, I believe, this project can still be implemented.”
On the issue of agricultural policy regarding oil cultivation in the country, Dr Tariq said, “Commercial production of olives in Pakistan was started in the year 2000. So, this project is still in an early stage due to which no robust policy has been announced yet. I think with the establishment of Pakistan Olive Council, this will be done soon.”
Giving his expert opinion on the promotion of olive production in Pakistan, Dr Tariq suggested that an educational and awareness campaign should be started in areas having olive-friendly climatic conditions whereby people should be given detailed information through audio-visual means from plantation to pruning of olive trees. Laboratories and research centres on modern lines should also be established. Moreover, we need to gather consolidated statistical data so that on the basis of it, we may develop a value chain in the near future.
Olive plant can be grown on almost all types of soil. Besides, plains, it is being successfully grown in mountainous or hilly areas. A considerable amount of wild olive production in Pakistan evidences the fact that various parts of the country are fit for olive cultivation. One such area is Koh-i-Sulaiman range in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As per an estimate there are around one million wild olive trees in this region. These are found mostly in areas where people are dependent on livestock for their daily bread. Although this region is located in monsoon range, yet it receives less rains. Owing to less rains, a shortage of grass and other herbaceous plants happens in and after November. So, people cut olive trees to fodder their animals. Since olive is an evergreen tree, it does not abscise in winters. Moreover, wood of olive tree is harder and less prone to attack of pests, and due to this quality people use it to build their huts, handles of their tools, as well as a fuel. The shepherds who go to mountains to graze their animals use olive wood to burn and keep themselves warm. This fire can, sometimes, spread, causing harm to olive trees in that area. So, there is a pressing need to preserve and conserve natural olive forests.
According to a research paper ‘Scope of Olive Cultivation in Pakistan’, “[I]f wild olive trees present in different provinces of Pakistan are grafted and converted into the productive ones, there is a potential of earning a maximum of one billion dollars annually. Similarly, we may earn a maximum of 9 billion dollars annually if olive cultivation is made on cultivable potential waste lands.”
Although there are a few olive farms in Pakistan at present, their number is increasing every year. Mr Ahmad Khan Buzdar, a resident of Burg Pusht in Musa Khel district of Balochistan, is in the business of olive cultivation since 2010. He started off with 500 trees and today he has around 2000 trees on his lands. He has a unique distinction of extracting 28.5% oil from the olives he had cultivated — 28.5 kgs of oil from 100 kg olives is still the best ratio in Pakistan. He began this journey in 2010 with a hope that with abundance of wild olives, their cultivation will boost his income. He says, “In 2014, I extracted 60 litres of oil from pressing of the olives cultivated in my land. This year, I had been successful in getting 2000 litres of olive oil from the crop grown on 17 acres of land, and that too without any use of pesticides or fertilizers. So, I think, a farmer can not have such returns in any other crop.”
Mr Buzdar further says that since olive tree does not require much water, it can be planted in areas having lower availability of water for irrigation. Owing to its sustainability, olive is a preferred crop for the farmers from mountainous areas of the country, especially Balochistan. It is an investment that will keep bearing dividends for centuries. An example of this is a 50-foot-tall tree in our village Pusht Burg which is said to be more than 1800 years old, but it still bears fruit.
Enumerating the difficulties faced by farmer in this regard, Mr Buzdar opines that this sector lacks trained workforce. Moreover, the number of nurseries in this region is also too little to meet the local demand. Lack of easy availability of oil-extraction machines, and other value-addition facilities is yet another problem. He laments that there is no olive market in Balochistan.
Stressing the need for immediate steps by the government to promote olive cultivation in Pakistan, he suggested that there was an urgent need to develop live markets at national level, ensure presence of more and more nurseries, train our farmer along international standards, conducting research and experiments to ascertain as to which varieties are suitable for cultivation in which region. Moreover, there should be a platform where trade of olive fruit and extraction of olive is facilitated.
Suggesting that the government should minimize the illegal cutting of wild olive trees and make an apt use of those for financial benefits, Mr Buzdar says that the government should formulate a five-year plan whereby the cutting of will olive trees should be prohibited and local people hired for the conservation of such forests. Moreover, local people should also be trained in grafting techniques to that we may harvest high-quality olives within 4-5 years. Employment opportunities created in this way will definitely help the local economy. He said, “I believe that owing to the utility of olives and the economic benefit, people themselves will look after these forests.”
He further stated that children and shepherds collected around 5000 kgs of wild olives this year alone that they sold in the local market. Some of this lot was sent to a research centre in Islamabad and it yielded 7.9% oil. If all this quantity were used properly, it would have positive impact on the people’s income. But, unfortunately, due to limited awareness, a lot of crop got wasted. Moreover, locust attack this year has also adversely impacted the yield.
Cultivation of olives and grafting of wild olive is an investment that will keep earning dividends for centuries to come. So our policymaking authorities need to prioritize this area as it will not only help the country in ensuring food security but will also be a source of revenue generation. They need to be vigilant; otherwise getting benefit from this natural bounty will remain an unfulfilled dream. This is a bitter truth and warrants immediate action.
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