ABOUT 15 years ago, tens of thousands of settlers signed a replanting agreement with Felda that activists claim has led to one of their biggest problems today – crushing debt.
That agreement is now being studied by the settlers’ children, activists, lawyers, and politicians who want to either challenge it in court or use it as fodder for their general election campaigns.
Some of the settlers and their lawyers allege that the agreement is lopsided.
Others are working with politicians in Pakatan Harapan to turn it into a defining issue that could sway the Felda vote which impacts 56 parliamentary seats in the peninsula – most of which are held by Barisan Nasional.
There are 112,635 Felda settlers, not including their wives and children.
“We are forming a committee to study this issue at the party level before bringing it to the Pakatan Harapan presidential council,” said Amanah communications chief Khalid Samad.
Amanah, together with Bersatu, PKR, and DAP, form the PH alliance.
“We hope to go on a roadshow in Felda areas to explain the issue just like we did with the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhdd) financial scandal, and offer solutions,” Khalid told The Malaysian Insight.
One of the lawyers studying the agreement, Dr Zulqarnain Luqman said 95% of the settlers signed the contract with Felda so that the agency could replant the holdings.
Hisomuddin Bakar, the son of a settler in Felda Cini, Pahang, said each Felda settler owned a 10ha oil palm or rubber plantation, and by the beginning of the millennium, many of those trees were too old to bear fruit or latex.
He said Felda crafted an agreement wherein settlers would relinquish management of their estates to the agency so that it could replant the land with new trees.
It took about three years to replant and for the trees to mature, during which the holdings did not produce yields. During this period, each settler was paid a living allowance of RM1,500 per month.
Former plantation manager Shariman Alang Ahmad said oil palms took about three years to reach maturity and produce fruit.
“The optimal fruit bearing age is between eight and nine years, and the yield usually goes down once the tree is over 20 years old,” said Shariman, who worked for a government-linked company.
“At the end of the three years, when the trees started to bear fruit, Felda continued to manage the settlers’ holdings including maintaining the trees and harvesting the fruit.
“Felda did not return their holdings to the settlers because it claimed the settlers needed to repay the cost of replanting which ran into hundreds of thousands of ringgit,” Hisomuddin said.
Settlers were also told they needed to repay the living allowance they were paid during the three years.
Meanwhile, Felda continued to pay them RM1,500 per month while holding on to the holdings.
Settlers have claimed that their debts came up to over RM100,000 and that the agency could be collecting more than what it was owed.
“The question is, when are the settlers going to be done with the debt? Will it be passed on to their children and grandchildren?” said Hisomuddin.
One of the clauses of the agreement stipulates that the settlers may not, for any reason or under any circumstances, terminate the agreement until all debts and payments that are owed , including income advances, have been paid in full to Felda.
Zulqarnain, the lawyer, said the government needed to review the agreement.
“It is too much tilted in favour of Felda and burdens the settlers.”
Another lawyer said the settlers were bound by their debt while the amount they owed was determined by the agreement which specified that the settlers’ estates be handed over to Felda until the debt is fully repaid while the settlers are bound to pay the cost of management and replanting.
The debt, said the lawyer who did not want to be named, could also be passed on to the settlers’ descendants.