Awards 1992 World Vision Award for Development Initiative

World Vision Award for Development Initiative

Leslie Davidson

Leslie Davidson, then a young plantation manager in Nigeria, was sent by Unilever to Sabah in Borneo in 1960 to plant oil palms on a long-abandoned tobacco estate. They chose him because he could speak Malay and Hakka (the Chinese dialect used locally). They had bought the estate from Miss Wright, an elderly woman on the Isle of Arran who had found the title deed among her papers.

He paddled up the Labuk river and built a grass hut on stilts which in 1963 was washed away by a flood.

Eventually, he developed an oil-palm estate which now covers 25 square miles. It had a serious problem, however. The palms, a long way from their home in West Africa, grew well but the fruit came to nothing, because pollen from the male flowers failed to reach the female. In the end he had to employ 500 people to pollinate them by hand.

Textbooks said that palm fruit were wind- pollinated. Scientists thought the heavy rain was washing the pollen away. Leslie Davidson was unconvinced. He had worked earlier in Cameroon where the fruit got pollinated even in the wettest season, and the fruit bunches were surrounded with buzzing insects. He was sure they were insect-pollinated.

In 1976 he returned to London as deputy chairman of Unilever Plantations and got permission to test his theory. Dr Rahman Syed, an expert from the CAB International Institute of Biological Control at Ascot, was sent to find out how oil-palms were pollinated in Cameroon.

He quickly found several pollinating insects. Later he also found that, in Peninsular Malaysia, oil palms were pollinated by thrips normally found on coconut palms. These thrips did not thrive in Borneo and anyhow were not good at their job. They could not pollinate young palms.

In Cameroon the most effective pollinator proved to be a weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus, which lives on pollen from male oil-palm flowers to which it is attracted by a scent like aniseed. Female flowers when ready for pollination mimic this scent, attracting pollen-covered weevils. These insects have become completely adapted to the palm in its natural environment over millions of years.

Four years of research showed that the weevils, unlike the thrips, thrive only on the West African variety of oil palm and will not damage any other plant. So it was safe to introduce them to Malaysia, including Sabah. They were released there in 1981 and brought a big increase in crops as they spread through Malaysia's 300 million oil palms. Estates had problems handling the larger palm bunches. A Malaysian minister estimated that palm-oil output in 1982 increased 400,000 tonnes, and palm kernels 300,000 tonnes, with a total value of US $370 million.

The hand pollinators did not lose their jobs. It was a time of labour shortage, and they were transferred to other work. The weevils were of even greater help to smallholders who did not have the facilities for collecting and drying pollen for hand-pollination.

Sabah rewarded both Leslie Davidson and Rahman Syed with the title Datuk (knight). The Cameroon weevil has since been introduced to other countries in South-East Asia, the Pacific and South America.

While working in Sabah, Leslie Davidson also helped the local plantation industry by taking up a suggestion from a Filipino fed up with carrying heavy bunches of palm fruit. "Why not let me bring a buffalo?" he asked. A buffalo-cart was designed on the estate and its use spread throughout the area.

For a plantation worker, acquiring a buffalo proved to be like opening a bank account since it grows bigger and can eventually be sold for a higher price. Buffaloes are still used in Sabah, and Unilever similarly introduced the use of draught animals in Zaire, Colombia and Ghana.

Later, as the chairman of Unifield in Bedford, Leslie Davidson helped promote tissue culture. Since palms will not grow from cuttings, cell culture offers the only way of producing high-yielding clones. Unifield has produced hundreds of thousands of clonal plantlets in test tubes and exported them all over the tropical world. Leslie Davidson was educated at Bankhead Academy and Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen, from where, he says, everyone goes overseas. The army sent him to do national service in Kenya. Then he saw a Unilever advertisement: there was a vacancy on an oil-palm plantation at Kluang, Malaya.

What they did not tell his mother, who had to sign the application because he was not yet 21, was that Kluang was a hotspot of the post-war Communist Chinese insurgency. "I didn't expect to live through it," he says. "One or two of my friends were killed."

"On one occasion my death was announced. Someone else, a finance officer, had come from Kuala Lumpur and my estate manager took him to see the new development area where I was working. They walked straight into an ambush and the visitor was shot dead."

A company of the East Yorkshires was on the estate and he had five bodyguards night and day. Even so, insurgents would at times fire bullets through his house roof of an evening.

He was friendly with the Malay and Chinese workers and he says they saved his life by warning him if there was danger. Also, on the two occasions when he bumped into insurgents, he shot first.

The first time, he was out pig-shooting with a Gurkha colonel on an abandoned Chinese-owned estate. Three Gurkhas had the task of driving the pigs out of the undergrowth. When he went to help, he found himself facing a fourth man who, he suddenly realised, was a terrorist. He fired. The man jumped behind a tree and escaped. "We captured a fairly large bandit camp with guns and food and had a monumental celebration party in the Gurkha mess."

Before retiring last year as chairman of Unilever Plantations, Leslie Davidson got a green charter accepted by the Tropical Growers' Association. The charter undertakes, among other things, that growers will plant only on secondary forest, scrub or swampy land and not fell virgin forest. They will not disturb local lifestyles or destroy water courses.

Leslie Davidson was responsible for a Unilever venture into Colombia which has transformed poor grassland into an irrigated plantation. He is chairman of the advisory board of the newly established International Centre for Plantation Studies, at Silsoe College, near Bedford. He lives near Brighten "in a cowshed that has been converted rather well."

"My Malaysian friends can't believe I live in a cowshed," he says. "But at least it's not likely to be washed down the river in a flood."