BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah on Wednesday raised concerns about the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism’s (MPRT) inability to achieve production targets for the agriculture and fisheries sectors.

Listing out a host of issues during an unannounced visit to MPRT, the monarch said poor data collection made it difficult to determine economic growth in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries.

The government had hoped higher production in these three sectors would boost GDP contribution from one percent in 2015 contribute to five percent of GDP by 2020.

The ministry’s five year strategic plan targeted output growth of 28 percent per annum — from $511 million in 2015 to $1.8 billion by 2020.

“But to what extent has this goal been achieved? It is difficult to determine due to the lack of data particularly in the agriculture and fisheries sectors,” the monarch said.

Without proper data, it was also hard to estimate potential job creation as well as how far natural resources have been eroded, he added.

Rice output still fails to meet targets

Brunei only managed to achieve five percent rice self-sufficiency in 2017 — consistently falling short of its target over several years — but aims to double rice output to at least 10 percent this year.

His Majesty said that the recent opening of the country’s largest commercial rice farm in Kandol, Belait would prove a major test for the government.

“This project has been allocated 500 hectares of land. The relevant parties need be alert to make sure the project runs smoothly and that they are ready to troubleshoot.

“They should be ready for the second phase of the project which will be more exacting, as the area is hilly and not conducive for excavation and flattening work.”

HM the Sultan delivers a titah at the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism on Feb 26, 2020. Photo: Infofoto

His Majesty also warned the ministry against large companies monopolising the agriculture sector, stressing that projects should not just be awarded to the wealthiest bidders. 

“Privatisation is not intended for the government to ‘rest’ or for us to just stand on the sidelines and be happy with the achievements of the private sector.”

However, he acknowledged that interest in farming is low, with the majority of farmers comprising retirees who are only farming part-time.

“If this continues, it is doubtful that we will see the agriculture sector develop, so what should we do? The answer is we must change immediately.”

Fisheries output cannot meet demand

The monarch said fisheries output cannot meet local demand, and consumers are still very reliant on fish supply from neighbouring countries.

“Local operators are sinking, and upon observation, many of the fishing boats at the Serasa Fish Landing Complex are owned by locals but the output cannot compete with supply from outside.

“Marine resources have the potential to grow the country’s revenue, but this industry requires human resources and expertise to mobilise,” he said.

HM the Sultan speaks with staff at the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism on Feb 26, 2020. Photo: Infofoto

Touching on the forestry industry, His Majesty said illegal logging of gaharu, or sandalwood, still continues meaning there is poor monitoring and controls.

“If this continues, it can erode this valuable asset.”

Concerns over food safety

The sultan said proper research must be carried out into food safety, particularly on the use of pesticides near rivers and other water sources during farming.

He called on the ministry to ensure proper regulation of food safety, especially for fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables and fish.

The monarch questioned whether action had been taken to ensure consumers’ safety, and whether they had been carried out consistently.

He said the government should also look into price controls, and the large number of foreign vendors taking up the available space at vegetable markets such as the Tamu Selayun. 

Failure of Bio-Innovation Corridor

His Majesty said the Bio-Innovation Corridor project in Tungku — previously known as Brunei Agro-Technology Park — has failed to achieve its target due to the incompetence of its planners.

In 2009, the government invested $20 million on the Bio-Innovation Corridor, which was initially earmarked as an industrial park to attract foreign investors to develop halal food manufacturing.

“Despite efforts to offer the area several times to domestic and foreign investors for fruit and vegetable cultivation, the response was not encouraging and in the end we can consider this ‘buried’,” he said.

HM the Sultan tours the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism on Feb 26, 2020. Photo: Infofoto

Improving tourism infrastructure

His Majesty acknowledged that Brunei needs more tourism of attractions and infrastructure, but said this will be addressed as the country moves forward with development plans.

“What is more important for us now is to take care of what we have. Take care and keep it as good as possible so that it looks nice and clean, not dingy and dirty.”

MPRT aims to increase air arrivals from 218,000 tourists in 2015 to 450,000 in 2020 — an average increase of 5.9 percent per year –boosting tourism receipts from $77 million in 2017 to a projected $335 million by 2020.