History of Soil Survey

When soil survey work was first initiated in 1927, the primary purpose was to identify and develop parameters that could be used for subsequent field mapping. It was carried out on an exploratory basis and often on an ad hoc nature. The first survey was started in Cheras, Serdang and Klang Valley to the coast. Some work on the Pahang tuffaceous area was also started in 1930. After 1948, soil survey work started under the Trans-Perak Paddy Scheme. This was followed by the survey of Singapore Island, Terengganu, Temerloh-Maran area, Briah and Kuala Langat peat swamps.

Soils in Malaysia are classified according to the USDA Soil Taxonomy. By using the hierarchical structure in this system, the soil is classified to the lowest level and given a soil series name. The soil series is the basic mapping unit used in soil mapping in Peninsular Malaysia. Non-soil units are classified as miscellaneous units. The FAO-UNESCO Legend is also used to classify soil maps in Peninsular Malaysia. This information is provided for readers who are more familiar with this system.

After the independence, soil survey work increased drastically. Information was needed to identify potential land for agricultural development. Systematic reconnaissance soil surveys were carried out simultaneously in all the states throughout the peninsula except for a few areas, which were completed by expatriate officers and Colombo Plan experts from Canada, New Zealand and U.S. Peace Corps. To expedite work, Malaysia took advantage of the technical assistance provided under the Colombo Plan to train local officers overseas and obtain the assistance of experts from Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand and Canada to help in the soil survey programme. The systematic reconnaissance soil survey programme spanned over a period of 20 years culminating in production of the “Reconnaissance Soil Map of Peninsular Malaysia” in 1968. It was mainly due to the reconnaissance soil surveys that potential agricultural lands were identified.

From the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, several land development agencies-Federal and State-such as Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA), Pahang Tenggara Development Authority (DARA), Johor Tenggara Development Authority (KEJORA), Terengganu Tengah Development Authority (KETENGAH), South Kelantan Development Authority (KESEDAR), Kedah Development Authority (KEDA), State Economic Development Corporations (SEDCs) were formed to develop the vast tracks of land. Semi-detailed soil survey information was needed urgently to help in the design of the master plan and the cropping patterns for each of these areas. Systematic semi-detailed soil surveys were carried out with great urgency on potential agricultural land identified from the reconnaissance soil surveys.

In addition to the development of land schemes, areas with potential for food production especially the granary areas such the Muda, Kemubu and Besut river flood plains were given special attention and surveyed at semi-detailed soil survey scale to evaluate the soils for paddy production. When Integrated Agricultural Development Projects (IADPs) were implemented in the 1970’s and 1980’s to raise the productivity and standard of living of smallholders.

Between 1980 and 1985, Malaysia received a five years technical aid programme from Government of Belgium to strengthen the Soil Survey Section. Under this programme, local officers were sent to Belgium to do postgraduate studies in soil science and simultaneously experts from Belgium were sent to Malaysia to help in the semi-detailed soil survey programme. Several officers were trained under the programme. Belgian experts completed the semi-detailed soil survey for five areas in Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan and Kedah.

The Soil Management Division also contributed to the development of land capability classification systems in Malaysia. For agricultural land, the “Soil Suitability Classification” was developed in the 1960’s. This system classifies agricultural land into five suitability classes with the Class 1 land being the most suitable for agricultural development and Class 5 being the least suitable. The system has since been revised and updated several times and is presently known as the “Soil-Crop Suitability Classification for Peninsular Malaysia”.

In 1965 to 1968, the Soil Management Division also helped in the development of another system for utilization of land resources which is known as Land Capability Classification (LCC). The development of this system was headed by the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department. It prioritizes the use of land-based resources based on economic returns. Hence, lands with resources such as minerals which generate rapid economic return receive the highest ranking and are classified as LCC I. Suitable agricultural land falls into LCC II while moderately suitable agricultural land falls into LCC III. Forest and recreation uses which have longer economic gestation periods are placed under LCC IV and LCC V. The land capability maps serve as useful guides to the various state governments on the judicious use of their land resources.

In 1974, when the Green Book Plan was launched to increase food production in order to achieve food self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on imports, the Soil Management Division was again called upon to produce crop suitability maps for every mukim of the country and to recommend the most suitable crops to be planted. The maps which were completed in a short period of time were used to draw up the operational plans. 

The late 1980’s was the beginning of another era in the history of soil survey in Malaysia. Beginning of new computer technologies, soil survey was ushered into the digital era. The massive amounts of soil information which posed serious storage and handling problems were now captured and transformed into GIS (Geographic Information System) for ease of storage, retrieval and analyse. With this GIS technology, many value-added information and derivative maps have been generated from the soil data collected. The production of the fire risk map, soil erosion risk map, soil trafficability map and crop zoning maps are some examples of the multidisciplinary uses of soil information.

Collaboration between the Department of Agriculture, Peninsular Malaysia, Department of Agriculture Sabah and the Department of Agriculture Sarawak when COMSSSEM (Committee for the Standardization of Soil Survey and Evaluation in Malaysia) was officially formed on 1st March 1991. This committee was to standardize the scales of soil survey, survey methodology, soil classification and soil-crop suitability evaluation. When COMSSSEM completed its work, the three regions will be “unified” by common soil survey methodology and classification.