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'A disaster in the making': Expansion of oil palm plantations in Northeast India

By Rupa Chinai, Ravi Chellam* 

Until a few decades ago, India was nearly 100% self-sufficient in edible oils, with a diverse variety of oilseeds that were grown and consumed sustainably in keeping with the ecological and climatic conditions of different regions in the country. Today, India is highly reliant on palm oil imports to meet its vegetable oil demands. 
Palm oil is an exceptionally versatile vegetable oil and is used not only in food but also in products ranging from chocolate to shampoo, and also as a biofuel. India is the largest global consumer of palm oil and accounts for over 20% of the palm oil used worldwide. Currently, India imports a massive 99% of its palm oil, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. 
A significant shortfall in palm oil production has prompted the government’s push for vegetable oil security under the banner of the National Mission on Edible Oil–Oil Palm (NMEOOP). The NMEO-OP aims to place an additional 1.32 million hectares of land under oil palm cultivation in India by 2030. An area that is larger than the entire state of Tripura.
The priority regions earmarked for oil palm expansion are the Northeast Indian states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Both these regions together encompass three Global Biodiversity Hotspots, host a multitude of species that are globally threatened, range-restricted or endemic, and continue to retain some of the most extensive tracts of forest in India. 
These forests are crucial for biodiversity, climate resilience and protecting the interests of indigenous cultures, their lifestyles and livelihoods. Because of their ecological and cultural significance, both these regions should be No-Go areas for oil palm cultivation. In Northeast India, oil palm plantations have already been established in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In Mizoram, entire districts such as Kolasib and Mamit have been designated for oil palm cultivation.
Mizoram’s experience with oil palm cultivation has been disastrous. Jhum cultivation (or shifting cultivation) landscapes have been classified by the government as “wasteland” and replaced with oil palm plantations despite indigenous communities relying on them for food and non-food produce (timber, bamboo, medicinal plants). 
Oil palm plantations have left the soil infertile and alarmingly depleted the water resources. Infrastructure for transportation and milling is non-existent, and the crop is left to rot either on the tree or on the ground after harvest. Farmers have made zero profits from oil palm, and efforts to replace oil palm with other crops have failed because of depleted soil nutrients and decreasing water availability. 
The three companies involved with oil palm cultivation in Mizoram; Godrej, 3F, and Ruchi Soya (the last now owned by Patanjali), have faced no accountability for the failure of the crop in the state. In Nagaland, farmers are wary of cultivating oil palm because of grossly inadequate water supply, loss of crop to rodents and the lack of buyers for produce, despite government assurances.
No state in Northeast India should opt for oil palm plantations as a source of revenue or horticultural development for the following reasons (as demonstrated by the Mizoram experience):
➤ Shifts in land tenure systems: Oil palm cultivation tends to shift land tenure from community-owned to privately held. The power of Gram Panchayats and other village-level and community-based councils to manage their own lands will pass to companies. In effect, land will become “locked” under oil palm, and communities will then have no say in land management. 
This is a uniquely Northeast Indian problem, where due to special constitutional protections under the 6th Schedule or Article 371 series, land ownership and management are primarily in the hands of the community, with the strength of protective provisions varying in different states. 
This is unlike the rest of India where land is owned privately or by the government. Land tenure moving into private hands has already happened in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and in a few peninsular Indian states, where tribal communities have lost their lands, and people have no choice but to work as labourers on oil palm plantations in their own land.
➤ Northeast India is climatically unsuited for oil palm cultivation: Maps of areas suitable for cultivating oil palm in India published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that over 90% of Northeast India is simply unsuitable for oil palm cultivation (except southern areas of Tripura and Mizoram). The Northeast’s hilly terrain means that oil palm plantations in this region will invariably fail.
Northeast India lacks the infrastructure to grow and process oil palm: Even if Northeast India was climatically suited to oil palm cultivation, there would still be serious concerns:
(i) Irrigation. Each oil palm plant requires 250-300 litres of water per day. Northeast India is monsoonal, with most rainfall in only four months. Where will the water that is needed to cultivate oil palm come from?
(ii) Transportation and milling. Once harvested, the fresh fruit bunches of the oil palm have to be processed within 48 hours, or the oil milled from the fruit is not fit for human consumption. This requires efficient transportation facilities to oil palm mills, both of which currently do not exist in the region.
➤ Forest and biodiversity loss: In most Northeastern states, oil palm plantations will replace natural or semi natural (e.g., jhum) landscapes. There remains the possibility that state governments (like in Mizoram) will declare highly productive jhum landscapes as “wasteland” to encourage conversion to oil palm. The conversion of natural/semi-natural habitats to monoculture plantations will have worrying long-term consequences to the environment as well as the lives of the local communities:
(i) The replacement of landscapes with diverse benefits (medicinal plants, timber, bamboo and non-timber forest products, diversity of food crops) into labour-intensive monoculture cash cropping systems will negatively impact food security.
(ii) Loss of forests: Northeast India is set to be one of the worst-hit regions in the world by climate change and climate-driven extreme events such as massive floods and severe droughts. Forests are an important buffer against such events, especially in the context of watershed services and water security.
➤ Environmental sustainability issues: Oil palm cultivation is very chemical intensive, requiring the application of large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. This leaves soil and freshwater health severely compromised, prevents the cultivation of other crops in the vicinity of oil palm plantations, and makes the conversion of oil palm back to legacy crops exceptionally difficult.
As with Mizoram and some of the peninsular states, it is improbable that farmers and indigenous communities are informed of the risks and potentially disastrous consequences of cultivating oil palm. The government and oil palm companies (such as Patanjali) will, in all likelihood, emphasise subsidies provided to grow oil palm (which are considerable) and the potential short-term gains. 
The economic advantages of oil palm cultivation are publicised without warnings about changes in land tenure, the environmental impacts, labour costs, the use of chemicals and the depletion of water resources, and the fact that oil palm is simply unsuited to Northeast India’s terrain, climate, ecology, available infrastructure, and the culture of the region. 
Mizoram’s disastrous entanglement with oil palm cultivation should serve as a cautionary tale for other Indian states especially in the Northeast.

Do watch:

  • Oil palm plantations and conflicts with communities in Indonesia:
  •  Dampa Hmathlir: Thinking About the Future:
Further reading:
*Rupa Chinai is independent journalist and author; Ravi Chellam is wildlife biologist and conservation scientist


Anonymous said…
Palm oil will ruin tea and allied industry
One has to see palm oil factory in Malaysia
The water requirement is high and will compete with tea
Climate change and uproot tea and plant Palm oil trees !
Anonymous said…

Palm oil is one of the most widely used vegetable oils in the world, found in a vast array of consumer products, from food items to cosmetics and biofuels. Its popularity can be attributed to its versatility, high yield per hectare, and low production costs. However, behind the scenes of this booming industry lies a dark reality: the degeneracy of palm oil plantations.

The expansion of palm oil plantations has led to severe environmental degradation, particularly in tropical regions such as Southeast Asia, where the majority of palm oil is produced. The conversion of biodiverse tropical forests and peatlands into monoculture palm oil plantations has resulted in the loss of critical habitats for endangered species such as orangutans, tigers, and rhinos. Deforestation, coupled with the draining of peatlands, has released substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. Moreover, the excessive use of agrochemicals and pesticides in palm oil cultivation has contaminated water sources and harmed aquatic ecosystems.

The establishment of palm oil plantations has had significant social implications, especially for local communities and indigenous populations. Large-scale land acquisitions and land grabbing have displaced indigenous people from their ancestral lands, leading to the loss of their cultural identity, traditional livelihoods, and increased poverty. The palm oil industry has also been associated with human rights abuses, including forced labor, child labor, and exploitation of migrant workers. Workers often endure harsh working conditions, receive low wages, and lack access to basic amenities.

The consumption of palm oil has raised health concerns due to its high content of saturated fats. Diets rich in saturated fats have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Furthermore, the processing of palm oil at high temperatures can generate harmful trans fats, which have been associated with various health issues, including heart disease and obesity. The widespread use of palm oil in processed foods has raised alarms among health professionals, who advocate for healthier alternatives.

Addressing the degeneracy of palm oil plantations requires a multi-faceted approach involving various stakeholders. Governments and international bodies must enforce stricter regulations to prevent further deforestation for palm oil production. The adoption of sustainable land-use practices, such as agroforestry and organic farming, can help mitigate the environmental impacts of palm oil cultivation. Certification schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) have been established to promote responsible palm oil production, although their effectiveness remains a subject of debate. Consumer awareness and demand for sustainable palm oil can encourage companies to adopt ethical sourcing practices and support small-scale farmers.

The degeneracy of palm oil plantations represents a significant environmental and social menace. Urgent actions are needed to address the destructive practices associated with this industry. Sustainable alternatives and responsible sourcing are crucial to mitigating the environmental impact, protecting biodiversity, and respecting the rights of local communities. By promoting transparency, supporting sustainable practices, and fostering consumer awareness, we can work towards a more sustainable future that respects both people and the planet.

Robert 28-07-23


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