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Wooing corporate interests? Nagaland move to 'massively rely' on non-native palm oil

Counterview Desk 

A report on a virtual meeting organised by the civil rights organisation Kezekevi Thehou Ba has the said that the “bid to push oil palm cultivation in the North-East” has rung “alarm bells” in the ecologically fragile and biodiversity rich region.
Attended by over 60 people that also included organisations and institutions from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, the meeting found community leaders eager to hear the hitherto “untold” facts associated with oil palm cultivation from several experts, the report claimed.
Focused on Nagaland, the report said, “Evidence from Mizoram suggests that even after 15 years since the crop was planted, many farmers have reported zero profit”, adding, “As oil palm cultivation requires the application of large quantities of fertilisers and pesticides, the health of humans and water bodies can be severely compromised.”

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The people in India’s Northeast, home to less than three per cent of India’s over 1.4 billion population, have been reading about the various Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that several state governments in the region have signed with private companies for oil palm cultivation. It stems from a concerted bid to bring down the country’s high import dependence on this commodity.
Brands such as Godrej’s ‘Agrovet’, Patanjali’s ‘Ruchi Soya’ and 3F are targeting to enter this region even as concerns abound over the impact oil palm plantations will have in this ecologically fragile and biodiversity rich region.
An informed debate and discussion regarding cultivating this new crop in the Northeast and farther afield in the country, has been glossed over for reasons best known to the policymakers. The opacity has added to confusion among farmers who have only been told about the economic benefits of oil palm but nothing about its damaging long term consequences.
Nagaland is a case in point of rapid oil palm expansion.
Starting with 140 hectares (ha) in 2015-2016, these plantations exponentially grew to 4,623 ha by 31st March, 2021.
In response to the “missing link” in the oil palm expansion in India’s Northeast, “Kezekevi Thehou ba” (KTB or Peace Morung), a Nagaland-based organisation, held a virtual meeting on August 19, 2023. Attended by over 60 people that also included organisations and institutions from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, the meeting found community leaders eager to hear the hitherto “untold” facts associated with oil palm cultivation from several experts.
Even though many lacked accesses to technical support, a group of Konyak tribals for instance, in Nagaland’s Mon district, travelled 36 kms to Tizit and joined the virtual meeting, from a single computer in one room. The objective of the meeting was to enable communities to make informed decisions before deciding about cultivating this new crop.
India is the world's largest importer of palm oil. Until recently it was self-sufficient in the locally cultivated production of traditional vegetable oils such as mustard and coconut. Instead of encouraging its production India moved to a massive reliance on non-native palm oil. While producing only 1% of its oil palm requirement, it imported 99 percent, mainly from South East Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, with an import bill of over Rs. 1.50 lakh crores.
This significant shortfall in domestic 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 (NMEO-OP). The Northeast states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands top the government’s agenda for its robust expansion plans.
The government has not accounted for the fact that the Indian sub-continent is home to three Global Biodiversity Hotspots -- the Northeast and Myanmar; Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Western Ghats. It is also the habitat for globally threatened species, including several endemic ones.
These areas retain some of the most extensive tracts of forest in the country that are crucial for biodiversity and climate resilience. They also provide protection of indigenous cultures, lifestyles and livelihoods. Because of their ecological and cultural significance, these should be no-go areas for oil palm cultivation, insist conservation scientists.
In the Northeast, apart from Nagaland, oil palm plantations are now prevalent in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura. Since 2004, Mizoram launched its Oil Palm Development Programme targeting seven districts with the new crop, namely in Aizawl, Serchip, Lunglei, Lawnglai, Kolasib, Mamit and Siaha.
The virtual meeting provided an opportunity for the participants to listen to experts debate the wisdom of introducing this new crop in a fragile eco-sensitive zone.
Participants also provided feedback on the arbitrary strategy adopted by the state government agencies to implement the National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), and the dealing of oil palm promoters with local farmers and landowners.
The interaction during the meeting dwelt on the following areas of concern:
(i) Natural Resources (impact on water, quality and quantity).
(ii) Land Usage (ownership and rights issue).
(iii) Biodiversity (including food security).
(iv) Economy.

(i) Impact on Natural Resources:

Water usage figured high on the list of adverse impacts on natural resources. Each Oil Palm tree requires 230-328 litres of water daily. This means on a daily basis 32,830 to 46,900 litres of water will be required to irrigate 145 saplings of Oil Palm which can be planted in one hectare of land.
The NMEO-OP aims to place an additional 13.2 lakh ha of land under oil palm cultivation in India by 2030. An area that is larger than the entire state of Tripura.
In a region that is rain-fed with many areas facing dry spells in the winter months, the NMEO-OP has failed to spell out how the shortfall in water will be managed.
Evidence from Mizoram suggests that even after 15 years since the crop was planted, many farmers have reported zero profit. Most often this was because oil companies who were legally required to purchase the produce, reneged on their commitments, saying they had poor road access to the farms. Some farmers alleged that companies failed to pay compensation as stipulated by the Mizoram Oil Palm (Regulation of Production and Processing) Act, 2004.
A similar incident of failed promises by oil palm promoters in lower Assam’s Goalpara district led to locals uprooting over 500 trees after a proposed milling factory remained a still-born project.
Many farmers in these areas are alarmed by the Oil Palm’s high intake of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Farmers say the oil palm crop has left their fields infertile and surrounding forests drained of its water table. Experts have questioned both the ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ of water that will be available for people since oil palm is a water guzzler.

(ii) Land Usage (ownership and rights issue): 

The interaction brought to the fore unknown nuances associated with land usage pattern, procurement strategies and the potential impact on land ownership that oil palm cultivation has brought.
For example, in Mizoram, jhum or shifting cultivation landscapes have been classified by the government as “wasteland”. When replaced with oil palm plantations, indigenous communities have been deprived of the diversity of nutritious food sources and forest produce such as timber, bamboo, medicinal plants, that have long sustained them.
A participant from Karbi Anglong, Assam, bordering Nagaland, narrated how local elites, supported by the administration, are consolidating their ownership of large tracts of land for monoculture plantations. The oil palm mission with its attractive subsidies is likely to see the conversion of existing rubber plantations to palm oil. A solar project is also in the pipeline for which 18,000 bighas (14.562 sq. Km) of land have been purchased, he said. The impact on the small landowners who claim original ownership of these lands, is not known.
A participant from Nagaland shared how his Church Council had signed an agreement with the State Agriculture Department to start a sapling nursery for oil palm on six hectares of church owned land to grow 1,25,000 oil palm plants annually. A tractor was provided as an incentive. The members of the Church Council alleged that a rosy picture of economic growth was given to the community in their district. No facts related to the impact of such an activity on the ecology and natural resources were shared by the authorities, they said.
The total area declared for oil palm cultivation in the northeast stands at 12 Lakh hectares of which the largest area currently measuring 1.6 Lakh hectares falls under Assam. The immediate target is to bring 60,000 hectares of this figure under oil palm in the next five years. Meanwhile the state government has even approved of a three-year subsidy of close to Rs 3 lakhs to farmers willing to provide land with patta (ownership document). This scheme however is not gaining traction with land being a scarce commodity in the state and even more so for marginal farmers.
While small farmers are unwilling to part with patta land for oil palm cultivation, the oil palm companies are increasingly being approached by richer people with large land holdings. The primary problem for small farmers will arise when large land holders get into oil palm production and leave them to pay for the wider ecological problems that arise.
On the other side of the picture, Assam’s vast tea garden areas are seeing a sea change with the entry of small tea growers. This pursuit of cash crop through conversion of homestead gardens has undermined local food diversity and security.
The high use of pesticides in some of the tea plantations located in contiguity with oil palm cultivations has led to an alarming cascading effect on the quality of tea in these tea estates. There is a high possibility that degraded tea estates may opt to grow oil palm in the future, once subsidies are also made available for them.
Calculation showed, profit margins were higher for areca nut farms (Rs 1.8 lakh/ha) as compared to oil palm (up to Rs 1.2 lakh/ha)
The meeting also focussed on the shift in land tenure systems when oil palm comes into the picture. Studies show how 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 India 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.
The entry of private companies can lead to a change in the land ownership pattern. 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 that are now managed by these companies. Once proud land owners are now working as oil palm plantation labour on their own lands.
The entry of private companies through mega and mono cultivation projects, leading to a change in the land ownership patterns in the Northeastern states, also came up during the meeting.
The meeting also dwelt on a possible scenario where all available water resources in the area are channelled for large plantations. Big land owners have deep pockets and ability to withstand risk, they can put in funds to dig bore wells to sustain the plantation. This is in stark contrast to 80 percent of the small land owners, who are marginal farmers. 

(iii) Impact on Biodiversity (food security): 

Replacing standing natural forests with mono culture plantations can only invite complications in the future. The experts presented the scenario where landscapes with diverse benefits — such as medicinal plants, timber, bamboo and non-timber forest products, diversity of food crops -- are replaced with labour intensive monoculture cash crop. This can have a negative impact on local food security and community sovereignty in decision making.
The loss of forests will exacerbate extreme climate change events such as massive floods and severe drought. The Northeast is set to be one of the worst-hit regions in the world affected by climate change. Forests are an important buffer against such events, especially in the context of water security.
As oil palm cultivation requires the application of large quantities of fertilisers and pesticides, the health of humans and water bodies can be severely compromised. These oil palm cultivations do not allow cultivation of other crops and uprooting of oil palm for return to legacy crops is exceptionally difficult.

(iv) Economy:

The impact of oil palm on the largely subsistence economy that is converting to a cash economy will result in negative growth, the experts warned. With oil palm requiring huge amounts of water that cannot be met anywhere, it would result in a drastic decline in production.
Oil palm cultivation is highly chemical intensive and calls for massive use of fertilizers and pesticides. Fears loom large that the cultivation technique will drain the landscape of its ecological resources. A move to revert back to legacy crop plantations would also become commercially unviable.
The absence of any conversation about the downside of oil palm has seen many farmers falling prey to its cultivation because of sheer ignorance. They have been kept in the dark about the huge volume of water requirements, high maintenance costs of weeding and uprooting; costs of pesticides and chemicals in the plantations. State governments may also unilaterally decide to declare an area as “wasteland” as happened in the Mamit and Kolasib districts of Mizoram, when jhum fields were targeted for conversion to oil palm.
In Northeast India, Meghalaya is the only state to have rejected oil palm cultivation by paying heed to its farmers’ suggestions. Villages resisted the lure of this new crop cultivation because it could undermine the means to live on their own land. In the Khasi Hills for instance, farmers then argued that they preferred areca nut farming over oil palm cultivation.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that the profit margins were higher for areca nut farms (Rs 1.8 lakh/ha) as compared to oil palm (up to Rs 1.2 lakh/ha). In the Garo hills, farmers said they earn better with other crops that are native to their region, including indigenous oil-bearing trees.
In his closing remarks, Mr. Niketu Iralu, the Chairman of KTB, said that a good beginning had been made with the virtual meeting. He stressed that communities need access to information that enable them to make informed decisions about management of their land and natural resources for a sustainable future. KTB supports an ongoing dialogue on the issue that has far-reaching ramifications on the region’s fragile ecosystem and biodiversity, he said.

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