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Palm oil: Amidst tycoon onslaught, North-East farmers discuss impact on biodiversity

By Rosamma Thomas* 

The northeastern states of India account for about three per cent of the total 1.4 billion population of India. In 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the National Mission on Edible Oils – Palm Oil, with a total outlay of Rs11,040 crore. The plan is to bring 6.5 lakh hectares under oil palm cultivation, of which 3.2 lakh hectares would be in the northeast. Brands such as Godrej’s Agrovet, Patanjali’s Ruchi Soya and 3F have been planning entry into oil palm cultivation in the northeast. The push for acquiring land for oil palm cultivation is also seen as the backdrop to the ongoing violence in Manipur.
There has been rapid expansion in palm oil cultivation in some states already, with Nagaland’s 140 hectares in 2015-16 growing exponentially to 4,623 hectares under oil palm in 2021. Nagaland-based Kezekevi Thehou Ba (Peace Morung), a Nagaland-based organization, is spearheading a public education programme in the northeast to assess the impact of this cultivation. On August 19, a programme was held online attended by people from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.
A group of Konyak tribals from Mon district of Nagaland travelled 36 km to Tizit to join the virtual meeting, and all of them joined by using a single computer. The meeting aims to educate the local people so they can take informed decisions about this new crop that they are being urged to cultivate.
In their public education session, the farmers discussed how the expansion of palm oil in the northeast could affect three global biodiversity hotspots – the northeast and Myanmar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the Western Ghats. 
These regions also serve as home to many indigenous cultures, and conservation scientists, they noted, had warned that such areas should be no-go areas for palm oil cultivation. Participants discussed the impact on natural resources like water, land usage, biodiversity, and the impact on local economy.
Each palm tree requires about 300 litres of water daily; an area larger than the entire state of Tripura is planned to be planted with the palm oil saplings, and the amount of water that would require was discussed. Many areas already face dry spells in winter. It is unclear from the plans from the Centre what measures are proposed to meet the water needs of the oil palms.
In Mizoram, even 15 years after the crop was first planted, farmers have reported zero profit. Oil companies legally required to purchase produce reneged on their commitments, claiming there was poor road access to the farms. 
Companies also failed to pay compensation as required under the Mizoram Oil Palm Regulation of Production and Processing Act, 2004, farmers said. In Assam’s Goalpara district, locals uprooted over 500 trees after experiencing such betrayal by oil companies. A proposed milling factory in the area was a still-born project, leaving farmers high and dry.
Besides water, oil palms require high application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and fields are left infertile; even surrounding forest areas are drained of their water table.
In Mizoram, the traditional areas under jhum or shifting cultivation have been termed wasteland in government records, and replaced with palm oil plantations. Indigenous communities have thus been deprived of their source of nutritious food, besides forest produce like timber and medicinal plants that have long sustained such communities.
With the rise of monoculture plantations, one farmer shared that local elites are consolidating ownership of large tracts of land. With attractive subsidies in place, it is likely that the rubber plantations in Karbi Anglong district, for instance, are replaced by palm oils. A solar project is also in the pipeline, and a large tract of land has been acquired for it already; it was unclear what the state of those who lost their land for the project was.
One participant from Nagaland explained that his church council had entered into an agreement with the state agriculture department for a sapling nursery for palm oil on six hectares of church-owned land. A tractor was offered as an incentive and the agreement required the church group to grow 1,25,000 saplings annually. The participant added that no information about the impact of this on local ecology had been shared at the time the agreement was signed.
The largest chunk of the palm oil land falls in Assam, and the state government has agreed to provide subsidy of Rs3 lakh to farmers willing to provide land with their documents. This scheme, however, has few takers. 
Assam’s tea garden areas too are seeing the entry of small tea growers, and this pursuit of cash crops has the potential to vastly undermine local food diversity. The use of glyphosate, a suspected carcinogen, is also only legally allowed in tea plantations in India. With land degraded with high pesticide use, tea gardens could opt to grow oil palms in future.
Northeast has subsistence economy. Conversion to cash economy that oil palm cultivation represents would result in adverse social changes
The online meeting also dwelt on how oil palm appears to be shifting patterns of land tenure – from community-owned to private. The power of gram panchayats and local government bodies would thus shift to private companies. This problem is also unique to the northeast, where constitutional protections under the Sixth Schedule and Article 371, vest land ownership with communities.
Those gathered for the online session were aware that loss of forests would exacerbate the climate crisis; forests are a buffer from such crises, offering a reliable source of water.
The northeast has a largely subsistence economy, and the conversion to a cash economy that oil palm cultivation represents would result in adverse social changes, some participants warned. Also, besides the water and pesticide troubles, the costs of weeding and uprooting are prohibitive and even reverting to other cultivation after uprooting the oil palms would be expensive.
Meghalaya is the only state to have rejected palm oil cultivation. Farmers in the Khasi Hill region argued that they prefer areca nut, as margins are higher for the produce.
India is today the world’s biggest importer of palm oil
 This is a long way to have travelled, from being an exporter of edible oil before Independence. In the 1970s, groundnut mustard and cotton seed supplied over 90% of the edible oil requirements of the country. 
India is also blessed with rich diversity, and there are southern states where coconut oil is the cooking medium, while in the northern states mustard oil takes that place. These regional preferences were part of local culture, and no national market existed for edible oils. In the 1990s, India introduced an Operation Flood-type project for self-reliance in edible osils, Operation Golden Flow
 The brand Dhara, created to market a brand for the edible oil grower, achieved the aim of self-sufficiency; in little time, it cornered 50% of the market in edible oil. It was not until the World Trade Organization agreement of 1994 that this success was undermined, and import duty on edible oil reduced. 
In their article for "The Wire", BM Vyas and Manu Kaushik, who worked with Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd, note how there appeared to be a conspiracy in place to destroy the self-sufficiency in edible oil. 
They note that while oil is imported at high cost, it is made available to urban consumers at cheap rates and leading the displacement and unemployment in the rural workforce engaged in edible oil production. They add, such self-reliance in edible oil is possible again, without this push for palm oil cultivation.
*Freelance journalist



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