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Oil Palm Mission Threatens Rich Biodiversity of A&N Island, Northeast

The goals and targets are based on questionable assumptions made without reference to past experiences of oil palm cultivation.
OIL Palm

The Centre recently approved a poorly conceived Rs 11,040 crore National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) with an ecologically damaging focus on oil palm plantations in the northeast (NE) and the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands presumably due to their favourable rainfall and temperature.

The mission aims to bring an additional 6.5 lakh hectares under oil palm plantation by 2025-26 that will increase the total cultivated area to 1 million hectare with production of crude palm oil (CPO) expected to reach 1.12 million tonne (MT) by 2025-26 and 2.8 MT by 2029-30. The mission also seeks to reduce the import of edible oil and boost the domestic production of palm oil, which is known to have higher productivity than the usual cultivated oilseeds. The mission’s funding pattern, involving support for seed farms and some price support for fresh fruit bunches (FFB), is intended to benefit farmers and processing industries.

On the face of it, the goal of reducing the huge import bill for edible oils by boosting domestic production is unexceptionable. Around half of the Rs 80,000 crore worth of 13.5 MT of edible oil imported last year was palm oil. However, the mission’s thrust on the ecologically fragile biodiversity hotspots of the NE and the A&N Islands is highly problematic.

It is believed that 3.25 lakh hectares, or half of the total acreage planned, will be in the NE and A&N Islands and the remaining in other parts of the country with large chunks in the irrigated tracts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, the mission’s goals and targets are based on many questionable assumptions made without reference to experience of past efforts at oil palm cultivation.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Oil palm plantations, especially in the major producing areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, are well-known for being major drivers of biodiversity loss and damage to endangered and vulnerable species, obviously linked to the deforestation, which has accompanied these plantations in South East Asia and Africa.

Mission advocates may argue that forestland is not being targeted. However, deforestation—including clearing of grasslands—of the Andamans would take place as is known from the experience of the earlier oil palm plantations there in the mid-1970s, which triggered vigorous objections by forest authorities. These plantations also caused displaced many settlements of India’s last remaining isolated, endangered and most vulnerable indigenous tribes, such as the Jarawa and Onge.

Recent efforts by the NITI Aayog and the Centre to push infrastructure and tourist-oriented development in the A&N archipelago reveal the utter disregard for the endangered tribes and conserving the pristine ecosystem. Taken together, these raise danger signs about prioritising the A&N Islands for oil palm plantation.

Red flags have been repeatedly raised in the last several decades by specialist institutions, according to investigative new reports that accessed official documents. After oil palm plantation on the Little Andaman in the mid-1970-80s, the Supreme Court, in response to a petition moved by some NGOs, constituted an expert committee in 2002. Based on the panel’s recommendations, the court banned commercial and monoculture oil palm plantations on the A&N Islands.

The NITI Aayog had asked the A&N administration to request the SC for revoking its 2002 ban by including an Indian Council of Agriculture Research-Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research study whose report was submitted to the court in December 2018. Subsequently, the court had sought the opinion of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), which recommended in January 2020 that oil palm cultivation should be avoided in biodiversity rich areas without detailed studies on its ecological impact.

In August 2020, the environment ministry asked the ICFRE to undertake a study on the ecological impact of oil palm cultivation in such areas.  The ICFRE submitted a study proposal in November last year. However, the secretaries of the agriculture and environment ministries apparently decided early this year that since a study had already been undertaken by the ICAR, the ICFRE and the IIOPR would jointly prepare a report for urgent submission to the SC in view of the impending oil palm mission.

Despite this strong push, the affidavit submitted by the ICFRE with the court as late as June 2021, along with its report—which is still not available in the public domain—noted that there was no data to support the claims of ICAR-IIOPR and reiterated that comprehensive and detailed studies should be undertaken to assess the impact of oil palm on native flora, fauna and biodiversity on the A&N Islands and regarding its invasiveness.

The Union government approved the mission without a detailed study done by ICFRE. In what is now emerging as a consistent pattern, the Centre’s decisions are motivated by politics, not by environment concerns or based on expert opinions. While the top court may have the last word, it is also evident that the oil palm mission should not be implemented in on A&N Islands.

The North East

The tropical rainforests of the NE and its other ecological features make the region, along with the A&N Islands and the Western Ghats, among the top biodiversity hotspots in the country. The eco-sensitivity of the NE, along with the dense forest cover in most of the states, render it especially vulnerable to large-scale introduction of new crops that affect biodiversity. The concern underscored by the ICFRE applies equally to the NE.

There are other factors too which highlight the need for due diligence before hasty large-scale intervention. The reported rush by some chief ministers of the region to embrace the NMEO-OP, tempted by the generous financial support and subsidies, highlights the dangers involved.

While the government claims that oil palm plantation in the NE will be done only in land identified for agriculture, past experience shows that given the shortage of suitable cultivable land in the region, fresh plantations could lead to deforestation or incursions into forest fringe areas. The undulating hilly terrain would also call for leveling of land since oil palm requires flat well-drained soil, which will disturb the ecology and eat into surrounding hillsides and forests.

Besides, oil palm requires relatively high temperature of about 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year and steady, heavy rainfall typified by the 2,700 mm of rain received in plantation areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Irrigation is another concern since oil palm requires around 250 litres per plant per day with about 56 palms per acre. In most of the NE, this would call for substantial extraction of groundwater, questioning sustainability.

In large parts of the NE, land is owned by tribes or communities rather than by individual farmers. This traditional structure has often been exploited by vested interests who bribe tribal chiefs or community leaders. Many fear that large oil palm plantations could be set up in the NE through a combination of financial inducements and political pressure, alienating small farmers from their fields and triggering social unrest. Agatha Sangma, an MP from Tura, Meghalaya, and sister of the chief minister, underlined this aspect in a letter sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and called for withdrawing the mission.

The government should proceed with the oil palm mission with extreme caution in the northeast with careful location-specific studies and consultation with all the stakeholders.

Other areas

Earlier studies had identified 14-odd states with potential for oil palm plantations with Telangana and Andhra on top, followed by Tamil Nadu. However, such oilseeds missions have had mixed results not only in terms of yields but also equity, sustainability and other socioeconomic effects.

The average oil yield was only around 1.4 tonne per hectare between 2006-07 and 2016-17, according to official records. This is a far cry from the 4 tonne per hectare cited in Oil Palm Mission, projecting a fourfold increase in productivity over conventional oilseeds taken to yield around 1 tonne per hectare on an average. Even the mission’s own endpoint target of 2.8 million tonne from 1 million hectare is nowhere near the claim. The mission’s projection of “10-46 times more oil per hectare compared to other oilseed crops” clearly has to be taken with a barrel of salt! There is thus a large gap between the promise and the ground reality as discovered to their dismay by several farmers.

Other notable trends have been documented through field surveys and investigations. Despite plantations being undertaken in irrigated areas, heavy dependence on groundwater has been noted. Oil palm has a long gestation period of four-five years before it starts fruiting, and needs replanting after 25 years. Small farmers, therefore, find it difficult to sustain this crop.

Productivity of oil palm is known to increase with scale of plantation and this has driven a noticeable trend in erstwhile unified Andhra and Tamil Nadu towards large holdings, often in excess of 100 acres. In many cases, this has involved encroachment of village commons and poramboke land, forest or tribal land and land of smaller farmers. Oil palm plantations in forest fringe areas and so-called degraded and wastelands near forests also lead to encroachment of forestland as witnessed earlier.

In 2017, the government even relaxed land ceiling limits, granted permission for leasing in of so-called wastelands, including by corporates, and tweaked regulations on corporate and FDI in oil palm plantations to intensify the drive towards large plantations.

In view of these mixed results, driven mostly by exaggerated claims and expectations, experts have suggested a different approach with realistic productivity deliverables but lower risk, less environmental impact and greater sustainability.

About 40% of land assessed as suitable for oil palm is outside biodiversity-rich areas. One suggestion is that the government could try oil palm cultivation in well-irrigated paddy fields. Areas under coconut, rubber or banana plantations could also be suitable. It has also been suggested that promotion of oil palm among small farmers would yield more equitable benefits and be more sustainable. Some experts have even argued that, if similar subsidies as provided in NMEO-OP are extended to conventional oilseed cultivators, their productivity too could be boosted substantially.

Earlier oilseed mission reports have also projected that with improved planting material and cultivation techniques, oilseed productivity could be more than doubled. Even industry leaders have said that the goals of raising domestic oil production and reducing imports could be met by focussing on groundnut, soybean and mustard along with oil palm.

Therefore, the stated goals for substantial expansion of oil palm plantations require research and an evidence-based, locale-specific and multidimensional plan to expand the acreage but only where it is economically feasible, socially equitable and ecologically suitable. 

Oil palm cultivation in the most ecologically sensitive and vulnerable regions of the A&N Islands should be ruled out. The government should proceed with the mission in the biodiversity rich and ecologically sensitive NE only in a limited area with the greatest caution and based on prior studies. In other areas, NMEO-OP should again be promoted through small farmers in ecologically suitable areas not dependent on groundwater based on rigorous review of previous efforts. NMEO-OP, therefore, needs to be thoroughly recast in conjunction with efforts to boost productivity of other oilseeds.

The writer is with the Delhi Science Forum and All India Peoples Science Network. The views are personal.

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