Friday, December 1, 2023

Oil palm plantations : A disaster for farmers & the environment

Palm Oil the vegetable oil is an extract of the Oil Palm tree. This versatile oil is used for both food and non-food products. In India 70% of palm oil is used as cooking oil. It is a major ingredient for food products such as biscuits, ice cream, chocolates, breads, cattle feed etc. Its use for non-food products comprises items such a soaps and shampoos, cosmetics, candles, bio fuels and lubricants. India consumes 20% of the world production of Palm Oil, imports 99% of its domestic need of this oil from Indonesia and Malaysia. To meet this significant gap in domestic production the Govt. of India has revamped the National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) in 2020-22 with a financial outlay of Rs11, 040/-crore to increase the area of Palm Oil cultivation in the country. 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 states in North-East India, Western Ghats and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the prime and priority areas of this mission. The plantation area includes 1, 33, 811 ha in Arunachal Pradesh, 3, 75, 428 ha in Assam, 66, 652 ha in Manipur, 51, 297 ha in Nagaland, 66, 792 ha in Mizoram, and 1, 46, 364 ha in Tripura.
Undebated facts:
Researchers and ecologists have long argued that the North-eastern states, Western Ghats and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands 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, all these regions should be No-Go areas for Oil Palm cultivation.
Companies investing in Oil Palm in NE states
The NMEO-OP assures assistance for the creation of Oil Palm seed nurseries, and even price assurance to Oil Palm farmers. Three major companies are taking up the Central sponsored mission in the Northeast. They are the Patanjali Foods Ltd, Godrej Agrovet Ltd and 3f Oil Palm Pvt. The price of the crop will be regulated by corporates as they have the monopoly over the market. Oil Palm farmers in Arunachal Pradesh have already called out that the price of Rs.8/- per kg for ripe Oil Palm fruits is great financial lost for them.
Missing Costs & NMEO-OP Budget.
A missing component in case for economic benefit from Oil Palm plantation is the ecological cost to famers in the Northeast. These plantations will have an adverse effect on the region’s unique and fragile eco-system and the impact on its land ownership management patterns which is currently in the hands of the community.
Consider these facts:

  • More than 90% of Northeast India is not suitable for Oil Palm cultivation for its hilly terrain and high altitude with no proper infrastructure like transport, milling factory and irrigation system.
  • Each Palm Oil tree requires 250 to 300 liters of water daily for 5-6 years till it attains maturity. A compromise on this salient feature resulting in a poor harvest and poor quality of Oil Palm.
  • One acre of land can hold 56 Palm Oil trees requiring approximately 18,000 liters of water per acre daily.
  • Where is the water requirement for Oil Palm plantations going to come from? The people in the state are already facing serious water shortages in villages, towns and cities. Usage of ground water to meet the requirements is a distinct danger for water security for future generations.
  • Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers on Oil Palm plantations kills organic nutrients of the land and the harmful effect cannot be limited to the plantation but will affect adjoining lands.
  • Severe pollution of surface water as well as ground water is an imminent outcome wherever pesticides have been used extensively. Fertilizers and pesticides inadvertently seep into the soil and mix with ground water.
    It is said that after 30 years of Palm Oil cultivation the heavy use of pesticides will render land and water biologically dead. And this condition may last for thousands of years.
    ‘Monotype Plantations’ are culturally unsuitable
    The mono-cropping nature of plantations particularly Palm Oil is an antithesis to the self-reliant, subsistence multi-cropping and diverse food crops system of the people of Northeast India. This traditional multi cropping system has contributed to the food security of communities and farmers. Further monoculture cash crop will replace the subsistence economy to poor economy from bamboo and allied industries, diverse food crops cultivation, various medicinal plants, agro-based industries, timber-based industries as monoculture disallows other species to flourish.
    The disastrous experience of Oil Palm farmers in Mizoram should serve as a warning as to why the Centre’s NMEO-OP Palm Oil plans will be disastrous for farmers and the environment in the Northeast. In “The Caravan” Magazine in Sept. 2021, Ms Kimi Colney in her article (Quote) “Mizoram shows why Centre’s Oil-Palm plans will be disastrous for farmers, environment “(Unquote) writes:
    (Quote) “Both oil palm farmers and environmentalists from Mizoram told me that, unlike the positive picture Reddy painted, the state’s experiment with oil palm has been a failure for everyone both farmers and companies. Several farmers told me that oil palm, which is an incredibly nutrient and water intensive crop, has left fields and the surrounding forests infertile.
    Many farmers said they made absolutely no profit in the decade and a half since the crop was first planted, most often because companies that were legally required to buy their produce did not, often because of poor road access. The farmers also accused the companies of failing to pay the compensation stipulated by Mizoram’s laws. Mizoram’s experiment with oil palm cultivation has led to a host of impoverished farmers, and unaccountable companies. Environmental activists and farmers told me that they feared the NMEO-OP would yield the same results, albeit at a much larger scale” (Unquote). The referred above Reddy here is G Kishan Reddy, the then Union Minister for the Development of the Northeast Region.
    As of July 2023, Nagaland has 5,423 hectares of land under Oil Palm, which is a 39-fold growth since 2015. To replace the existing thousands of Oil Palm trees already planted in the state will be a difficult and a prohibitively expensive enterprise. Mature Oil Pam trees cannot simply be cut down manually they require to be uprooted with the help of excavators. In other words, after the tree attains 30 years and fresh trees are to be planted the farmer will need the aid of excavators to uproot the old dying Oil Palm trees to plant fresh saplings.
    More pesticides and more water will be required all over again till the tree attains maturity. In Indonesia 68% of Oil Palm has totally replaced their invaluable primary natural rain forests. The plantations have endangered the eco-systems in the natural forests severely affecting flora and fauna.
    Implications on land management systems
    A lesson can be learned from the Oro provinces of Papua New Guinea. Customary land tenure arrangements traditionally in the hands of the community are changing in favor of the Corporates.
    With land reduced to a commodity, Corporates exploited the rapidly changing socio-economic lifestyles and reduced the rights of the traditional land owners to work in their favor. Small scale, ordinary farmers could not manage the scale of operation required by Oil Palm plantations because of its peculiar demands and circumstances for cultivation. The moral basis that governed rights of customary land owners was hence undermined to favor the outsiders who gained an unfair and unacceptable advantage. An example closer home may be derived in the recent Meitei-Kuki stand -off over land as reports go:
    (Quote) “The central government has allocated 66,000 hectares of Manipur Forest land to crony capitalist Adani, to grow palm oil plantations at a cost of Rs. 11, 000 crore. Most of the land belongs to the Adivasi community, the riot was allegedly pre-planned by the BJP and RSS to clear the area and spread fear.” (Unquote) – By 31st July 2023, The million-dollar question is, can we the Naga people as a people and a nation survive on a dead land? Several studies suggest Oil Palm cultivation leads to forest destruction, land erosion, land pollution and water pollution. These trees “emit toxins that kill other plants” and “displace native wildlife”.
    We shall defend our land and water at any costs for our survival since fight for survival is a divine duty and we shall not slumber over that call of duty and responsibility by our Almighty God for posterity. Do not forget “KHUNAK NGEU KHUM” Chang people’s war-cry for defending their ancestral homeland meaning “Our Land Our Own”
    Information and Publicity Cell; Naga Club, HQ: Kohima Nagaland


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