Palm oil expansion in Northeastern India: The questions we need to ask
Palm oil and its derivative products are ubiquitous in our present day lives – its products used in everything from our cosmetics to car fuel. And its worldwide demand is growing, with India being its biggest consumer amounting almost 17 percent of the total global consumption. This consumption relies on imports with around 9 million tonnes of palm oil imported annually by India.
The demand for palm oil in India is primarily as edible oil. In general, the domestic consumption of edible oils in India has been outstripping the production with the gap being met by imports. India is the largest importer of edible oils worldwide: Around 68% of its 22 million tonnes annual consumption demand of edible oil are met by imports, which is nearly 15 million tonnes annually. Of this, palm oil accounts for the bulk of our edible oil imports, accounting for almost 60 percent of the total.
The Indian government is pushing for oil palm cultivation in northeastern India as a means to assuage this chronic dependence on edible oil imports. Palm oil production is concentrated at the tropics – the crop is well suited for a hot climate, plenty of sunshine and rainfall, criterias which are met by the Northeastern region of India.
The Indian government recognised this opportunity and in July 2020, amidst the Covid 19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the farmers in the North-East States to take up oil palm cultivation. Even before this, both the central government and a number of state governments had been pushing for an increase in production of this lucrative commodity in the region. The central government sanctioned Rs. 3,507 crores to the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm, with one of its main objectives being to bring 125,000 hectares of area under oil palm cultivation. The northeastern states are part of the oil palm expansion plan, in particular, the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have pushed for increasing palm cultivation and industry. The state governments 2016-2017 plans reflect a push towards oil palm expansion with Assam’s allocation of Rs 503 lakhs for its oil palm mission and Mizoram’s Rs 1,514 lakhs budget. Arunachal Pradesh has also allocated Rs 511 lakhs in its 2016-17 budget, with over 5000 acres of land in the Lower Debang Valley district under palm oil cultivation already.
Palms produce three times more oil per hectare than other vegetables such as soybean, rapeseed, or sunflower. Thus, arguably palm oil production would provide India, and the northeastern region several economic benefits. On a national level, it can enhance our edible oil security and increase self sufficiency by reducing India’s huge import bills on palm oil. It will lead to industrial growth in palm oil preparation as well as its allied activities. The programme may boost the rural economy of the region via gainful employment opportunities generated in agro-processing & enhancing income levels of individual farmers.
Will palm oil cultivation and its allied industry bring prosperity to the indigenous and local communities?
The experience of northeastern Indian states, such as Assam, demonstrates that large monocrop plantations are not always harbinger of inclusive growth and development of local communities. Assam’s large scale tea plantations have systemic problems with labour, with a recent Oxfam study highlighting the scale and depth of human suffering in these tea plantations.
It also has adverse impacts on people’s health. The current pandemic is widely accepted to have emerged from a wildlife wet market. What is less known are the emergence of zoonotic diseases from the clearing of forests for palm oil in separate incidents in Indonesia, Malaysia and West Africa. For example, in the 1990s there was a Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia due to palm plantation induced deforestation when bats flew out of these destroyed forests to nearby fruit orchards.The slash and burn method adopted to clear forests also has health consequences on the local population with the resultant haze in South-east Asia having thousands of documented cases of respiratory, eye and skin diseases, and even registering deaths. The further addition of climatic variations and sub-optimal health infrastructure makes the local communities extremely vulnerable to public health risks. If 2020 has taught us anything it is that prevention is far less costly than cure.
Do we consider the environmental impacts of such an expansive mission which will entail widespread deforestation and cultivation of a new monocrop?
The negative impacts of large scale palm oil cultivation on the environment has been well documented. Palm oil expansion has been historically among the four key drivers of deforestation (beef, soy, palm oil and wood products) resulting in the large scale conversion of tropical forests to palm oil, thus endangering habitats for a multitude of species. The two dominant producers of the commodity – Indonesia and Malaysia, have witnessed tremendous loss of their tropical forests and many endemic species are threatened. Large tracts of land have been cleared in Indonesia and Malaysia to make room for large plantations. The felling and burning of forests affects populations of endangered wildlife such as Sumatran tigers, rhinos and orangutans.
Why should we talk about sustainability in the Northeast?
Northeastern India is a biodiversity hotspot. Oil palm is a long-term monoculture crop, and replacing the traditionally practiced shifting cultivation and the local ecosystems in the region with it will definitely be detrimental to biodiversity. Along with loss in biodiversity and endemic species, there will be displacement of the local, indigenous communities, large scale deforestation, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential rise of invasive species and diseases.
What should we do? Where should we start?
The ecological and health concerns are delegated low priority. There haven’t yet been many discussions on the wider ecological implications of such a wide scale plantation drive. Neither the central nor any of the state governments have undertaken any assessments about the possible risks to the environment, biodiversity and health of the local communities. The central and state government could consider sustainability platforms, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and GreenPalm. Though far from perfect, the RSPO’s standards, which addresses concerns such as land use changes, soil erosion and pollution, – are an introduction to sustainable palm oil and we need to go even beyond these standards.
The goal should be to make palm oil production more environmentally and climate-friendly. This can be done by proper land assessments for selection of appropriate land and adopting climate smart agriculture practices which ensures high productivity with environmental sustainability. Perhaps, a proper land assessment reveals that certain struggling tea plantations in the region can be converted to oil palm plantations, preventing further deforestation. Adoption of a mosaic landscape, where oil palm is combined with patches of forest and other crops in agroforestry systems, could also help to protect biodiversity and ecosystem functions.
The low priority delegation of the ecological concerns reflects a myopic focus of the programme on economic gain and may do critical environmental damage, particularly in a biodiversity hotspot region. Development at the cost of ecological concerns is a short sighted win, and good policy making along with innovative research support should be key to develop and implement sustainable oil palm in the region.
The most important questions we need to ask ourselves are not the whys of sustainable palm oil production in the region but the hows and whats.