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Oil palm in Northeast: Threat to biodiversity?

The move to increase palm cultivation in the Northeast has kicked off a priority question: increased production or protection of forests?
Last Updated : 11 September 2021, 22:34 IST
Last Updated : 11 September 2021, 22:34 IST
Last Updated : 11 September 2021, 22:34 IST
Last Updated : 11 September 2021, 22:34 IST

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Palm oil cultivation at Khungrajani village in Assam's Goalpara district. (photo credit: Jiban Rabha)
Palm oil cultivation at Khungrajani village in Assam's Goalpara district. (photo credit: Jiban Rabha)
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Palm oil cultivation at Khungrajani village in Assam's Goalpara district. (photo credit: Jiban Rabha)
Palm oil cultivation at Khungrajani village in Assam's Goalpara district. (photo credit: Jiban Rabha)

Jiban Rabha’s hope and hard work in the past six years finally bore fruits on Thursday (September 9). The oil palm Rabha and six other educated farmers cultivated in about seven hectares of land at Khungrajani village in western Assam’s Goalpara district in 2015 was harvested for the first time.

A Hyderabad-based company bought the oil palm at Rs 10 per kg which would be processed to produce palm oil, a vegetable edible oil on which India is now focussing to cut import cost.

“At this rate, we hope to get about Rs 3 lakh per hectare,” Rabha told DH from his village, about 100-kms from Guwahati. The income from oil palm, according to Rabha, will triple the amount farmers like him earn by growing paddy, the major crop in agriculture-dependent Assam.

Oil palm is harvested every 15-days after four years of planting the trees. Nearly 1,000 farmers in Goalpara and neighbouring Kamrup district are now cultivating oil palm in about 200 hectares of land, which according to Rabha remained unused. Assam at present has 350 hectares under oil palm cultivation in Goalpara, Kamrup and Bongaigaon districts.

According to the government, oil palm produces 10 to 46 times more oil per hectare compared to other oilseed crops like mustard, sunflower or sesame, which are largely grown in Assam fields as Rabi crops. Rabha hoped that more and more farmers would go for oil palm cultivation with technical support and financial assistance likely to be provided under the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP).

This Centrally sponsored scheme worth Rs 11,040 crore has identified the Northeast region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as focus areas. The mission seeks to expand oil palm cultivation by an additional area of 6.5 lakh hectare, thereby reaching the target of 10 lakh hectare in the next five years.

This hope for more earning by farmers’ expansion plan has become a worry for environmentalists in the Northeast, one of the biodiversity hotspots in the country. “Large scale expansion of monoculture crop oil palm is likely to eclipse tropical forests and the rich biodiversity. As farmers will get more money from oil palm, compared to other traditional crops, they will clear the forests and jungles to switch over to palm oil cultivation,” said Narayan Sharma, assistant professor at Department of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Sciences, Cotton University, Guwahati.

Sharma said oil palm cultivation in such a large scale could lead to destruction of forests the way forests were cleared for cultivation of tea in upper and North Assam districts in the 1990s (Sivasagar, Tinsukia, Jorhat, Golaghat, Sonitpur). “The oil palm will create crisis of food for many wildlife species and birds as they don’t eat oil palm fruits. This will further aggravate the human-animal conflicts in the region too,” he said.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar countered such fears saying that the government was proceeding on the basis of cautious scientific studies. According to him, a study by Indian Council for Agricultural Research identified 28 lakh hectare for oil palm, out of which 9 lakh hectare are in the Northeast. “Cultivation will not be done by cutting forests or other crops. These lands are already lying unused,” he said.

Climate activist, Rituraj Phukan, however, said there are no ‘wastelands’ in nature, particularly in the bio-diversity rich Northeast. Phukan, who has taken part in several international climate conclaves said, “India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the 30X30 plan which called for protection of at least 30 per cent of all land and sea areas to stop the catastrophic loss of biodiversity by 2030. India’s Paris Agreement commitments include creation of a cumulative carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, with the stated goal to bring at least 33 per cent of land areas under green cover, up from the current 24.5 per cent.”

He added: The National Forest Policy 2018 also aspires for one-third of total land area under forest and tree cover to achieve the national goal for eco-security. These declarations will require creation and regeneration of protected areas, and in the Northeast, we have the defined landscape to adhere to these global commitments and state goals.”

Ground water and land use concerns: Being a water guzzling crop, oil palm cultivation, according to Sharma, could further deplete groundwater in the Northeast. “An oil palm plant requires 200 litres of water everyday. The rainfall pattern in the Northeast is already erratic due to climate change impact. Most of the months have remained dry, whereas huge rainfall is witnessed in two-three months only. So, farmers will go for borewell irrigation during most part of the year and this will further deplete our groundwater level,” he said. Rabha, too, admitted that irrigation became a challenge due to erratic rainfall and so they were depending on borewells between November and March.

Experts say that oil palm could be worse than jhum cultivation (jungles are slashed and burnt for cultivation) practised by tribal farmers on the hills of Northeast. “Forests are regenerated if the land is left for a few years after jhum is practiced. But the same cannot happen after oil palm cultivation. Again, farmers can grow at least 20 different crops in jhum fields but being a monoculture crop, no other crop can be cultivated in the palm oil fields,” Sharma pointed out.

Malayasia/Indonesia lessons: Experts said India should have taken lessons from the destruction of forests and biodiversity due to large scale oil palm cultivation in other Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia. “We do not want to see the wildlife species like Hoolock Gibbon or the Golden Langur suffer the fate of the Orangutans of Malayasia, where habitat has been decimated by palm oil cultivation,” Phukan said.

“Recent studies have highlighted that forest conversion add to the outbreak and spread of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19. The unplanned promotion of oil palm has already led to disappearance of many native wildlife species in many Southeast Asian nations,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, a prominent conservationist and CEO of Aaranyak, an NGO.

Oil palm cultivation was undertaken in Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and in Nagaland about 10 years ago and Mizoram is among the top five states with such cultivation. Mizoram has identified over one lakh hectares of land for oil palm, particularly where jhum is practised. But Conservation Mizoram, an NGO, objected to Chief Minister Zoramthanga’s endorsement of the Mission saying this could bring a doom to the hills state’s rich bio-diversity.

BJP-ruled Arunachal Pradesh, where nearly 80 per cent land is under forest cover, wants to bring 1.33 lakh hectare under oil palm cultivation. Chief Minister Pema Khandu clarified that the cultivation will be carried out only in the “wasteland.”

Nagaland, where BJP is an ally of the coalition government, has identified another 11,000 hectare of “wasteland” for oil palm cultivation. The state currently has 4,623 hectare under oil palm cultivation, which began in 2014-15.

With BJP and its allies in power in states of the Northeast, the Centre is unlikely to face hurdles in implementing the Mission Oil Palm but Meghalaya has already witnessed a strong protest against such cultivation. Congress MP from Assam, Gaurav Gogoi, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8 said in addition to ecological impact, oil palm cultivation can result food insecurity among farmers in the Northeast, 80 per cent of whom are marginal. “This will push the region to an issue of food insecurity as farmers will replace food crops with oil palm,” he said.

Gogoi, who is the deputy leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, said the government should instead focus on endemic crops like bamboo that have higher benefit-cost ratio, short maturation period and less water consumption,” he said.

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Published 11 September 2021, 18:33 IST

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