Pitfalls of India's plan for palm oil self-sufficiency

Endangering animal life, destroying fragile habitats, disrupting livelihoods of indigenous people and ravaging forests is the legacy of the modern palm oil industry
Last Updated 27 September 2021, 13:03 IST

Sri Lanka must have got their oil palm strategy utterly wrong as the nation takes conscious steps to withdraw from promoting these plantations. Why else would India come up with an oil-palm scheme that is diametrically opposite of its southern neighbour if not for a eureka moment of realisation and decide to invest more than Rs 11,000 crore to boost its productivity in the North-East and Andamans - two regions that share similar characteristics as Sri Lanka. Surely, somebody from the scheme formulation team must have analysed this development in a country well-versed in managing plantations including tea, rubber and coconut.

Yet as India aims for atmanirbharta, an ingrained sustainability conundrum lies in this clamour for palm oil self-sufficiency. As plastic overtook our lives with elan, as fossil fuels permeate our lives, similarly palm oil is the very epitome of a processed product designed to increase our consumption levels beyond sustainable requirements. Market forces and our inability to shift our habits from an induced palm oil dependency to a palate where we can choose to eat, wear and consume products adapted to our traditional way of living is another lifestyle change as we steadily move away from whole foods.

Just as the demand for plastic and fuel accelerated in the human desire for cheap, long-lasting and durable products, palm oil fills these very criteria for consumables, beauty products and access to processed food. As debates over sustainability proliferate worldwide, we find ourselves asking oft-repeated questions on a loop - why do we consume plastic knowing its negative impacts, why do we insist on purchasing fuel-guzzling SUVs and above all, why do we insist on eating a variety of biscuits, chips, and processed food derived from palm oil.

Yet, palm oil is not the villain. It is a naturally occurring edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree and has been used by human beings for thousands of years. But as with tea, coffee, turpentine from pine trees, apples and many more crops that found acceptance during the colonial era and were consequently planted across favourable climes, palm oil morphed into a lubricant for machinery and an ingredient for candle making. This set the wheels in motion, and the colonial rule established European led plantations in Central Africa and Southeast Asia, regions that also support large scapes of evergreen forests.

A species capable of providing benefits to humanity and used in sustainable quantities for millennia is now a rainforest gobbling industrial beast. It has overrun large parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, where plantations cover 17 million hectares, producing 85-90 per cent of the global palm oil output, covering almost half the area of Germany. It now threatens similar landscapes with heavy rainfall and suitable soil, an ominous shadow looming over Northeast India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Yet, the recent push for palm oil lies in the centre of a strange twist of the interplay between finitude, fragility and fairness that make up the sustainability matrix. As the threat of global warming rose, developed nations strived to increase their usage of vegetable oils to wean away from finite fossil fuel resources.

Biodiesel became a buzzword in the early 2000s. Yet, it was soon realised that much of it was being grown under the garb of large scale forest conversion or existing agricultural practices. A case in point is the boom in soy demand in the United States which led to the diversion of all available soy into the biodiesel industry and the corresponding jump in palm oil demand from Southeast Asia. A resource as finite as land put a brake on the growing aspirations of the biodiesel industry while exposing the fragility of the land, which in several cases were wiped clean of their biodiversity.

The continuing expansion of palm oil plantations raises questions of the fair treatment of displaced and dispossessed indigenous communities who have become palm-oil refugees of the modern era. In hindsight, a project deemed sustainable ended up ravaging large areas of old-growth forest in Southeast Asia while releasing more carbon that it could have avoided, thereby undermining its long term sustainability.

Endangering animal life, destroying fragile habitats, disrupting livelihoods of indigenous people and ravaging forests, modern palm oil industry's stars are dependent upon the choice humankind makes on saving elephants, orangutans, birds, snakes and trees on the one hand and choosing to consume biscuits, chips, crackers, soaps, shampoos on the other. At the moment, nature and biodiversity appear to be on the losing side.

There are fears these plantations will have a massive impact on the livelihoods of tribal communities and their forest. The food system and ecosystem will be affected, and community ownership will go to contract farmers who have money. Local communities will not understand the details of whether to resist or to accept palm oil in most cases. There will be vested people among the tribe who can mislead people.

Palm oil production jumped four times from 1995 to 2015 to 62.6 million tonnes and 74.6 million tonnes in 2019. It is expected to rise to 240 million tonnes in 2050. While the current rise took a toll on enormous amounts of forest in the past 20 years, jumping to 240 million tonnes entails the appropriation of new land in a land-scarce planet. A study reported that between 1990 and 2005, up to 60 per cent of palm oil expansion occurred at the expense of primary tropical rainforest.

The economics behind this forecasted growth is astounding. For palm oil to remain economically viable, it needs to have access to cheap land, and forests are the only remaining cheap land left. On the other hand, draining, burning and diverting forests and peat swamps for palm oil leads to extensive fires, contributing to the global carbon emissions as more and more land comes under these plantations. It is no surprise that Indonesia is now the third-largest contributor of carbon to the atmosphere after China and the US, with the accelerated destruction of Borneo's forests contributing to the most significant single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millennia.

Yet, even for the most eternal of optimists, the threat is not what happened to the world's tropical forests in the past few decades but the shadow that looms over our forests now. Governments and banks continue to bat for palm oil production with the rapid conversion of forest lands underway. And the threat to undisturbed forests expands, even as most of the expansion happens far away from the public gaze.

India, which has a long history of plantation crops such as tobacco, tea, coffee, and apple ravaging nature, is keen to welcome palm oil in the Northeast and the Andaman islands. As the world's leading vegetable oil buyer, of which palm oil forms an astounding 60 per cent of the imports, the current focus appears to reduce dependency upon the palm oil-producing nations of Malaysia and Indonesia, fuelled by geopolitical and economic reasons.

The right note is being struck at forums with the country looking at an increase in palm oil to more than 11 lakh tonnes by 2025-26. However, the proposal by the National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) to extend cultivation by an additional 6.5 lakh hectares, an area almost as big as the state of Sikkim, needs to be carefully evaluated in a country considered extremely land scarce.

Not very long ago, similar claims were made for Jatropha under the National Policy on Biofuels 2009. Paeans were written by energy consultancies, research institutes and biofuel enthusiasts on how this nondescript shrub would reduce our oil import and make India self-sufficient. A decade later, the experiment lies in shambles as only a paltry 0.5 Mha of the targeted 13.4 Mha (134 lakh hectare) could be brought under Jatropha cultivation by 2017. While many blame the unavailability of quality seeds as the primary reason for its failure, the fact that such vast swathes of so-called 'wasteland' do not exist cannot be overlooked.

Similar attempts have been made to promote palm oil plantations since 1991, and as a result, palm oil production has increased to 3.70 lakh hectares producing 3.65 lakh tonnes in 2020-21. Assessments suggest that India can increase the land under palm oil to around 28 lakh hectares. Concerns exist as the current definition of a forest in India includes oil palm plantations. As the palm oil rollout begins, how will these plantations be regarded - as forests or otherwise.

If plantations could make a profit without harming local communities and local biodiversity, we would have certainly noticed it in the nearly 200 years old history of such land conversion. Various sustainability frameworks and ESG safeguards look great on paper, but monoculture plantations are fundamentally incompatible with biodiversity and human rights. Take any plantation - sugarcane, tea, rubber, avocado, palm oil, soya bean or timber or pulpwood - the story repeats everywhere across all spatio-temporal scales.

Of the many documentations of the ecological and societal risks associated with changing land use to plantations, a 2019 report by Oxfam points to workers on tea plantations in the Assam region of India systematically denied their rights to a living wage and decent working and living conditions.

Like there is no clean coal, there are no benign plantations. In the middle of a climate breakdown, the authorities need to rethink the idea of planting endless rows of fast-growing biodiversity devastating monoculture palm trees in two of the most pristine places of India, thus adding to the pressure on already scarce land use, and worse, adding to the pressure on degraded forest lands.

(Kunal Sharma is faculty at Azim Premji University. Sandip Chowdhury is working with the climate justice team of an INGO. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect that of his employer.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 27 September 2021, 13:03 IST)

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