Given the widespread destruction of rainforests and native biodiversity caused by oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia, environmental experts and politicians are warning that the Union government’s move to promote their cultivation in the northeastern States and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be disastrous.
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, soon after the launch of the Rs 11,040 crore National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), Meghalaya MP Agatha Sangma warned that the focus areas were “biodiversity hotspots and ecologically fragile” and oil palm plantations would denude forest cover and destroy the habitat of endangered wildlife. It could also detach tribespeople from their identity linked with the community ownership of land and “wreak havoc on the social fabric”, said the National People’s Party leader.
Other concerns include the impact on community ownership of tribal lands, as well as the fact that the oil palm is a water-guzzling, monoculture crop with a long gestation period unsuitable for small farmers. However, the government says land productivity for palm oil is higher than for oilseeds, with Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar giving an assurance that the land identified for oil palm plantations in northeastern States is cleared for cultivation.
Ex-Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said proposals for large-scale oil palm cultivation had been studied and rejected as part of the technology mission on edible oils in the late 1980s as it was a “recipe for ecological disaster”. He alleged that “the present proposal of course is designed to benefit Patanjali and Adani”, both corporates with interests in edible oil expansion.
The Union government insists it is already proceeding on the basis of cautious scientific analysis. A study done by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research recommended 28 lakh hectares across the country where oil palm can be cultivated, out of which only 9 lakh hectares are in the northeastern States, Mr. Tomar said.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have already had some experience with oil palm, including some abandoned plantations on Katchal Island in the Nicobar chain, and a 1,593-hectare area on Little Andaman which was planted more than 35 years ago and abandoned on the instructions of the Supreme Court. In Andhra Pradesh, which currently grows more than 90% of India’s oil palm, farmers depend on bore well irrigation. Oil palm requires 300 litres of water per tree per day, as well as high pesticide use in areas where it is not a native crop, leading to consumer health concerns as well.