Promoting oil palm in the Northeast can have disastrous consequences: Here's how 
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The ongoing palm oil plantation drive in Assam’s Golaghat district should concern environmentalists and the region’s farmers. This massive plantation seems to be undertaken for the upcoming bio-refinery in Numaligarh Refinery, which will be operational from the end of this year. Amid industry and media campaigners’ claims, it can be hard to perceive reality.

In a press meeting a few weeks ago, the refinery officials claimed that this will boost the local agriculture industry and yearly the farmers of the region will earn up to Rs 200 crore. But the question here is: Is palm oil cultivation a valuable route to sustainable development or a costly road to environmental ruin? Inevitably, any answer depends on many choices. But do decision-makers have the information they require to avoid pitfalls and make the best decisions?

Grown only in the tropics, the oil palm tree produces high-quality oil used primarily for cooking in developing countries. It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and, to a small extent, biofuel. It is a cash crop whose yield is very high with less cost of production compared to other vegetable oils. The global production and demand for palm oil are increasing rapidly.

As such, tropical forests are cleared and palm oil plantation drives are undertaken throughout the tropical regions of the world. Especially in the tropical forests of Asia in Malaysia and Indonesia, its devastating impact has been already felt. As a result, these countries are already thinking about stopping palm oil production.

The European Union has already stopped its production back in 2018. Even Sri Lanka, which had massive palm oil production, stopped its cultivation and damaged the palm oil fields in May last year. In India, the Supreme Court had asked to stop palm oil cultivation in the Andaman Islands for its catastrophic impact on the ecology.

Usually, these cash crop plantations develop at the cost of the forest vegetation. Especially, in the hills and foothills of North-East India, it is witnessed that there are many state-sponsored cash crop plantation drives from time to time which mostly turned into ‘Ghost Plantation Estates’. Furthermore, the state’s forest department very tactically shows these cash crop plantations as forest coverage.

For instance, in Nagaland, the forest cover is 75.33% of the total state according to the interpretation of satellite data pertaining to October-December, 2015 presented in The Forest Survey Report-2017. However, such a huge forest cover is nothing but a rubber plantation promoted through state-sponsored programmes for mono-cropping and commercialization of agriculture.

Deforestation due to palm oil cultivation is not the only concern among indigenous cultivators. It will also add to the already existing issues of water scarcity as it is a very water-dependent agricultural system. Furthermore, before such plantation drives, there must be a robust infrastructure and production system to ensure farmers get benefits from the plantations.

In Arunachal Pradesh, it is already witnessed that the farmers that switched to palm oil cultivation had been facing a serious crisis. It is really doubtful how far such a water-intensive crop is suitable for Himalayan foothill ecology that too without proper training for the farmers

Additionally, for the farmers who practise subsistence agriculture, the large-scale adoption of palm oil cultivation, which has a long gestation period, can have a huge impact on the economic security of farmers who are already facing water shortages and erratic monsoons.

In spite of such disadvantages and pitfalls, the Union Government is vigorously emphasising promoting oil palm cultivation in the northeastern states. In fact, the government changed the funding pattern to promote the cultivation of the crop. The funding pattern of the Government of India scheme to promote palm oil cultivation, which was a 50:50 share between the Government of India and state governments in 2014-15 has been revised to a 90:10 share in the case of north-eastern states since 2015-16.

However, the Union Minister of Agriculture Shri Narendra Singh Tomar in a Lok Sabha discussion admitted that expansion of palm oil cultivation in the northeastern region has its own share of challenges such as hilly and undulating topography and non-availability of flat land and small landholding of farmers with limited resources in addition to challenges like long gestation period, price instability due to fluctuation in international prices and competition with crops faced by other states as well.

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It is very evident that palm oil cultivation comes at the cost of deforestation, farmers’ economic security and water scarcity. But, environmental concerns have taken a backseat in the hope of bio-refinery in the district. The locals are being manipulated by the future cash flow among the farmers and dreamy jobs for the local youths. 

The author is Assistant Professor, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati. Views expressed are personal. 

Also Read | Why Centre is focusing on the untapped potential of Northeast India

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