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Oil Palm Plan Should Avoid ‘Catastrophic Mistakes’ of SE Asia: Scientists to PM

Oil Palm Plan Should Avoid ‘Catastrophic Mistakes’ of SE Asia: Scientists to PM

An oil palm plantation in Johor, Malaysia, photographed in February 2019. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su/Files

  • In August, the Union cabinet approved the implementation of a mission to bring an additional 13 lakh hectares under oil palm cultivation over the next decade.
  • More than 100 scientists from government and private institutions have written to the PMO recommending that agricultural lands be tapped before expanding into biodiverse areas.
  • Planning the expansion of oil palm should help India avoid the “catastrophic mistakes” of Malaysia and Indonesia, the letter adds.

Kochi: More than 100 scientists and conservationists wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office today, urging that the Centre’s newly-launched National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), which aims to increase the extent of area under oil palm cultivation in India, incorporate a scientific plan for the expansion of oil palm in northeast India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This, they write, should make sure that oil palm plantations don’t replace biodiversity-rich lands in these areas.

According to estimates, India is the world’s largest consumer and importer of palm oil. To ease the country’s dependence on imports, the Union cabinet approved the implementation of NMEO-OP in August this year.

The mission will focus on increasing the area under and productivity of oilseeds and oil palm with a special focus on the north east and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It has an outlay of Rs 11,040 crore. Of this, the Centre will contribute Rs 8,844 crore; the rest will come from the respective states, according to a government press release.

Currently, 3.7 lakh hectares is under oil palm cultivation in India. MNEO-OP will enable bringing an additional area of 6.5 lakh hectares under oil palm by 2026, and a further 6.7 lakh hectares by 2030. The total area is as large as the state of Nagaland, noted the scientists in their letter to the PMO.

“We are concerned that such a large expanse of new oil palm plantations in the next ten years might replace and therefore come at the cost of natural and semi-natural habitats,” they wrote in the letter.

This is already happening in the northeast, said Aritra Kshettry, an INSPIRE-Fellow with the Department of Science and Technology, who is currently studying tiger corridors in Northeast India and is a signatory to the letter.

“Most forest land here is either community-owned or privately-owned,” he told The Wire Science. “Many oil palm plantations have come up in such areas because landowners want to make it more productive.”

He said he has observed first hand such forest lands being converted to oil palm monocultures in Nagaland. Such habitat conversion is problematic at many levels. Apart from habitat fragmentation, which could potentially increase human-wildlife conflict, it could also impact the crucial ecosystem services that these forests provide to people in these landscapes.

Northeast India is also highly biodiverse. It spans two global biodiversity hotspots – the Himalaya and the Indo-Burma. The Andaman and Nicobar islands, where oil palm plantations will be located as well, are also part of the Indo-Burma and Sundaland hotspots.

Also read: Northeast India Makes it Amply Clear That Ecology Is Political

Location matters

The letter to the PMO is led by Umesh Srinivasan, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and has been signed by independent researchers and scientists affiliated to both government and private institutes. The letter says that while it is important to ensure our vegetable oil security, India needs a “science-based” and “rights-based” policy before it begins its expansion of domestic oil palm production.

Oil palm expansion is already replacing biodiversity-rich habitats, but this can be easily avoided, they added.

In a recent study, Srinivasan and his colleagues found that by converting existing agricultural lands, including rice paddies, to oil palm plantations, India can still expand its oil palm cultivation while sparing biodiversity.

Even by completely avoiding oil palm plantations in northeast India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other natural and semi-natural habitats, India still has up to 38.8 million hectares of land open for the cultivation of oil palm, they found.

Even then, policies for such expansion would need to be “region-specific and must take into account regional patterns of biodiversity, protected areas and socio-economic and land tenure systems,” the authors of the study wrote.

Other scientists have also noted how the “unsustainable expansion of oil palm cultivation in India with short-term economic goals will lead to both biodiversity and social issues”. They also recommended that plantations be located in existing agricultural land and converting other crops to oil palm plantations.

They also suggested implementing social measures, including involving local communities in decision-making, safeguarding traditional agricultural practices such as jhum cultivation – a form of shifting cultivation common in the northeast – and protecting community-managed forests.

Also read: NITI Aayog’s Vision for Great Nicobar Is at Great Odds With Islanders’ Reality

Learning from Southeast Asia

Unplanned expansion of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia has come at the cost of natural habitats and biodiversity, the letter reads, and has also created serious socioeconomic and land tenure issues for farmers. This has happened in countries like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Srinivasan told The Wire Science.

“It would be a shame if we didn’t learn from these experiences and repeated these mistakes in India.”

Moreover, India’s unplanned push for oil palm plantations could have implications for India’s climate change pledges too, he added.

“​​South Asia is set to be one of the hardest-hit regions by climate change,” he said. “For India, maximising resilience against inevitably more frequent climate-driven events such as extreme rainfall and massive floods and droughts will hinge critically on the continued existence of what little natural habitats such as forests and grasslands we have left.”

In today’s overwhelmingly climate change-dominated world, we simply cannot afford to lose any more of our natural habitats.”

Incidentally, apart from the NMEO-OP, a recent proposed amendment to the Forest Conservation Act 1980 also seems to favour oil plantations. One of the changes to the Act, which the Union environment ministry has thought up, intends to exempt plantations of palm and oil-bearing trees from the definition of “non-forest purpose”. As a result, clearing natural forest to develop such plantations wouldn’t require government clearance.

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