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India: Perils of the Push for Palm

Frequently consumed household products in modern society range from shampoo, soap, detergents, chocolate, lotions, toothpaste, to even ice cream. All of these products contain palm oil. In fact, almost half of all consumer products contain palm oil.

In order to meet the demand for this versatile product, India is highly dependent on imports. To tackle this issue of dependency, on the 18th of August, the Union Cabinet approved the launch of the National Mission on Edible Oils - Oil Palm (NMEO-OP).

The focus of this centrally sponsored scheme is to increase domestic palm oil production in the north-eastern regions of India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The plan was devised in the hopes of reducing dependence on expensive palm oil imports from 60% to 45%, namely palm oil giants like Malaysia and Indonesia. While this may seem like a step toward the government’s push for an “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India), environmentalists fear that the implementation of this plan would trigger water scarcity and a drastic reduction in forest cover in India’s biodiversity hotspots.

Palm oil is becoming more important as edible oil consumption increases year on year. The vast applications of palm oil in day-to-day commodities such as chips, instant noodles, pizza, chocolate, toothpaste, and lotions make it a very valuable material. An estimated 50% of consumer products contain palm oil.

India is the world’s largest palm oil importer and meets 60% of its annual needs through Malaysian and Indonesian imports. Palm oil as a commodity is becoming increasingly important as edible oil consumption increases year on year. Since 2001, India’s palm oil consumption has increased from 3 million tonnes to almost 10 million. In just 2 decades, the consumption of palm oil has increased by 230%. The versatility of the product makes it quite significant to the Indian consumer market.

For a country that heavily imports a good as significant as palm oil, like India, it puts the nation in a difficult spot during periods of inflation. The rise in palm oil prices pushed up the market rates for complementary goods like vanaspati (a cheaper ghee/butter substitute) and other products produced from palm oil. However, India’s resource security was not the only reason for the adoption of the scheme. Reuters was told by government and industry sources that early on in the year, Indian palm-oil importers were reportedly told by the Modi administration to shun imports from Malaysia and stop all purchases. This came after the Malaysian Prime Minister criticized India’s infamous citizenship law and actions in Kashmir. Though purchases resumed after the new Malaysian government agreed to buy 100,000 tonnes of Indian rice, NMEO-OP was still announced in August.

The scheme outlines several ways in which it will achieve its production targets. It will increase input cost assistance from Rs. 12,000 to Rs. 29,000 for farmers. Seed gardens and additional support of Rs. 100 lakh per 15 hectares in the North-East of India and the Andaman regions. Cultivators will be offered fixed prices close to the minimum support price (MSP) and farmers will be paid the difference via direct benefit transfer in case of any market volatility.

If looked at economically, these plans seem to further India’s prospects for economic and resource security. These plans could push the government’s wish for a self-reliant India ahead. However, with economic growth comes the cost to our environment. A cost we just cannot afford to pay.

The price our environment pays

The areas that the government will be focusing major palm oil production in are the Andaman and Nicobar islands as well as the North-Eastern regions. These two localities are rich in biodiversity and are home to thousands of species. The Andaman and Nicobar islands harbour 572 forested islands with 9130 animal species in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Of the 9130 species, 1032 are endemic. Endemic species are those native to a particular region, making them extremely vulnerable. The aboriginal characteristics of the population, plants, and animals reflect the Nicobar Islands’ rich ecological heritage.

The North-Eastern states of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, and Meghalaya are also regions of high biodiversity. The region has 51 forest types which house thousands of species.

The presence of forests ensures high habitat diversity that supports species diversity. High variety ensures services like nutrient cycling, seed dispersals, and water filtration run smoothly and keep the ecosystem functioning. Biodiverse regions also support human lifestyles and recreation. Destroying the biodiversity these regions provide the country with could put our homes in grave danger.

Sudhir Kumar Suthar, an assistant political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University said that replacing such rich forest cover with palm monoculture imperils the existence of biodiversity. While this agricultural method may have its benefits, it is extremely dangerous as well. Monoculture crops are more susceptible to the spread of pests (since there exists no biodiversity) and therefore require high pesticide usage. These pesticides as well as herbicides used wash off to nearby water bodies, seep into the groundwater due to rainfall or wind. Pesticide spillovers lead to polluted air and water in the area, threatening marine life, disrupting the food chain, affecting fish stock, causing bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals and heavy metals while also contaminating the public water and groundwater for drinking. Excess or improper fertilizer use would cause algal blooms – killing fish and other aquatic animals. Monoculture also leads to soil degradation and fertility loss. When too many of the same plant species are present in the same area, it disrupts the natural balance of the soil and decreases the variety of microorganisms and bacteria in the soil. Once these plots of land have been exhausted they can no longer be used to harbour any kind of biodiversity and could even lead to the desertification of the area.

Deforestation eliminates huge carbon sinks from the planet, exacerbating the already pressing issue of climate change. Data over the last three years reported that palm-driven land-use change in both Indonesia and Malaysia emitted roughly 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. This contributed around 1.4% of global net carbon dioxide emissions. A 2020 study conducted by Malaysian scientists discovered that the conversion of forest land into oil palm plantations resulted in higher carbon emissions due to the slash-and-burn techniques used as well as the lack of greenery in the area. This scheme impedes global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming and climate change.

The scheme would also worsen the North-East’s current climate crisis. Over the last century, rainfall patterns have changed considerably. In Assam, for example, with increases in temperature, North-Western districts could see 5% decreases in rainfall but South-Eastern districts could see a steeper 25% increase. Manipur meanwhile could see decreases in rainfall by 15-19%. These climate-induced changing rainfall patterns impact agriculture (limits of cultivation, yields), the flow of rivers, the health of mountain springs, and the livelihoods of communities in these areas, and this will only worsen.

Palm oil is a fast-growing plant that gorges huge amounts of water, with an average requirement of 300 liters of water per tree per day. This isn’t necessarily an issue for palm oil giants like Indonesia and Malaysia given their geography and climate. However, since India is expecting decreases in rainfall, it could intensify physical water scarcity.

India, with its rich biodiversity, could end up in the same deplorable state as some Indonesian villages. The palm oil plantations in Indonesia have left many villages struggling. In 2002, some villagers sold their lands to a palm oil company. Peatlands, fish stocks, and forests have vanished now. Cost-efficient and convenient techniques like the slash-and-burn were used to clear lands and were especially damaging for peatlands in Indonesia. Peatlands, which are a type of wetland, are made up of decomposed organic matter. The burning of this organic matter releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. These same slash-and-burn techniques caused raging fires in Indonesia in 2015. The fires not only impacted Indonesia’s air quality but Singapore’s too. The clearance of wildlife and greenery removed crucial ecosystems and habitats for animals affecting fish stocks and in effect, the livelihoods of villagers.

Even the deadly Sumatra floods in 2020, have been linked to the spread of palm oil and rubber plantations across the island in Indonesia. The study found a link between the increased frequency and intensity of the flood to land changes as a result of a change from forests to monoculture plantations. These plantations led to soil compaction which means less rainwater can be absorbed by the floodplains. This increased surface run-off has a direct impact on the frequency and intensity of floods. In the Amazon, palm oil production led to the contamination of rivers with toxic sludge and the poisoning of soil. This had an impact not only on the health of the fauna but on the Indigenous and traditional people living in those areas.

Palm oil plantations have environmental as well as social implications. In secluded rural areas, projects such as these exacerbate pre-existing gender disparities. In West Kalimantan of Indonesia, a study was conducted in which it was found that women were disproportionately affected in many ways.

Women have unequal access to rights over land, resources, and opportunities. Women’s labour is consistently devalued and underpaid. They are underrepresented in leadership roles and public decision making. Furthermore, Indonesia views women as dependents of their husbands which gives them no right to land (especially if their husband has passed away) which is often their source of income.

With unequal access to land, it means women have less access to livelihood or income-generating opportunities.

Before the arrival of palm oil, women were expected to weed and maintain the crops. Now, due to plantation-induced flooding, the crops are harder to cultivate. Women often spend more time doing these tasks and miss out on income-generating activities as well.

While the NMEO-OP scheme could possibly bring India economic prosperity, it would prove to be one of the government’s worst decisions. While the prospects surrounding this plan may seem grand right now, maybe even ten years down the line, it will destroy any hope of living on a healthy planet.

But, can palm oil production be sustainable?

In regards to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, GV Ramanjenyulu from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture has mentioned that “oil palm can be grown sustainably but only under strict conditions, including the total avoidance of the Andaman’s rainforests”.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s largest association for ethical palm oil production had previously come up with criteria that institutions had to comply with in order to produce certified sustainable palm oil. Some of the environmental and social criteria included taking no primary forests, areas rich in biodiversity, or with fragile ecosystems can be cleared. This plan fails on all accounts.

However, many activists and experts had found the RSPO’s criteria to be insufficient as the ban on cutting down forests or converting peatlands was just recently introduced in 2018.

The International Council on Clean Transportation published a paper in 2016 detailing the impacts of palm oil plantations on Indonesia’s environment and possible ways to make plantation plans sustainable. The paper suggested that the plantation development stay away from primary and secondary forests. For India, this is not possible as there aren’t enough clear lands to plant palm oil. If all forests were harvested for wood products, developers should allow these forests to regenerate in order to recover. However, 30 years of regeneration will only be able to recover 84% of the forest species.

There must be a strict evaluation of the plantation schemes as well as management. A heterogeneous landscape that includes native vegetation patches within and surrounding the plantation areas must be included in plans and carried out. If the NMEO-OP- triggered imminent damage to the country’s biodiversity wasn’t bad enough, the government has not outlined any measures that will be taken to ensure that the scheme will be carried out sustainably.

The idea of an Atmanirbhar Bharat may sound appealing, but not at the cost of the environment. As one of India’s biggest assets, the country cannot afford to lose the environment that sustains the rich biodiversity. The wisdom behind spending 11,000 crores on a climate slaughtering project that India cannot afford environmentally and financially is highly questionable. The transition to a self-reliant India must take place sustainably using other alternatives if we want to give future generations a chance on this earth.

Edited by Thenthamizh SS and Eshal Zahur



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