The clandestine rise of oil palm plantation in Meghalaya
By Clarissa C. Giri
“Without ecological sustainability, economic stability and social cohesion cannot be achieved”
– Phil Harding
On July 23, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the eight northeastern states to support the plan to expand palm oil plantations so that India can self-sufficiently meet its palm oil needs as the country’s demand for edible oil increases. On August 3, 2021, The Shillong Times reported that Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali may be establishing an oil palm plantation in Meghalaya “despite serious environmental threats.” This set off alarms at a terrifying decibel across the state. In addition, Patanjali plans to massively expand its palm oil plantations in Meghalaya and other northeastern states through its subsidiary Ruchi Soya. According to Business North-East, the government is aggressively pushing for increased cultivation as part of the Special Program to Expand the Oil Palm Area (OPAE), and over the next five years 12 more states as well as the northeastern states will see the expansion of palm oil cultivation, supported by a budget from 300 million rupees.
India is one of the largest palm oil consumers in the world, importing billions of rupees every year. These imports have a direct impact on the extent of deforestation and habitat destruction from palm oil cultivation in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
India has worked in recent years to increase its own production in order to reduce its dependence on these imports. Factors such as India’s water-dependent farming system, small land holdings, and the long gestation period required for oil palms to fully mature have hampered progress. Nevertheless, India is committed to the large-scale cultivation of oil palms, which exacerbates the already existing problems of water scarcity and triggers a mass conversion of species-rich forests into monocultures of oil palm plantations. No matter where the oil comes from, huge areas of forest are sacrificed for it. Furthermore, in an economy like India, the majority of which depends directly or indirectly solely on agriculture, oil palm monocultures with a gestation period of 4-5 years will have a major impact on the economic security of farmers and their dependents, along with the already persistent problem of water scarcity and an observed persistent irregular monsoons.
Palm oil is pressed from the fleshy fruits of the Elaeis guineensis oil palm, a species native to Africa that thrives elsewhere in the humid tropics. Palm oil has been used in the processed food industry since the 1990s because of its low cost and high yield. The fruit of the tree is harvested for its oil; the pulp is pressed into oil for food production and the core of the fruit is pressed separately and mainly used for soaps, industrial purposes and in processed foods. The health benefits or disadvantages of the oil have long been debated, but there can be no debate that the development of palm oil plantations is a major contributor to deforestation. This affects some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, is severely damaging the environment and depleting the world’s carbon sinks, which has resulted in catastrophic effects on forests, endangered animals and a significant contributor to climate change.
Northeast India is part of the biodiversity hotspot Indo-Burma, which Meghalaya also belongs to. National Geographic defines biodiversity hotspots as “areas that are both rich in life and at high risk of destruction”. This definition means that the majority of the plants found in a biodiversity hotspot are endemic, that is, they do not exist anywhere on earth and their very existence is at risk. National Geographic continues: “To be classified as a biodiversity hotspot, a region must have lost at least 70 percent of its original natural vegetation, usually through human activity.”
According to the Meghalaya Biodiversity Board website, “The state (Meghalaya) is also an important part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot which is one of the 4 biodiversity hotspots in India and 34 worldwide. The state of Meghalaya has been identified as a key area for the conservation of biodiversity due to its high biodiversity and high endemism. “
The Meghalaya Department of Forests and Environment explains on its website that “The forests are also home to rare and endemic plants and animals. The undisturbed primary forests are botanically known and extraordinarily rich. The state’s forests are home to more than 3,500 flowering plants, 352 orchids, 40 species of bamboos, and approximately 800 medicinal plant resources. The state is part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot in the world. There are around 40 endemic plant species and 75 threatened plant species in Meghalaya. The rare species include the insectivorous pitcher plant (Nepenthes khasiana), the wild citrus fruit (Citrus indica) and the dwarf lily (Nymphaea tetragona). The rhododendron forest on Shillong Peak is a major attraction for tourists during the flowering season (February to April). “
We have all recently felt the pain and loss of clearing the large trees that flanked the Upper Shillong roads that were felled for road construction. This attracted significant media attention due to the visual impact and loss of biodiversity and heritage. This is a foretaste of what will await us as a community if oil palm planting is to go unopposed. Oil palm plantations require vast areas of forest, and as tropical forests are being cleared for oil palm plantation, carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas that is the largest contributor to global warming.
Climate change poses threats to food production and quality, a potential increase in insect-borne diseases (such as Lyme disease and malaria), air pollution and other public health problems. There is also evidence that rising temperatures and decreased air quality also harm mental health. In 2016, the US Global Change Research Program found evidence that extreme weather events were also linked to an increase in aggressive behavior.
Palm oil production also has the potential to destroy our rivers and other natural water systems. The process of making palm oil requires significant amounts of chemicals which, if improperly handled, increase environmental pollution, and especially water pollution. In addition, the waste generated from the processing of palm oil is also a major problem. For 100 tons of oil palm fruits that are processed, 22 tons of raw palm oil are produced, but 67 tons of waste are left behind. This waste is known as POME or palm oil mill wastewater and consists of palm kernels and shells, as well as branches and wastewater. The wastewater must be treated strongly and thoroughly before it can be released back into the water cycle. These effects are in addition to the deforestation and loss of endemic plant and animal species described earlier.
According to news reports, Ruchi Soya has already completed field research. Various MoUs have already been signed by some northeastern states with Ruchi Soya, but no similar agreement has yet been signed with Meghalaya. In addition, the Union Cabinet closed the northeastern states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on Wednesday the 18th, according to a tweet from the state’s Prime Minister Conrad Sangma. All of this suggests that the wheels are turning on the development of major palm oil plantations in Meghalaya.
If Meghalaya must produce palm oil at all costs, the government must ensure that long-term, sustainable investments are made in proper waste management before allowing palm oil plantation and processing in the state. Novel waste treatment technologies such as REGEN (Waste Recovery and Regeneration System) should be mandated to convert all solid and liquid biomass from the palm oil mill into valuable, reusable and environmentally friendly products. Abbreviations and commercial, interest-friendly approaches that neglect developers’ responsibility to the environment are not the way to go. If a similar approach to other projects in Meghalaya such as the illegal coking plants, chemical waste disposal in the Ranikor river, the recent embarrassing garbage crisis in Jowai is expected, the idea of a multinational company entering our only home will also be for the oil palm plantation must be stopped at all costs so that further environmental disasters in the state can be avoided.
The author is a PhD student at the Institute of Anthropology at North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong. E-mail: [email protected]