The dangers of India’s palm oil push

On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a grant of 11,000 billion rupees to incentivize palm oil production. The government intends to add another 6.5 lakh hectares to palm oil cultivation. The agribusiness has said the move will fuel its growth and reduce the country’s reliance on palm oil imports, particularly from Indonesia and Malaysia. India imported 18.41 million tons of vegetable oil in 2018.

The National Mission on Oilseds ​​and Oil Palm is part of the government’s efforts to reduce reliance on vegetable oil production. The Yellow Revolution of the 1990s led to an increase in oilseed production. Although the production of various oil seeds – peanut, rapeseed and mustard, soy – has continuously increased, the increasing demand could not be met. Most of these oilseeds are grown in rain-fed areas of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh.

A major incentive for the start of the National Mission on Edible Oils and Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) to promote palm cultivation comes from the “success stories” of the two Southeast Asian countries Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia has become a major palm oil hub over the past decade, overtaking Malaysia. The two countries produce 80 percent of the world’s palm oil. Indonesia exports more than 80 percent of its production.

However, careful analysis needs to be made of the policy initiative that can potentially transform the rural and agricultural landscape of the Northeast and the Andaman Islands. Growing oil palms can have catastrophic environmental and social consequences. Studies on agricultural change in Southeast Asia have shown that increasing palm oil plantations are a major reason for the decline in biodiversity in the region. Indonesia recorded a loss of 1,15,495 million hectares of forest land in 2020, mainly due to palm oil plantations. From 2002 to 2018, Indonesia lost 91.54,000 million hectares of its primary forest area. Not only has this affected the country’s biodiversity, it has also led to increasing water pollution. The decreasing forest cover has a significant impact on the increase in carbon emissions and contributes to climate change.

Oil palm plantations have fueled the conflict between government policy and customary land rights. Such rights are important livelihoods for forest-dependent communities. Laws allowing trees to be cleared and forests to be planted to grow palms have resulted in increased land disputes between government officials, local residents and agro-business groups in Malaysia and Indonesia. The northeastern states are politically sensitive areas and the oil palm initiative could create tension there.

Such initiatives also contradict the idea of ​​community independence: the initial state support for such a culture leads to a large and rapid shift in existing cultivation patterns, which are not always in line with the agroecological conditions and the food needs of the region. During a brief field study in 2020 to understand the implications of agricultural policy, an official from the Department of Agriculture briefed me on the Arunachal government’s changing policy on the use of forest land for palm oil plantations. The official said the policy has started to affect forest cover as farmers equipped with government incentives switch from traditional crops like rice and corn to palm oil. She pointed out that the people of the northeast do not use the oil for cooking or any other purpose. The oil is used by the packaged food and drug, detergent and cosmetic industries, the official said.

The current initiative ignores such down-to-earth realities. The northeast is home to around 850 species of birds. The region is home to citrus fruits, rich in medicinal plants and is home to rare plants and herbs. In particular, there are 51 types of forest. Government-conducted studies have also highlighted the Northeast’s rich biodiversity. The palm oil policy could destroy this region’s wealth.

The policy also contradicts the government’s obligations under the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture: “Making agriculture more productive, sustainable, profitable and climate-resilient by promoting site-specific integrated / compound agricultural systems.” Instead, the palm oil mission aims at a complete transformation of the agricultural system Northeast India.

The cultivation of palm oil has had a positive effect on poverty reduction in Malaysia and increased the incomes of small and small farmers. Studies also show, however, that when global palm oil prices fluctuate, households dependent on palm oil cultivation become vulnerable – they manage to feed themselves with the help of proactive government interventions. A significant number of small landowners remain dependent on other sources of income. In other words, such a shift in agriculture is not self-sustaining and leaves local communities vulnerable and exposed to external factors.

In order to preserve the environment and biodiversity, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have already started to restrict palm cultivation. In 2018 the Indonesian government passed a three-year moratorium on new licenses for palm oil production. Recently, the Sri Lankan government ordered the gradual uprooting of oil palm plants.

Similar ecological and political results cannot be ruled out in India. Many states have started promoting palm oil production, even though traditional oilseeds are used by families for daily consumption. The increasing focus on palm oil will gradually lead the focus to shift away from rain-fed oilseeds. Aside from the potentially dangerous effects in northeast India, such trends could have long-term negative effects on farmer incomes, health and food security in other parts of the country.

This column first appeared in print on August 26, 2021 under the title “Slipping on Palm Oil”. The author is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, JNU

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