At a time India is hoping to turn its northeastern region into the country’s hub of oil palm, Mizoram, the first northeastern state to start oil palm cultivation 15 years ago, has recorded a massive reduction of the area under cultivation, as farmers have been giving up oil palm cultivation for other crops. Some farmers are switching back to their old crops, while some are opting for areca nut and orange.
“The potential area for oil palm identified was 66,791 hectares (3.16 per cent of the state’s geographical area). Then, 26,730 hectares were covered under oil palm cultivation. After the recent survey, only 3,398 hectare is under active cultivation,” said a statement issued from the office of the state’s governor in March following a stock-taking meeting.
While the state’s agriculture department’s records show 10,843 farmers were involved in oil palm cultivation over 26,680 hectares of land in 197 villages as of July 2021, the latest information shows only 2,733 farmers are involved in the cultivation in 193 villages.
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This revelation comes amidst the country’s push for increasing domestic edible oil production to reduce high dependency on imports – India is the world’s biggest importer of the oil. As a result of the national government’s policies, especially the launch of the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) in August 2021, northeastern states Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland stepped up their own expansion initiatives.
While the government has been encouraging farmers with subsidies right from the beginning, the support mechanism has been enhanced in the National Mission.
At present, the lion’s share of India’s palm oil cultivation happens in southern India. However, India’s current expansion plan is focused highly on the northeastern region. Of the 0.65 million hectares of additional land that India aims to bring under oil palm cultivation in the country by 2026, half is to be from the northeast, which accounts for only 7.9 per cent of the total geographical area of the country.
“The northeastern states will turn into an oil palm hub of the country,” India’s agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar said in October 2021, while addressing a business summit on NMEO-OP in the northeast held in Guwahati, the biggest city of the region. He assured major governmental investments in seed nurseries, drip irrigation, technical support, setting of mills, purchase centres, and training for farmers.
This has, quite evidently, not been able to convince a majority of the region’s early cultivators, as is reflected in the findings of the latest survey. Oil palm cultivation started in Mizoram in 2005-06, almost a decade prior to other northeastern states.
R. Vanlalchhuanga, deputy director of the Mizoram agriculture department in charge of oil palm, told Eco-Business that the main reason for the loss of area under active cultivation was poor connectivity. “In the early stages, many farmers in remote areas took up oil palm cultivation. Many of them had their land plots far away from the highways. They found harvesting and transportation a problem. So, they stopped harvesting,” he said.
Vanlalchhuanga said that there was no lack of demand for the raw materials at the processing units. “We have a 5,000 tonne per hour capacity unit here and we can’t even provide for 30 per cent of its capacity,” he said, adding, “A section of farmers who have stopped harvesting haven’t uprooted the plants. They will start harvesting once roadway connectivity improves.”
However, several local residents said that the main reason why the farmers did not clear their plantations was the associated cost.
John Zothanzama, the head of the biotechnology department at Mizoram University, and a member of the Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA), a Mizo ethnic organisation, led a study last year that assessed the impact of oil palm cultivation on behalf of CYMA. They found out that only those plantations with good road connectivity and those that sprawl over large tracts of land (10 hectares or more) are continuing with oil palm.
“About 40 per cent of farmers we interviewed have switched to areca nut, banana, pineapple, and orange. It looks like the economic return is the main reason behind the switch in crops. For oil palm, farmers need better infrastructural support, and roadway connectivity to begin with. However, our sample size was too small, as we interviewed only about 50-60 farmers. Therefore, I am not ready to come to any conclusion about the prospects and problems of farming [oil palm],” he told Eco-Business.
According to a December 2020 report prepared by the Northeastern Council, even though Mizoram tried to bridge the gap by building new roads connecting remote areas with highways, the maintenance of these roads posed challenges. It also said that other states had taken lessons from Mizoram’s experience.
“While states like Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have avoided the cultivation of oil palm in interior and hilly areas considering the experience of Mizoram, even there the transportation of FFBs (fresh fruit bunches) to the processing plant may be difficult in the absence of roads and bridges to the existing rural roads. In Assam too, the access to some of the growing areas located in interior places is not easy and results in higher transportation costs,” it said.
A senior government official from Assam, who did not want to be named, said: “Considering the existing infrastructure, the expansion will happen at a pace slower than the government’s expectations.”
Food security versus environment
India’s focus on increasing oil palm cultivation comes from its heavy dependence on imports – it was the world’s biggest importer of palm oil in 2021 and 97 per cent of its domestic demands are met with imports. In 2019-20, India imported 8.81 million tonnes of palm oil, mostly from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, whereas domestic production was only 0.28 million tonnes. India’s average palm oil import of about 9 million tonnes for the past few years is more than half of the country’s total edible oil imports.
Arunachal Pradesh, which till March 2021 had about 4,000 hectares covered with oil palm plantations, plans to add another 40,000 hectares under oil palm coverage by 2025-26. In Assam, the government has proposed a massive addition of nearly 0.2 million hectares by 2025-26. In Nagaland, where 5,172 hectare was under oil palm cultivation till March 2021, an addition of another 30,000 hectares has been proposed.
However, the link between the expansion of oil palm cultivation and the loss of biodiversity has also been a globally discussed issue. According to a 2018 IUCN document, land areas suitable for oil palm cultivation overlap significantly with biodiverse landscapes, including around 270 million hectares of biodiversity hotspots (11 pre cent of the total hotspot area) and about 62 million hectares (3.5 per cent) of terrestrial key biodiversity areas (KBAs).
The case of India’s northeast is similar, as it is a mostly hilly and forested region, part of two global biodiversity hotspots – the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot and the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot.
“If oil palm expands into biophysically suitable areas, some 270 million hectares of biodiversity hotspots could be threatened, and 39 per cent, 64 per cent, and 54 per cent respectively of all threatened amphibians, birds and mammals affected,” the IUCN report said.
The Indian government, on the other hand, has argued that switching from the traditional shifting cultivation (locally known as jhum) to oil palm monoculture would be of both environmental and economical benefit for the region.
“The plantation of the crop will facilitate soil conservation as well as the repair of degraded land and provide ecological balance. The hill areas of the region have been affected by shifting cultivation, also known as jhum cultivation, which has resulted in deforestation and land degradation owing to the shortened jhum cycle. Besides, the (oil palm) crop can provide a steady source of income for the small landholders,” said a government report titled ‘Developmental Action Plan for Promoting Oil Palm in the North Eastern Region of India.’
Local environmentalists and researchers disagree. A 2016 study report, carried out in the core and buffer zones of Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve known for high biological diversity, recorded a total of 107 bird species (94 forest species, 13 open-country species). Of them, “oil palm plantations had the lowest forest bird species richness (10 species), followed by teak plantations (38), while jhum (50) had only slightly lower species richness than the rainforest edge (58) and interior (70).”
“The growth of oil palm cultivation in Mizoram makes me apprehensive of a gloomy future from the perspective of biodiversity. This involves the clearing of forests and results in the drying of streams. We should learn from the massive ecological and biodiversity impacts the industry had in Malaysia’s Borneo,” said Lalvohbika Hrahsel, a conservation activist based in the Dampa in Mamit district.
Mamit is the top oil palm-producing district in Mizoram, followed by Kolasib. During the first wave of oil palm expansion in Mamit in past decades, hectares of forest cover in the villages in the buffer zone of the Dampa tiger reserve made way for oil palm plantations. West Phaileng, one of the villages in the buffer zone to have witnessed a massive growth of oil palm farming about a decade ago, has now a small percentage of farmers involved in it.
Hrahsel said farmers around the Dampa tiger reserve gave up oil palm, not only because it became unprofitable but also because they were worried that the water-guzzling crop was drying up the local streams that the local people depend on. “Needless to mention that the drying of streams will have its own impact on local biodiversity,” he told Eco-Business.
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