Bikash Kr Bhattacharya, Gaurab Talukdar & Nabarun Guha
The Centre has announced a mission to expand palm oil cultivation in the country with special focus on the North East and the Andamans. However, voices of dissent can be heard from all quarters and concerns have been raised over palm oil cultivation’s impact on biodiversity. In Meghalaya too, the opposition Congress has also asked the state government to stop the move to start palm oil cultivation.
At this juncture, Mizoram has set an example in balancing palm oil’s ecological impact and economic benefits.
Vanlaldika, a temporary forest guard in Dampa Tiger Reserve, one of the last remaining tiger habitats in Mizoram, has been cultivating oil palm for the past seven years. He says, “Palm oil fields dot the buffer zone as well as the core area of the Dampa Tiger Reserve. People in my village have been cultivating oil palm for the last ten years.”
However, the lack of a collecting centre in the vicinity is a challenge for farmers like him.
The overwhelming consensus among environmentalists is that palm oil is detrimental to the local ecology of northeast India, which is rich in biodiversity and home to a number of endangered flora and fauna. Many experts believe that replacing the wildlife habitats with palm oil risks the elimination of globally significant plants and wild animals.
Wildlife scientist TR Shankar Raman of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), in a 2016 paper “Shifting agriculture supports more tropical forest birds than oil palm or teak plantations in Mizoram”, co-authored with Jaydev Mandal, a researcher formerly affiliated with Gauhati University and now an assistant professor at Madhab Choudhury College, says that palm oil plantations (in Dampa Tiger Reserve) 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).
Talking about how palm oil cultivation affects local biodiversity, Shankar Raman told Mongabay-India, “As palm oil plantations lead to permanent loss of forest cover, the density of species is lower there. There is also an increase in human-wildlife conflict.” Highlighting the human-animal conflict in comparison to the cultivation of palm oil, he stressed that “farmers now often complain about how rodents and porcupines destroy palm oil crops.”
But the wildlife scientist noted that the disappearance of tigers from the Dampa Tiger Reserve doesn’t have anything to do with the expansion of oil palm plantations in its vicinity.
The first instances of palm oil plantations in Mizoram were recorded at Thingdawl in Kolasib and Rotlang in Lunglei districts as early as 1999-2000. The crop, however, gained momentum from 2004. A study by R.M. Reddy, principal scientist at the National Research Centre for Oil Palm, states that climate and soil conditions in southern Mizoram, with its gentle slopes and low elevation, are suitable for oil palm cultivation.
At present, Mizoram has 78% (about 29,000 ha) of the total land under oil palm cultivation in northeast India (about 37,176 hectares). The state is looking to further increase its potential cultivation area to 61,000 ha.
In a bid to supplement the income of small-scale farmers and alleviate poverty in rural Mizoram, the state government has promoted the cultivation of palm oil under the New Land Use Policy (NLUP), by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) each with three private corporations – Godrej Agrovet Ltd, Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd and 3F Oil Palm Agrotech Private Ltd, that are to directly purchase the produce of farmers and establish palm oil processing mills in the districts allotted to them. Out of the three private corporations with whom the government had signed the MoUs, only Godrej Agrovet Ltd is operating in the state with a processing mill at Bukvannei in Kolasib district. Recently, Ruchi Soya, that’s part of the Patanjali group, announced plans to set up palm oil plantations in northeast Indian states.
However, despite its potential to augment income, palm oil in Mizoram is not exactly a success story. Farmers are discontent over the prices of their produce with some giving up the cultivation of palm oil. “It is difficult for many farmers to find a market for their products. Palm oil cultivation was started in Mizoram without proper research. Our irrigation facilities are not good enough, which makes farmers totally dependent on rain. So, in years like this, when we don’t have good rainfall, it is quite difficult for palm oil farmers because the crop needs a lot of water,” Zion Lalremruata, secretary of All Mizoram Farmer’s Union (AMFU), told Mongabay-India.
Pu Chhuanga, who is deputy director (palm oil), Mizoram government, told Mongabay-India that, “Earlier, the farmers were selling their product to the company at Rs. 5.5/kilogram. As they were unhappy with the prices, we intervened and fixed the price at Rs. 10/kg, with Rs 4.5/kg being borne by the government. So, many farmers who had left cultivation of palm oil are now coming back.”
Palm oil is also known to have a high water footprint. It is a water-intensive crop and is documented to bear a significant threat to the water table of specific areas it is cultivated, as seen in the major palm oil cultivating countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
In Mizoram, the diversion of water from streams to the palm oil plantations has agriculture and environmental experts worried about the consequences it might have on the local residents, who are dependent on these sources of water.
Zohmingsangi said palm oil farmers in the state are “not aware of what’s happening in Indonesia or Malaysia. In the long run, they will not be able to cultivate any other crop, because oil palm eats up all the water of the soil.”
Regarding the allegation that oil palm cultivation affects ecology and water table, Pu Chhuanga, however, said that “Mizoram generally received eight months of rainfall. But now, due to climate change, rainfall patterns have been erratic across the globe.”
“Even without much irrigation, oil palm can do well here. If the farmers didn’t grow palm oil, they would have practiced jhum cultivation by clearing the forest. It is a wrong notion that oil palm is harmful to the environment,” he said.
~ Mongabay India
(For full report, visit india.mongabay.com)