Oil palm in the North East: can we do better?

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[ Ranjit Barthakur & Joanna Dawson ]

The National Edible Oils – Oil Palm Mission was introduced on August 18 by the government, with the aim of reducing overall national dependence on palm oil imports by increasing local cultivation. The mission focuses specifically on the northeast, encouraging farmers to cultivate palm oil at over Rs 11,000 crore. This sparked a heated debate on the prospects for oil palm, especially for ecology in the region.

The global oil palm has a long history of ecological and social devastation in

Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. In West Africa, oil palm plantations were the starting point for the emergence of Ebola, with fruit bats from neighboring forests increasingly coming into contact with humans. Previous attempts at deployment in India have had limited buy-in, with farmers pointing to the long period of maturation as a deterrent in an already financially and economically stressed profession.

The economic, social and ecological implications of oil palm in the North East

Compared to other endemic cash crops such as bamboo, oil palm has a much lower benefit-cost ratio, higher input costs and a higher ripening period, and offers few ecological benefits. The table below compares the numbers:

As a non-native species to this agro-climatic zone, oil palm requires many more inputs to thrive than endemic species: from water to pesticides, increasing overhead costs and risks to farmers. More than 12.75 percent of the northeastern land is desertified, reaching as high as 40 percent in states like Nagaland. Chemical intensive cultivation will only accelerate this, as will its cultivation on the northeastern slopes. Climate projections from ICIMOD show that the Northeast will lose more water than it receives from precipitation over the next decade, as groundwater continues to deplete (each state loses about 5,000 m3 per year). The North-East’s heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture will lead to increased water stress and climate vulnerability: an oil palm needs 150 to 350 liters of water per day. Meanwhile, oil palm processing generates 2.5 t of effluent for every tonne treated and will pollute already at-risk water systems.

Farmers across India say they have suffered losses of up to Rs 7 lakhs while waiting for the oil palm to mature. In an area of ​​80 percent of marginal farmers, such losses will further increase income insecurity, debt, and reinforce marginalization. The surge in subsidies risks replacing food crops with oil palm: The Northeast is already facing a nutritional crisis, with stunting in children increasing in five states according to the NFHS-5. The first attempts under the Mizoram land use policy deprived women of their rights, as collective jhum lands were privatized and control transferred to men, resulting in the loss of livelihoods and livelihoods. decision making.

Ecologically, oil palm deforestation will worsen climate vulnerability and lead to increased human-wildlife conflicts with species such as Asian elephants, leopards and tigers, while accelerating the economic vulnerability of riparian communities. of the forest. This will jeopardize our global net zero goals and India’s commitments to create a 3 GtCO2e carbon sink under the Paris Agreement. Oil palm in the SEA has net emissions of 174 t / ha due to clearing and cultivation practices. In Malaysia as in West Africa, these plantations have become vectors of diseases: Ebola in West Africa, malaria and dengue fever through the increase in mosquito populations in Malaysia. New pests introduced by these non-native species will likely create additional disease risks.

A climate-smart and forward-looking approach

The next 5 to 15 years are decisive for the climatic longevity of the NER. Long-term income and jobs from sustainable agriculture must be central to building the resilience of local markets through bamboo, rattan and sustainable timber. A full boost to the NER economy for agroforestry and forest rewilding will generate Rs 84,000 crore from the third year and reach Rs 450,544 crore at a 30-year maturation period, creating jobs for two million households. Endemic species such as the lucrative bamboo must be encouraged and supported through science-based and climate-sensitive policies. Policies need to be streamlined to support commercial growth on agricultural land, as well as to invest in agro-climatic species studies for informed recommendations and scientific support systems for farmers.

Sustainable and organic oil palm agroforestry experiments in Brazil have led to yields of 180 kg per plant, compared to 139 kg per plant in monocultures fed with chemicals. Combined with staple food crops and other endemic cash crops, Brazilian farmers have minimized financial and food security risks while maximizing income gains. The model offers a possible model for a sustainable deployment in the NER. The country’s endemic oil palm alternatives such as coconut oil, sunflower and black seeds should be encouraged and incentivized, especially as consumers are moving away from palm oil due to cholesterol problems.

Strengthening rural communities will be the key to unlocking our natural capital for a climate and ecological resilient future. The northeast is by far the richest geography in India, considering the natural capital contained in its rich and diverse forests and landscapes. Our ecology is our economy. For our rural communities, we must work to build a future naturenomics ™ of interdependence and flourishing ecological civilizations. (Contributors are with the Balipara Foundation, Assam.)


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