The palm-oil project in Manipur that was cited by Prime Minister Modi at his recent visit to Imphal will rub salt into the wound as it could deteriorate the biological environment and accelerate drying up of the water-sources sooner than expected.
What is Palm-oil?
It comes from the fruit of a palm tree of African origin. Two types of oil can be produced from it; crude palm-oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the stone in the middle of the fruit. Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply. Besides its use as edible oil, palm-oil is used increasingly in the cosmetic industry and sometimes added as bio-fuel across the world.
India is at present the world’s biggest importer of palm-oil. It brought in 7.2 million tons of crude and refined oil worth $5.1 billion in 2020, according to UN data. Of this, 93% was from Indonesia and Malaysia. On 15 August 2021, Narendra Modi announced a support of Rs 11,000 crore to incentivise palm-oil production. The government intends to bring an additional 6.5 lakh hectares under palm cultivation. Of this about 2.5 lakh hectares are from the Northeast.
Palm cropping is a monoculture leading to palm trees only vast landscapes. 30 feet-gap needs to be kept between the trees, and they do not allowed other plants to grow along with them. It never becomes a scientific and good agricultural undertaking for many reasons. According to experts and experience from Indonesia and Malaysia, the plantation causes deforestation, long term soil deterioration, destroys water sources, terminates natural habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. Since this monoculture yields questionable outcomes, an international body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm-oil was having on the environment and society.
First: A principal requirement is a study of what the benefits and losses could be. As a common sense criterion for such plantation the government should display a white paper in public available for comments and consultations from the interested sections of people. It will determine the propose –whether it will worth the purpose. If the losses are bigger than the benefits, definitely it must not be executed. In order to go with fair regularity towards not to damage the environment and ecology, the government should not be blind to Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Report – a requirement set by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Moreover, the government-authority should extend UN human rights principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent – An Indigenous Peoples’ right and a good practice for local communities which means public should be given fair opportunity to know well enough about the pros and cons of the projects and to voice their needs and to share their opinions.
Second: For whom is the project? A very loose response from the state authority may be, this monoculture will improve state economy. The response sounds irresponsible in the absence of substantial supports and evidence. For example, who will get the benefits, the local farmers and people or corporates from outside, or all of them. Then, how much the local community will get, how will they get it? It must not be the same bitter experience from the Loktak Hydro Electric Project and Ithai Barrage.
Again, some ministers, contractors, bureaucrats and armed groups are likely rearing to snatch unfair shares somehow in the process especially on negotiation. Then company namely, Godrej Agrovet Ltd, Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd of Patanjali group and 3F Oil Palm Agrotech Private Ltd will extract the maximum of the project.
In Mizoram, the lack of a collecting centre in the vicinity is a challenge for the farmers. If they want to sell palm-oil fruits, they have to drive 30 kilometres to West Phaileng in Mamit district, incurring heavy transportation charges. Because of this, many farmers have given up the cultivation of palm oil and switched to areca, pineapple and banana which are easier to sell. But for some, it is difficult to make the switch because they were so emotionally invested in this cropping.
Third: Mizoram has planted palm trees in about 29,000 hectares as the biggest producer in the Northeast. From our next door’s experience it confirms that palm is a highly water-consuming crop with each plant needing about 300 litres of water per day, about 45000 litres of water per hectare every day. In addition to its impact on biodiversity, palm-oil is also a significant threat to soil fertility. According to C. Zohmingsangi, from Mizoram University, who is studying soil biology around palm-oil plantations in Mizoram – nutrients, enzymes and carbon are found in much lower percentage in the soil after palm cropping than other types of forests.
Manipur and other northeastern states are part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. They are home to some 8,000 flora species, 35% of which are endemic. There are nearly 2,200 species of fauna, of which 24% are endemic. The overwhelming consensus among environmentalists is that palm-oil is detrimental to such rich local ecology.
Fourth: If the foothills of Manipur are to be used for the palm-oil, the undertaking will be regretted for that matter sooner than later. The reason is that perfect residential colonies can be extended in and around such scenic surroundings;
- To accomplish the crucial need of multi-communities residents in a communal harmony setting.
- To restore the wetlands and waterbodies that people have occupied.
- To allocate the agricultural paddy fields for meaningful purposes in the valley.
- To design Manipur afresh avoiding the haywire and unplanned towns and the Leikais.
- To avoid the frequent floods.
- To align the beautiful landscape for tourist attraction.
Finally, there are a good bunch of eco-friendly projects that can be alternatives to such questionable cropping. Integrated farming, horticulture, medicinal plants, bamboo, hemp so on and on can yield better than this perilous palm. Why on earth do the state and its agents fail always to execute such? If they are sincere and committed, a green heaven on our native soil that is economically prospective as well as contributes to restore forests and water-sources, is possible.
The author is Asst Prof, International College, the University Suwon, S Korea