India’s Dirty Palm Oil

THIS YEAR, THE NATION HAS SHOWN ENTHUSIASM TOWARDS PROMOTING SELF-RELIANCE OR AATMANIRBHARTA. BUT HOW BENEFICIAL IS SELF-RELIANCE WITH RESPECT TO PALM OIL? WHAT ARE THE COSTS BORNE?

Written by Hazel Gandhi

 Illustrated by Ojaswi Kejriwal

Another reason they have mentioned is that this expansion will help us meet our targets for the Paris Agreement. However, this is a bit misleading since India is actually one of the few countries that is on track to meet its targets anyway. We do not need to uproot forests and their dwellers to meet this.

 “Palm oil cultivation in Andhra Pradesh picked up between 1995-96, and since it takes at least 30 years for a cultivation to become unproductive, its impacts will be known after 2025-26. Already, there are complaints from farmers that productivity is declining. It is expected that the situation will get worse.”

In July this year, in one of his addresses to the nation, PM Narendra Modi encouraged farmers in the north-east to extensively cultivate palm oil. Citing economic benefits, he talked about how this crop could yield some great returns for local farmers and landlords. However, there are some majorly overlooked details about the expansion and cultivation of this crop that can lead to disastrous consequences in the future. Right from the human cost to the environmental impact, experts have predicted that this crop might cause more harm than the benefits it will supposedly reap. 

The significance of this crop cannot be stated enough. Palm oil, extracted from the oil palm fruit goes into the manufacturing of almost all consumer goods that we come across on a daily basis. Right from snacks and soaps to candles and cosmetics, palm oil is one major ingredient that makes up for the production of all these. India being one of the largest consumer markets in the world, it is only natural for our imports to mirror our huge consumer demand, making us the second-largest importers of palm-oil. 

 

Edible oil imports cost us about $800 billion in 2015, and it is only projected to go upwards with every passing year. In this case, instead of heavily relying on imports, being self-reliant and producing palm oil in-house seems to be an ideal option that the government is working towards. However, achieving self-reliance in a commodity like palm oil is no cakewalk. Palm oil constitutes 93% of our total imports of edible oil. To completely get rid of this cost and start cultivating on our own needs a lot more than a simple expansion project, not to mention the cost. To facilitate this very cost, the government brings in corporations. 

Corporate greed?

This corporate interference and the ecological effects of palm oil has rendered the term ‘dirty palm oil’. With corporations, expansion is guaranteed. On the other hand, the consideration for local settlements, biodiversity, and the environment is not weighed in much. Companies like Godrej Agrovet, Ruchi Soya and 3F Oil Palm Agrotech Pvt. Ltd., are among the major companies involved in the cultivation of palm oil in the north-east, predominantly Andhra Pradesh and Mizoram.

 

Kumar Sambhav Srivastava, journalist and co-founder of Land Conflict Watch, a research-based data-journalism organisation, talks about how it is problematic to bring in corporations in this expansion. He adds, “The National Forest Policy (1988) which banned the commercial use of forest land in India to protect the biodiversity and forest rights of the dwellers is now being amended to allow the government to lease forest land to corporations. This wasn’t the case before since the NFP did not allow it. They cite the lack of  resources and technical expertise on part of the government to support an expansion of this scale. Another reason they have mentioned is that this expansion will help us meet our targets for the Paris Agreement. However, this is a bit misleading since India is actually one of the few countries that is on track to meet its targets anyway. We do not need to uproot forests and their dwellers to meet this. Our existing forest cover and resources are more than enough to facilitate our goals”.

The Paris Agreement Facade

 

The question that might arise here is that why not go the extra mile and work beyond our commitment to the Paris Agreement? What’s the harm in more greenery anyway, right? This is where the specifics of oil palm as a crop come into play and become a major red flag. A single cultivation of palm oil first takes 5 years to bear fruits and actually render some utility to the farmer in terms of revenue and oil extraction. So, the question here is, what does a farmer then do with the land for those 5 years? Palm oil is an extremely water-intensive crop and the resources that go into it are not accessible to all marginal farmers. 

 

However, let us still assume that the farmers manage to survive the first 5 years with the help of subsidies from the government without yielding any of its benefits. Even so, merely 25 years later, the oil palm plantation becomes futile and a new one has to take its place. This involves uprooting the entire plantation every 25-30 years, which in the long run majorly affects the soil and renders the land barren after a few cycles. This leads to deforestation, not to mention that the land cannot be used now for cultivation of any kind. 

So, under the guise of the Paris Agreement, forest departments are finding it easy to carry out this expansion that will only destroy our ecology and biodiversity in the long run. Once their land is barren, these corporations can simply shift to another farmer who owns a similar piece of land and direct their resources towards them.  

 

Nihar Gokhale, a Delhi-based journalist who has covered the palm oil crisis in Andhra Pradesh, reaffirms this and adds, “Palm oil cultivation in Andhra Pradesh picked up between 1995-96, and since it takes at least 30 years for a cultivation to become unproductive, its impacts will be known after 2025-26. Already, there are complaints from farmers that productivity is declining. It is expected that the situation will get worse.”

 

The Human Cost- Exploitation, Gender Bias, and more.

 

Srivastava adds the fact that most farmers understand this, and many don’t want to cultivate the crop at all. But sometimes, at the hands of their zamindars or owing to the fact that their land has now been leased to corporations (so it doesn’t belong to them at all), farmers are forced to shift from traditional cultivation and grow oil palm. 

 

Apart from land-grabbing, female farmers are actually fighting a whole different battle. Several reports have suggested that when it comes to commercialisation of farming due to corporate involvement, female workers find themselves underpaid or entirely out of work. In a typical cultivation, workers are paid about rupees 300 per day for their labour as opposed to the average rate of 500-600 rupees. When it comes to women, this rate declines even further at around 200 rupees per day. When asked why, Srivastava explains that this is mainly due to an existing bias in corporate situations that we come across. People don’t trust the local women to carry out tasks that are so crucial monetarily, and are instead made to stick to traditional farming practices. Corporatization of these lands can consequently put female-dependent households and settlements through a lot of trouble.

But what is hiding behind the glimmer of these attractive subsidies, workshops and seminars held to educate farmers better is that in a few years, their land will be taken from them (if it is still of any use), and they will soon lose the rights to their own land.

Sure, when cultivated in the right season and with the right methods, the crop has brought many benefits to the farmers and helped them economically. But what is hiding behind the glimmer of these attractive subsidies, workshops and seminars held to educate farmers better is that in a few years, their land will be taken from them (if it is still of any use), and they will soon lose the rights to their own land. 

Farmers in the north-east making the transition from their traditional practice of shifting agriculture to a monoculture consisting of only palm oil is a disaster in the making. It is not only limiting the variety of crops they cultivate, but also encroaching upon the rich biodiversity in the region. The north-east is predominantly known for practicing jhum cultivation, which is now set to be replaced by palm oil. Jhum cultivation is also known as slash and burn cultivation, which involves growing crops after clearing the land of trees and vegetation by burning them. On the face of it, Jhum seems like a very destructive process that will damage the soil, not to mention the amount of pollution it will cause. But even so, it is believed to be a much better practice than cultivating palm oil mainly because of how it facilitates the cultivation of a variety of crops, and the ways in which it enriches the biodiversity of any region. A study published by TR Shankar Raman and Jaydev Mandal in Condor: Ornithological Applications, a peer-reviewed publication, talks about how jhum cultivation sites harboured 667% more biodiversity, especially in terms of birds, than in palm oil cultivations. 

Other than that, examples of lands being infertile and large-scale deforestations are right in front of us. Malaysia and Indonesia produce 85% of the world’s palm oil. The effects of this are evident now, with 47% of their deforestation being caused due to palm oil cultivation. Each year, the island loses about 8,77,000 acres of its land to this business. It would be safe to say that India is heading in the same direction, without nearly enough resources at our disposal.

 

The process of slowly transitioning to self-reliance has already begun, since our palm oil imports this year have seen a decline of 14% in August this year, and this number is sure to increase in the coming years. The common man is made to believe that this is a good step towards aatmanirbharta and is contributing to a larger forest cover in the country. However, its environmental impact and the human cost will only show face when it is too late to go back and mend the damage.