Oil palm cultivation, which the government of India is promoting in the northeastern states, has become a huge bone of contention with environmentalists expressing serious concern. Union MoS for Environment, Forest & Climate Change Ashwini Kumar Choubey, who was on a visit to state capital Itanagar on Thursday, dodged a question on his ministry’s stand on the push for oil palm cultivation in the Northeast. The union minister claimed that there is no precise scientific report on the ecological impact of oil palm cultivation. His statement goes against various concerns raised by experts against promoting large-scale oil palm cultivation in the region.
The union cabinet cleared the Rs 11,040-crore National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) in August, with focus on growing the crop in the Northeast and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands “due to their favourable rainfall and temperature.” The clearance came despite red flags raised by the Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education, an autonomous institute under the environment ministry. The factors that have made oil palm cultivation a success have also brought with them well-documented environmental and social challenges. The most prominent among these are links to deforestation, labour and damaging effects on the environment, particularly when the crop is grown unsustainably. India consumes 10 percent of the total global production of palm oil, with the consumption significantly exceeding the domestic production. It is due to this demand that the government is pushing for cultivation of oil palm in the NE states and the Andaman.
But the move is fraught with danger. Northeast India is the second most biodiverse region in the world and much of the region’s wildlife resides in traditional agricultural or extractive landscapes. Replacing these habitats with oil palm will rapidly eliminate a lion’s share of globally significant wild plant and animal species, which are increasingly contributing to local economies through nature-based high input, low impact tourism. The loss of these habitats to oil palm will also mean compromised water security, increased soil erosion, and soil and water pollution through the immense input of pesticides and fertilizers essential to oil palm cultivation.