[ Nandini Velho, Aparajita Datta, Anirban Datta-Roy, Mihin Dollo ]
The recent articles by Umesh Srinivasan and Idar Nyori have brought the promise and pitfalls of oil palm expansion in Arunachal Pradesh to the fore.
Oil palm is a highly productive crop important for India’s vegetable oil security. But oil palm expansion in Arunachal must proceed cautiously without affecting the state’s social fabric and environment.
Palm oil is used in everyday products, but known negative effects of oil palm on biodiversity, forests and climate change have led to a global push for stringent standards and sustainable production. Consumers are choosing not to buy products containing unsustainably produced palm oil that harms farmers and biodiversity. Indonesian and Malaysian companies face pressure to grow oil palm in equitable and ecologically less damaging ways. India needs to follow such global concerns.
Before signing MoUs with private companies, the state should have evolved a transparent, inclusive and consultative oil palm policy that considers the perils and potential of oil palm. Government websites should place information and maps on proposed oil palm development in the public domain and solicit public comments. Arunachal needs a policy that safeguards people’s rights and the state’s biodiversity for several reasons.
People need to be aware of their choices and policy options to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. When Dutch colonisers brought oil palm to Indonesia and Malaysia in 1890, no one foresaw its negative consequences. In 2013, journalist Jay Mazoomdar visited oil palm farmers in Indonesia and wrote “All of them vied for the freedom to choose their destiny in a system where ‘companies’ and the government decide pretty much everything.” Closer home, this is being repeated. Over the last decade, Mizoram’s New Land Use Policy encouraged people to abandon jhum for settled agriculture and oil palm was aggressively promoted in recent years. In 2014, an Aizawl-based journalist wrote “In many cases, contractors/businessmen from distant towns bag the land titles.” In Mizoram, farmers are not free to sell oil palm to anyone but only to particular companies in each district. This system makes it captive plantations of each company.
Journalists, ecologists, social scientists, and most importantly, farmers with strong cultural ties to their land have all expressed such concerns. The criteria used to in Arunachal Pradesh to identify land as ‘potentially suitable for oil palm’ or ‘degraded’ can be questioned. Often, land regarded as ‘degraded’ or ‘wasteland’ from a commercial perspective, provides valuable socio-economic needs to poorer farmers and refuges for biodiversity.
Zonation must not be based on agro-climatic suitability for oil palm alone, but should consider land use, tenure, ecological and watershed values, and be made public for verification and feedback. The foothill areas along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border where oil palm is being planned are among the richest in biodiversity, hold important wildlife corridors, and spaces for other productive agricultural crops.
As Nyori points out, people care deeply for their forest. But simply caring for one’s land is not a guarantee against market forces in the light of 100% Foreign Direct Investment in oil palm. Across the world, people have lost their lands, despite caring deeply, as evidenced in forest landscapes lost to oil palm in South-east Asia. Indigenous people elsewhere have gained from oil palm but also suffered from air and water pollution, disease, and social conflict. These facts must be made public (and not just yield and monetary aspects) so that people can make informed decisions on sustainable uses of their own lands and not lose community control of forests and land.
Land under community-managed forests can be taken over by contractors/businessmen or encroached or lost to individuals leading to dispossession and social conflict. Nyori mentions that central and state government policies do not allow companies to acquire or lease land beyond a specific acreage as defined by land ceiling norms. But recent news reports clearly indicate that industry is lobbying the government to declare oil palm a plantation crop to bypass Land Ceiling Act regulations.
Groundwork is needed to first legally empower people. C. R. Bijoy, a human rights researcher speaking at the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit, Itanagar on Forest Rights, has urged amending the Jhum Land Regulation Act, Anchal Forest Reserves Act and Assam Forest Regulation Act. He suggests that “the power of the Deputy Commissioner to regulate jhum rights and acquisition of jhum land without recording the rights and consent of the communities are to be removed.”
While existing laws do not give people legal land rights, the state government has not interfered with the traditional de facto tribal community ownership of Unclassed State Forests (USF). The entry of oil palm could change this and with no legal safeguards, palm oil companies may gain greater control and lobbying power. The state government has not undertaken cadastral surveys giving land tenure to people in USF or in forest areas settled by people that are Reserved Forests on paper. It is vital to know how the state government will safeguard the interests of people and biodiversity over that of companies.
With regard to oil palm suitability, Nyori states that oil palm has done well in experimental plantations. Experimental plantations will be optimally watered and provisioned (with fertilizers and pesticides), so it is no surprise if they have high yields. The Food and Agriculture Organization maps show no areas in Arunachal are suited to oil palm cultivation.
Nyori notes that oil palm is rain-fed and Arunachal’s rainfall will be inadequate for growing a crop that needs 300 litres per plant per day. “Two hectares of oil palm uses up more water everyday than a citizen of Mizoram needs in an entire year” writes a report. In the dry season, foothill forest areas in Arunachal are prone to fires as stream beds dry up. It is unclear how experimental results will scale up to 1.25 lakh hectares that would require irrigation and chemical inputs.
The Rethinam committee also states that further studies on water availability and soil type are needed to fully assess the feasibility of growing oil palm.
Oil palm as “green cover” is a myth. As ecologically barren monocultures, they are nowhere near the value of even “degraded” forests or shifting cultivation-forest landscape mosaic for biodiversity. Oil palm has one of the lowest carbon sequestration potentials (45 tC/ha) even when compared to other crops (orange: 76 tC/ha) and not comparable to forest carbon stocks. The clearing, burning and conversion of forests to oil palm leads to higher carbon emissions.
Despite considerable government investments, oil palm has not taken off in India because of constraints faced by growers. Even if 1.25 lakh ha of oil palm operates at optimal productivity in Arunachal, how will the profits be distributed? Elsewhere, influential community members and companies have reaped benefits, while negative effects have been heaped on marginalized poor farmers. A democratic, transparent decision-making process to ensure benefits are shared in a socially just manner is essential.
This leads to the larger question about top-down or bottom-up sustainable development efforts in Arunachal Pradesh. Oil palm is a top-down policy thrust on farmers – a non-native crop hugely subsidised and promoted by government. Despite institutions doing good agricultural research and government schemes promoting crop alternatives, inadequate financial support, poor implementation, and delivery failure plague the sector. While oil palm is promoted as a magic bullet, many bottom-up, locally relevant solutions languish for government support. The valuable Agar (Aquilariaagallocha) is cultivated in home gardens in Assam and harvested in 4-5 years without huge investments or large land tracts. There are many economically important native species such as Rudraksh, Tokko and Mekahi valued by local communities that could be encouraged via subsidies for growing saplings and afforesting lands, bringing income from multiple crops.
A broader vision will require innovation and incorporate people’s knowledge about ecologically benign and socially just cultivation options. A state oil palm policy should be created that is not solely based on crop yields and monetary profits but balances various costs and benefits. This will enable people to make choices in their best long-term interest.
(Nandini Velho, Aparajita Datta and Anirban Datta-Roy are researchers working in Arunachal Pradesh. Mihin Dollo is Coordinator (Natural Resource) at NERCORMP-IFAD, Shillong, Meghalaya)
[ Nandini Velho, Aparajita Datta, Anirban Datta-Roy, Mihin Dollo ]