July 29, 2021

A palm oil plantation in Indonesia. India is primarily dependent on Indonesia and Malaysia for import of palm oil. Photo by Moses Ceaser (CIFOR)/Flickr.

More than 40 percent of potential landscapes for oil palm cultivation in India overlap with biodiversity-rich landscapes. Converting small rice fields to palm oil can be a viable alternative to dismantling forests and grasslands for palm oil,

INDIA, WHICH is the world’s largest consumer and importer of palm oil, has the potential to produce it with socio-economic benefits without threatening natural landscapes, a latest study has said. It emphasised that meticulous land-use planning and implementing fine-scale local strategies for palm oil cultivation can reduce the pressure on high biodiversity landscapes. It noted that “India appears to have viable options to satisfy its projected national demand for palm oil without compromising either its biodiversity or its food security.”

The study led by Umesh Srinivasan of Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, investigated potential landscapes for palm oil cultivation and their overlap with biodiversity-rich landscapes and croplands in India.

It said that in an aggressive push towards self-sufficiency in vegetable oils, the Indian government is prioritising the rapid expansion of domestic palm oil plantations to meet an expected doubling in palm oil consumption in the next 15 years but noted that the current expansion of palm oil in India is occurring at the expense of biodiversity-rich landscapes.

The study, which included researchers from India, Singapore, Italy and the United States, was published in Nature journal in June 2021. The researchers explored the combination of present and future scenarios of climate change, irrigation facilities and agriculture to map the areas that will be suitable for palm oil production.

It highlights that an anticipated increase in temperature due to global warming and augmented artificial irrigation suggest that India has an area varying 7.86 million hectares (Mha) to 73.26 Mha suitable for successful plantation of palm oil. However, it is concerning that 45-60 percent of these palm-suited areas are of high ecological value and the rest which is non-biodiverse is largely under rice cultivation.

Therefore, Srinivasan and his team suggest that converting rice fields that produce less than two tons of rice per hectare to palm oil can be a viable trade-off. They stressed that the conversion of small paddy fields can be a viable alternative to dismantling forests and uprooting grasslands for oil palm.

“We do not advocate revamping all these marginal rice fields, rather emphasise exploring spatial options on finer scales that maintain the integrity of natural landscapes and do not compromise national food security,” Srinivasan told Mongabay-India.

India has an area varying 7.86 million hectares (Mha) to 73.26 Mha suitable for successful plantation of palm oil. However, 45-60 percent of these palm-suited areas are of high ecological value and the rest which is non-biodiverse is largely under rice cultivation

He pointed out that “in terms of land-sparing, oil palm is a fantastic species as its yield is several-fold higher when compared to any other oil plant”. According to research, palm oil is the most land-use efficient oil plant producing about 3-4 tonnes per hectare, whereas other oil crops yield less than one tonne per hectare of land.

However, artificial irrigation is a major concern in augmenting palm monoculture in semi-arid peninsular India that forms the majority of the climatically suitable area for the palm. As compared to marginal rice plantations, palm oil needs twice the amount of water (19.16 megalitres) per hectare, most of which could end up coming from groundwater during the dry season.

The concern, according to people opposing palm oil in India, is that growing a water-intensive crop indiscriminately will ensue more complications in states across southern India where even rice farmers are grappling with water scarcity.

Palm oil cultivation replacing rainforests can threaten northeast India’s wildlife

India has oil palm spread over 349,000 hectares spread across 16 states and produces about one percent of its national demand. Anticipating the country’s surging demand for vegetable oils, the government has been pushing for the expansion of palm oil production in India. It had launched the National Mission on Oil Seed and Oil Palm (NMOOP) in 2014-15, which was later merged with the National Food Security Mission from 2018-19.

But globally all tropical countries with commercial palm oil cultivation have faced ecological declines and socio-economic consequences. In India the fear is that if plantations are expanded it could magnify the wildlife and habitat loss crisis. This will be especially so if palm oil cultivation is pushed in northeast India, which is one of the most biodiverse regions of the country.

“If oil palm replaces a rainforest, it will affect the connectivity of wide-ranging mammals such as tigers and elephants. India has lost vast stretches of lowland tropical forests in the Northeast and to dole out more of it to palm can threaten the long-term persistence of low elevation specialist species such as hornbills and, rare white-cheeked hill partridge,” explained Srinivasan, who is the lead author of the study.

Palm oil plantations replace secondary forests traditionally used for shifting cultivation (jhum) near Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mamit District, Mizoram, India. Photo by T.R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, the study states that grasslands, most of which do not enjoy any environmental protection, might be at a higher risk. “Grasslands are considered wastelands and spaces outside protected areas that are under jhum cultivation are considered “wasteful” forest-crop mosaics. As a result, most policies tend to ride roughshod on these crucially important habitats. We have seen this already happening with the solar industry for grasslands and jhum in some bits of northeast India,” noted study’s co-author Nandini Velho of Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.

Researchers are also concerned that community-owned forests in northeast India, where a major proportion of forest is owned by local communities, can also face threats due to such plantations. Often, these forest lands belong to forest-dependent communities and this leads to unwilling transfer of forest rights to huge businesses.

Can a clean global palm oil supply chain be a reality?

The concerns around palm oil production are not just an Indian phenomenon but have emerged as an international concern, especially in the southeast Asian region.

The cultivation of palm oil began in Asia in the early 19th century and since then it has lacerated the tropical forests. It is now part of numerous packaged products creating a $50 billion industry worldwide. It accounts for more than 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil market with 68 percent being used in food, 25 percent in industries and five percent as biofuels. As the global palm oil demand increased, so did the land allotment for the plantations, which is currently at 18.7 million hectares around the globe.

Srinivasan said that palm oil production has been criticised due to the destruction of rainforests and socio-economic injustice with small farmers in palm oil-producing countries especially Indonesia and Malaysia.

Indonesia and Malaysia together provide more than 80 percent of the global palm oil as it comes at an immense ecological cost to both tropical countries. In the past 40 years, Malaysia has witnessed 47 percent of its deforestation occurring due to palm plantations. But clearing swaths of rainforests in Indonesia has jeopardised the survival of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran rhinos and pygmy elephants.

The study said that India’s palm expansion needs to incorporate region-specific contingencies and account for trade-offs between biodiversity conservation, climate change, agricultural inputs and economic and social security. It said that the policy decisions that India takes with respect to palm oil can substantially reduce future pressures to convert forests to palm oil plantations in the tropics globally.

India’s palm expansion needs to incorporate region-specific contingencies and account for trade-offs between biodiversity conservation, climate change, agricultural inputs and economic and social security

Nandini Velho feels that “if nations would agree not to convert any native forest — primary or secondary — to palm oil monocultures, and instead focused on upping yields in existing plantations plus limiting future expansion to existing marginal croplands and pastures, there might be an advantage of palm oil’s high yields per hectare and not harm biodiversity in the process of meeting demand”.

However, Wahyu Perdana, campaign manager for food, water and essential ecosystems at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI, Indonesia), said: “The concept of sustainable palm oil with the current supply-chain model will be difficult to implement.”

Large-scale plantations lead to agrarian conflicts, land grabbing and prices are determined by the market, consequently, farmers bear the brunt, adds Perdana who is not associated with the study.

This story first appeared in Mongabay India