In 2021, the Union Cabinet allocated Rs.11,040 crore for the National Mission on Edible Oils—Oil Palm, with a focus on India’s north-eastern States and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These regions together encompass three Global Biodiversity Hotspots, which have some of the most extensive tracts of forests in India and are home to a multitude of threatened wildlife species, medicinal plants, and wild food crops. The mission targets a land area larger than the State of Tripura for palm oil plantations.
Oil palm cultivation should be strictly disallowed in these areas because of their ecological and cultural significance, but plantations have been established in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In Mizoram, entire districts such as Kolasib and Mamit have been set aside.
The Mizoram experience with the crop since 2004 has been disastrous. The plantations have denuded the soil of fertility and water. Infrastructure for transportation and milling is non-existent, and the crop is left to rot after harvest. Farmers have made no money, and efforts to replace oil palm with other crops have failed because of the depleted soil. The three companies involved with oil palm plantations in Mizoram—Godrej, 3F, and Patanjali’s Ruchi Soya—face no accountability for the failure.
The Mizoram experience holds these lessons:
Shift in land tenure systems: Oil palm cultivation shifts land tenure from the community to private hands. The power of gram panchayats and other village and community-based councils to manage their own lands passes on to companies. In effect, land becomes “locked” under oil palm, and communities have no say in its management. In Mizoram, this has led to impoverished farmers, with many compelled to sell their lands.
Wrong terrain: Maps published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation show that more than 90 per cent of the land in the north-eastern region, which is mostly hilly, is unsuitable for oil palm cultivation.
Water scarcity: Oil palm is a water guzzler, with each plant requiring 250-300 litres a day. The rainfall in the region is only for four months, and communities face acute shortage of water. Oil palm also requires large quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which further deplete soil fertility and compromise freshwater availability.
Infrastructure: Once harvested, the fresh fruit has to be processed within 48 hours. This requires fast roads and transport to oil mills, but the region does not have the infrastructure, leading to losses.
Loss of food security: Monoculture plantations are officially recommended as suitable for plains and foothill areas. Palm oil and areca nut, however, have been planted in Mizoram’s hilly terrain, for instance in the area adjoining the Dampa Tiger Reserve, with consequences such as drying up of groundwater, impact on wildlife, and loss of natural forests and resources of the area.
Highly productive jhum landscapes have been declared as “wasteland”, while monoculture cash crops such as coffee, tea, areca nut, cardamom, and teak are being encouraged. These replace the natural/semi-natural habitats that harbour medicinal plants, varieties of food crops, bamboo, and timber, and have long-term consequences on the environment while leading to loss of food security for communities.
Loss of livelihood: Most farmers are unaware of the risk and consequences of cultivating oil palm and similar monoculture crops. While government and companies highlight their economic benefits, they do not issue warnings about the change in land tenure, the environmental impact, labour costs, the use of chemicals, the depletion of water resources, and the fact that these plantations are not suited to the terrain or culture of the region.
The farmers have not been offered any alternative livelihood programmes either that could be both sustainable and meet their cash needs.
Rupa Chinai is a Mumbai-based independent journalist who writes on public health and development issues. She is the author of Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal.