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Oil Palm Expansion

Ecological Threat to North-east India

To bolster its edible oil security, India is aggressively pushing for oil palm cultivation in the country despite its well documented deleterious socio-economic and ecological impact. In this scenario, it becomes vital for the government to institute a comprehensive framework for initiating and monitoring oil palm cultivation and encourage sustainable agricultural practices.

Oil palm is amongst the fastest expanding crops in tropical Asia (Fitzherbert et al 2008). In south-east Asia, cultivated area under palm oil tripled within a decade (Boucher et al 2011), and the global production of palm oil has doubled between 2001 and 2011 (FAO 2011). Palm oil is immensely versatile, and finds use not only in foods, but also in biodiesel and lubricants and consumer products such as soaps, detergents and cosmetics (May-Tobin & Goodman 2014).

Not only is palm oil the cheapest vegetable oil in the world, but from a farmers perspective, it is also perhaps the most rewarding, with yields of four to six tonnes of crude palm oil per hectare (compared with less than one tonne per hectare from other oilseeds; [Ministry of Agriculture, GoI 2011]). It is not surprising then, that both global demand and supply continue to skyrocket in comparison to any other vegetable oil, including soybean, rapeseed and sunflower.

India is the largest global consumer and importer of palm oil.  Recent imports of palm oil—largely from the south-east Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia—have risen sharply, from 5.6 million tonnes in 2007-08 to 8.82 million tonnes in 2009-10 (Ministry of Agriculture, GoI 2011). India's increasing demand for palm oil stems from its inability to meet its domestic demand for vegetable oil; India produces less than 50% of its domestic edible oil requirements (Ministry of Agriculture, GoI 2011). So far, India has been importing cheap oil, simultaneously “exporting” the drastic and deleterious socio-economic and ecological impacts of oil palm to other developing countries.

Economics and Ecology

Across tropical nations, the expansion of oil palm has resulted in drastic socio-economic changes. As early as the 1970s, an oil palm boom in Ghana led to the lease or purchase of community-managed lands to “outside” farmers, with customary chieftains receiving monetary payments in return for the grant of farming land (Gyasi 1994).

Similar scenarios have played out more recently in Indonesia, with conflicts emerging between smallholders within communities and between communities and oil palm companies, especially over unequal benefit sharing and uncertain land tenure (Feintrenie et al 2010; Rist et al 2010). Papua New Guinea is also seeing the sale of communally-owned land to “people who have no customary birthrights”, and also the transfer of communal lands to individual ownership in return for payments to community leaders (Curry & Koczberski 2009). But economics is only a part of the story.

Ecologically, there is overwhelming consensus that oil palm is unmitigatedly detrimental. Oil palm expansion is one of the largest drivers of the loss of virgin forest in south-east Asia. 55 % of expanding plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia came from the complete replacement of natural forest (Koh & Wilcove 2008), and such expansions contribute to forest loss in Thailand, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea (Fitzherbert et al 2008).

Conversion of forests to oil palm plantations also result in substantial losses of rare and endangered tropical species of the highest conservation concern (Fitzherbert et al 2008). Further, oil palm plantations are nowhere comparable to primary (or even degraded) forests in terms of ecosystems services such as carbon sequestration, water security and soil protection (Fitzherbert et al 2008).

India Pushing Oil Palm

India appears poised to join the growing list of countries in which oil palm is exacting high socio-economic and environmental costs. Although India's Oil Palm Development Programme (OPDP) dates back to 1991, it is only recently (2011) that the government has begun to seriously view oil palm as important to India's edible oil security and is aggressively pushing for increased cultivation under the Special Programme on Oil Palm Area Expansion (OPAE).

The OPAE has budgeted Rs 300 crore to expand oil palm cultivation by 600 km2 in 12 states over five years. This investment is largely to be spent via massive input subsidies to farmers—up to 85% towards seedling costs, and up to 50% of the outlay on chemical inputs, drip irrigation systems, pump sets, borewells and the setting up of processing units (Ministry of Agriculture, GoI 2011).

The scale of investment and subsidies leaves no doubt that India is earnestly courting oil palm. But the policy effects are already causing disquieting socio-economic tremors. In Mizoram, the government has instituted a New Land Use Policy (NLUP) vowing to stamp out “wasteful shifting cultivation” and replace it with settled agriculture, especially oil palm monocultures. However, as Raman (2014) points out, although oil palm might be more productive in terms of conventional agricultural metrics such as yield per hectare,  jhum (shifting cultivation) brings with it immense non-monetary benefits that are rarely taken into account.

Jhum  uses “natural cycles of forest regeneration” (Raman 2014), and facilitates cultivation of multiple crops that can provide a balanced diet,  without relying on polluting chemical inputs. Regenerating jhum fallows also provide households with bamboo and timber for building houses, firewood and wild edible plant species among a host of other benefits— a bounty that an oil palm plantation will never be able to match.

Yet, shifting cultivation is officially considered wasteful, and jhum farmers opting to continue a traditional, relatively non-destructive, agricultural practice receive absolutely no subsidies or support from the government. The democratically managed community-owned forest land, where earlier swidden cultivation was practiced, is also being converted to individual oil palm land holdings to the benefit of the powerful members of the community, echoing decades of social disruption wrought by oil palm in Africa and south-east Asia.

It is no wonder then that the Kukis of Manipur are unanimously opposed to their state government copying Mizoram's potentially perilous NLUP, citing threats to their traditional, ecologically sustainable and socially appropriate land management and farming systems (Manipur Times 2014).

Oil Palm in North-east India

But like Manipur, other state governments in India's north-east, like that of Arunachal Pradesh, are already looking to Mizoram's NLUP as a template for their own agricultural policies. Given that a substantial proportion of land in the north-eastern states are community owned and managed (46 % in Arunachal, for instance), policies that transfer community land to individuals under dubious circumstances and lead to insecure land tenure, will be a cause for social discontent.

Corruption and cronyism are already rife in most north-east Indian states, and given the current situation, it is quite inconceivable that a conversion of community land to individual holdings will results in equal benefit for all. The permanence of this shift in land tenure system will also drastically undermine ecologically conservative traditional land use practices. And there are other reasons for serious concern.

North-east India is the second most biodiverse region in the world (Grenyer et al 2006), and much of the region's wildlife resides in traditional use agricultural or extractive landscapes. For instance, regenerating jhum fallows hold significant biodiversity (Raman et al 1998), and the newly discovered and critically endangered bird species, the Bugun Liocichla, has so far been found only on community-managed selectively logged forests (Athreya 2006).

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 (Mohan & Athreya 2011). 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 fertilisers essential to oil palm cultivation.

Is There a Way Forward?

India needs to learn lessons from other developing countries that are facing the fallouts of injudicious and aggressive oil palm expansion. South-east Asia especially, with  a similar socio-economic and environmental profile, has much to teach us. As early as 2004, multiple stakeholders (including oil palm growers, oil companies, retailers and environmental and social NGOs) came together to create the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The RSPO certifies growers who employ ecologically and socially sustainable oil palm cultivation practices, akin to the Rainforest Alliance's endorsement of farmers growing crops such as coffee, tea and cocoa in an ecologically responsible manner. The RSPO's mandate is to ensure compliance of oil palm cultivation with local laws and regulations, prevent negative impacts on natural resources and biodiversity and ensure social justice through complete transparency in oil palm cultivation, processing and retail. Palm oil from certified plantations receive a market premium.

At this relatively early stage in oil palm expansion in the country, India must insist that all oil palm cultivation conforms at least to RSPO standards. However, the RSPO has been criticised for  allowing oil palm expansion at the expense of highly biodiverse tropical forest, and even for endorsing plantations created by the unjust usurpation of land from local people. India has the excellent opportunity to institute a comprehensive framework for initiating and monitoring oil palm cultivation that goes beyond the provisions of the RSPO.

The need is to establish appropriate checks, balances and punitive measures for socially disruptive and ecologically destructive practices. In this process, consultations with local communities, state governments and social and environmental scientists is essential, rather than limiting policy formulation simply to the central agricultural ministry. A well thought out and rigourously implemented policy from India can serve as a guide for other oil palm growing nations.

India should also seriously consider that traditional practices like jhum and community-based forest management contribute much more to local economies and livelihoods than oil palm can, especially in the north-eastern states. Further, these practices are also ecologically sustainable, provide vital ecosystem services, and help conserve rare and unique wildlife. These practices, with their diverse social, economic and biodiversity benefits need official recognition, priority and endorsement, instead of being misguidedly treated as “wasteful”.

Instead of subsidising oil palm (or at the very least, in addition to subsidising oil palm), the government should be providing subsidies and monetary inputs to farmers who opt for sustainable agricultural practices. Unless the government can come up with an extremely responsible, robust and highly inclusive framework for oil palm expansion (unlike the current yield-centric one), India is bound to follow in the faltering footsteps of Indonesia and Malaysia.


Athreya R (2006): “A new species of Liocichla (Aves: Timaliidae) from Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Indian Birds”, 2: 82-94.

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Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India (2011): Guidelines for Special Programme on Oil Palm Area Expansion (OPAE). Government of India, New Delhi.

Mohan, D and R Athreya (2011): “Sustainable bird based tourism in India's remote northeast frontier”, International Journal of Innovation Science, 3: 23-28.

Raman, T R S (2014): “Mizoram: bamboozled by land use policy”, The Hindu, 14 May, available at

Rist, L, L Feintrenie and P Levang (2010) “The livelihood impacts of palm oil: smallholders in Indonesia”, Biodiversity and Conservation, 19, 1009-1024.

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