Oil palm mission: Govt cleared despite red flags by top forestry institute

LAST week, to cut the import bill, the Union Cabinet cleared the Rs 11,040-crore National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) with a focus on growing the crop in the North-east and Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to their favourable rainfall and temperature.

That clearance, however, came in the face of objections raised by India’s top forestry research institute against introducing oil palm in biodiversity rich areas — and in the absence of a detailed study it had proposed.

Approached by the Andaman and Nicobar administration for relaxing its 2002 ban on plantations of exotic oil palm in the archipelago, the Supreme Court, in November 2019, had asked the Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education (ICFRE), an autonomous institute under the Environment Ministry, for its opinion.

In January 2020, ICFRE submitted its report recommending that introduction of oil palm “should be avoided” in biodiversity rich areas, including grasslands, without detailed studies on its ecological impact.

Accordingly, the Environment Ministry in August 2020 asked ICFRE to undertake a study on oil palm’s invasiveness and ecological impact and develop models for substituting existing plantations and intercropping with indigenous trees and plants.

By November 2020, ICFRE scientists made field visits, consulted stakeholders and submitted a study proposal.

Records show that on January 6, 2021, at a webinar attended by the Secretaries of the Environment and the Agriculture Ministries, it was decided that the studies suggested by “ICFRE have already been taken up by ICAR” (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and the two would “work together to prepare a joint report enabling Director General, ICFRE to file the affidavit” in the SC. Under the aegis of ICAR, Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research (IIOPR) was to provide the required inputs to ICFRE.

The objective was made clear: this was being done given that “the government of India wishes to initiate Oil Palm Mission… and a quick decision in this context is required.”

Submitted to the SC on June 19, 2021, the “joint report” noted that there was no data from India to support several inputs received from ICAR-IIOPR. In his affidavit submitted along with the report, ICFRE director general Arun Singh Rawat recommended, yet again, “comprehensive” and “detailed” studies to assess the invasiveness of oil palm in Little Andaman, its impact on native fauna and the overall qualitative changes in native flora and biodiversity.

Contacted by The Indian Express, Rawat said: “The reports concerned have been submitted to the SC and are not public documents to discuss. The matter has not come up since (the submission).”

A senior official who attended the January 6, 2021 webinar defended the decision to rope in ICAR-IIOPR. “In (December) 2018, IIOPR had prepared a feasibility report and if they said they have the data, there is no need for wasting time. Let the SC decide,” he said.

Incidentally, the IIOPR report, part of the Andaman and Nicobar administration’s submission in the SC, has nothing on the potential impact of exotic, monoculture plantations on the archipelago’s ecology, flora and fauna.

Between 1976 and 1985, nearly 16 sq km of forest land gave way to oil palm plantations in Little Andaman. In 1995, three NGOs moved the SC seeking to defend the island’s tropical rainforests and indigenous communities. The apex court formed a committee in 2001 and, based on its report, stopped monoculture or commercial plantations on the archipelago’s forest land in 2002. It also banned the introduction of exotic species.

The push for replanting oil palm in Little Andaman came in July 2018 when Niti Aayog member Ramesh Chand visited the archipelago following a policy meeting. He recommended that the administration “should seek a review of the ban on plantation of exotic species” and commission a feasibility report for oil palm.

Accordingly, ICR-IIOPR submitted its report in December 2018, noting that “during the discussions with the Chief Secretary, it has been informed to the team of scientists that the A&N Administration would take care of issues relating to Supreme Court ban… with the help of the Government of India.”

Oil Palm is the source of the world’s largest consumed edible oil primarily due to its high productivity, versatility and substantial price advantage. But plantations are also blamed for inflicting widespread environmental and social damage across continents, from Cameroon to Malaysia.

The usual oil palm planting practices — burning an area after felling forests or draining peat swamps — cause massive loss of forests and biodiversity. Whether burnt, dried or simply left to rot, dead trees and vegetation release greenhouse gases. Such rapid change in land use have also been linked to social impact.

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