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State Pushing for Oil Palm Despite any Economic or Ecological Benefit

Text & Photos by Rishika Pardikar

Allowances for slash-and-burn methods of cultivation raise serious questions about conservation policies because jhum cultivation affects those animals that are considered critical to conservation - the rare species like hoolock gibbons and capped langurs that are endemic to the northeastern rainforests.

But many families, especially those belonging to indigenous populations of northeastern India, rely on jhum for livelihood purposes.

In an effort at moving farmers away from jhum, Mizoram’s government introduced the New Land Use Policy (NLUP) in 2011 with an aim to “put an end to wasteful shifting cultivation” that they considered as “destructive” and “unprofitable.”

So, has NLUP successfully weaned Mizo families away from jhum and towards a more sustainable and profitable way of life?

West Phaileng, Mizoram

“Anything other than jhum,” said Lalrammawia, 60, when describing what the government agreed to support as part of NLUP. Lalrammawia is the chairman of the Bethlehem Farmer Society and a farmer in West Phaileng who, like many in the region, earns his livelihood by growing areca, orange, banana, etc.

Under NLUP, the Mizoram government agreed to provide assistance - monetary or otherwise - for families that would engage in livelihood practices ranging from oil palm, banana and orange plantations to other activities like pig farming, tailoring, handloom work, electronics repair, etc.

“Jhum is not very rewarding when we consider the amount of labour it requires and the amount of time that is spent,” Dr David C. Vanlalfakawma, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Forestry, Mizoram University said. He explained that NLUP was implemented to provide an alternate source of livelihood that could, in addition to moving families away from jhum, also provide additional sources income since large sections of the Mizo community, especially including those that are not economically well-off, relies on jhum for livelihood purposes.

According to the Mizoram government, approximately 66% of the families living in Mizoram do not have viable economic occupation and of these families, 90% are engaged in agriculture and allied sectors. The government also encouraged the selection of “the right choice of crops” so as to ensure economic success.

State push for oil palm

Oil palm first received state encouragement sometime between 2004-05 when the Oil Palm Act, 2004 was implemented and a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model was developed between the government, farmers and three private companies - Godrej Agrovet Ltd., Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd. and 3F Oil Palm Agrotech Pvt. Ltd. - wherein the farmers would grow oil palm and sell directly to the companies and the state would provide subsidies to the companies.

Oil palm plantations in West Phaileng, Mizoram

Oil palm received a further push after the implementation of NLUP when the state’s Agriculture Department identified it as one of the as one of the crops that was to be cultivated under the scheme.

“Serious ventures into oil palm began about decade ago,” Priya Singh, a wildlife biologist said. This was around the same time when NLUP was implemented wherein oil palm was advertised with returns of Rs. 80,000-1,20,000 per hectare.

Farmers in West Phaileng, however, said that one hectare of oil palm only provides an income of Rs. 40,000. “We knew that there was no money in oil palm,” Lalrammawia said. He added that many families opted for oil palm only because of the cash incentives the state was providing to farmers who promised to take up oil plantations in lieu of jhum.

“Incentives were provided based on [quantity of] oil palm harvest,” Vanlalfakawma explained. Additionally, he said, cash disbursements were made to farmers to meet other expenses like the procurement of seedlings, weeding, construction of pathways to farmlands, etc.

As of October 2019, a total of 28,914 hectares comprises of oil palm plantations in Mizoram. This represents approximately 1.4% of the state’s land area. The government had also identified that there is potential for twice as many plantations, i.e. an additional 61,000 hectares of oil palm plantations.

Oil palm in particular is especially problematic for local ecology because it is a highly water-intensive species.

T R Shankar Raman, a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation explained that in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia - the top two palm oil producers, globally - studies have inextricably shown that cultivation of oil palm on vast tracts of land has caused depletion of ground water in addition to other issues like increased turbidity and lesser amount of flow in the streams.

Plantations in lieu of jhum

Lalrammawia said that some families are now replacing oil palm with areca because the yield is a lot more attractive - one hectare generates an income of about Rs. 8,00,000.

But areca is no better.

All plantation activities are problematic because they are monocultures that cause a relatively more permanent form of deforestation than jhum because jhum is a cyclical process that includes fallow periods.

“Ash is a very important component of the agricultural cycle in jhum,” Singh explained. “For this, fallow periods are important because they allow forests to regenerate.”

Also, jhum is an organic form of multi-cropping system and speaking about the same, Vanlalfakawma said that on average, a small jhum field comprises of about 50 crops. “High floral diversity also means high faunal diversity,” he added noting that wild boars, palm civets, the barking deer and many species of birds are usually found in jhum fields both during jhum and in the fallow period.

In a paper titled 'Shifting agriculture supports more tropical forest birds than oil palm or teak plantations in Mizoram, northeast India,’ Raman, one of the authors, noted that on an average, birds abundance was 304% higher in Jhum landscapes when compared to oil palm plantations. The study was conducted in villages like West Phaileng around Dampa Tiger Reserve. As for diversity, the paper concluded that the number of forest bird species like Gray-throated Babbler and the Ashy Bulbul in oil palm plantations was just one-fifth of the number of forest species recorded in jhum landscapes.

Sign also noted that snares and other forms of traps are routinely used on oil palm plantations to stop animals from feeding on the fruits. “The result is the fact that the snares don’t care if they trap a rodent or an endangered species,” making oil palm plantations less suitable to support wildlife.

But regardless of both the ecological and economical concerns associated with oil palm, the central government seems intent on pushing forth.

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha, Narendra Singh Tomar, Minister of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and Minister of Rural Development, stated on 3rd December, 2019 that the total oil palm potential in India is estimated at 19.33 lakh hectares across 19 states whereas actual coverage up to October, 2019 is only 3.49 lakh hectares.

In the context of Mizoram, the potential is cited as 61,000 hectares which is three times as much as oil palm as the state has today.

Tomar added that since, agriculture is a State subject, the Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare has requested all the potential states to declare oil palm as a plantation crop to facilitate the “speedy expansion of oil palm cultivation in the country.”

The recent ban on import of refined palm oil from Malaysia also signals a potential shift towards domestic production.

“The agriculture ministry believes that the oil palm initiative in Mizoram is doing well and they want to push this model into other northeastern states,” said Daniel Ingty, Director of the Garo Hills region for the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority. “Meghalaya has turned down the oil palm project,” he added.

As per Tomar’s response, the potential area for oil palm across Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura is 1,57,000 acres. Currently, only 8,262 acres are under oil palm cultivation across these states. As for Meghalaya and Tripura, the document adds a disclaimer saying “State Government is not interested.”

The people working in plantations in Meghalaya too expressed an inclination to go back to practising jhum.

“If the government can provide [monetary] support for jhum like how they provide for plantations, I will be happy going back to jhum,” said Nobaline T Sangma, a plantation worker in a village called Chandigre in Meghalaya. She also practices jhum on the side, she noted.

Nobaline T Sangma, first from the right

“Jhum used to give us rice, corn, chilly, tapioca, brinjal, ginger, soybeans, sesame, yam…” Joresh A Sangma, a plantation worker in Chandigre who also practices jhum

said. “Jhum was for us to eat. Sometimes, if the harvest was good, we could also sell the produce.”

Joresh A Sangma a plantation worker in Chandigre

Although he added that jhum practices should revert to what they were a few decades ago to become sustainable. “Before, jhum was a 25 year cycle. Now, people come back to the same land within five to six years. This is why soil quality deteriorated and harvest was bad… this is why many people started moving to plantation work.”

This story was produced as part of a story grant provided by Aaranyak with financial support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

June 23, 2020

About the Author:

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist from Bangalore.

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