The Centre’s Oil Palm push is a slippery slope for Meghalaya

Meghalaya MP of the National People’s Party (NPP) Agatha Sangma wrote to the Prime Minister last week highlighting that oil palm plantations in the “biodiversity hotspots and ecologically fragile” areas of Meghalaya would adversely alter the forest cover and “wreak havoc on the social fabric”. But Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said that the plantations will “help bring balance” to the environment.
By A.H. Sarah

The sweet oil of the palm is alluring to the weak: It brings with it immense wealth, but the price is ravished forests and soils that have been bled dry. And these are only the “lesser lives” we lose to the cultivation of this cash crop.

Such is to be the fate of Meghalaya and other northeastern states soon should the Centre allow Patanjali group, and others, to rampage blind and wild through already-damaged ecosystems in the Northeast.

In its 76th year of iron-fisted governance, New Delhi has shown that much of the iron that strikes the people often derives its shine from projecting business, not necessarily welfare. 

In its most recent ambitions, the Centre has approved Rs 11,040 crore for its National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm to boost the production of a commodity reviled by civil society and environmentalists alike. The Oil Palm Area Expansion is a death knell for the forests and communities of the Northeast.

For decades, India has sourced its oil palm from Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter of which has lost 25 per cent of its forest cover to these plantations. Much of the devastation in South-East Asia is also done at the behest of India, which is the largest importer of oil palm. 

But now, India wants to be self-reliant, and Baba Ramdev-led Patanjali is the frontrunner to help it recompense for the failures of the 1992 Oil Palm Development Programme.

Meghalaya is among the twelve states surveyed by New Delhi. Some 218,000 hectares of land in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura — home to endemic hotspots and concentrated by tribal communities — are already eyed for expanding this monoculture plantation.

Indeed, the Centre is no stranger to selling miracle monocultures to the people – Basmati rice being one that is pushing hundreds of indigenous rice varieties into extinction. In Meghalaya as well, environmentalists have seen the traditional shifting agriculture and scattered farming give way to broom grass, jatropha, betel nut, and pine monocultures.

While there are plenty of evaluation studies of the agricultural suitability and potential yields of exotic plantations, the Centre has done little to study the actual ecological effects of such cultivation. 

What is established is that oil palm plantations require the burning of vast tracts of forests. The resulting plantation is never as dense as the natural cover of a region, and these areas are often left dryer and hotter, with reduced woody biomass, increased risk of fire, poorer water quality, and higher greenhouse gas emissions. 

Monocultures also inhibit biodiversity, and oil palm, in particular, is a colonising species even in its native, wild habitats.

More curiously, oil plantations cannot sustain on steep slopes, which is the nature of terrain in most of Meghalaya. Even if lower-lying fertile regions of the state is likely to be targeted by Patanjali, is it truly worth the risks and costs?

Meghalaya parliamentarian of the National People’s Party (NPP) Agatha Sangma wrote to the Prime Minister last week highlighting that bringing oil palm plantations to the “biodiversity hotspots and ecologically fragile” areas would adversely alter the forest cover and would pose a threat to the habitat of endangered wildlife. 

She also highlighted the pattern of community land ownership and that the plantations could strip the tribal people of their identity, strongly linked with property rights. It could “wreak havoc on the social fabric” she said.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has however favoured the centre’s decision by iterating that the oil palm push is based on scientific study and that only nine lakh hectares of plantation, out of the 28 lakh hectares, will be in the northeast.

Speaking to the media, Tomar also said that the plantations will “help bring balance” to the environment.

Political Monoculture: Tribal Autonomy versus Babu Supremacy

The oil palm industry in the country has been capitalized upon by Adani and Patanjali for quite some time now.

In Meghalaya, Ruchi Soya led by Patanjali group is expected to lead the oil palm mission. Patanjali, which is based in Haridwar, has long been a favourite of the ruling establishment in New Delhi for being a model “Make in India” company, producing consumer packaged goods from toothpaste to ghee to ayurvedic supplements under its brand. 

The Centre’s move itself is a pattern of “political monoculture” that has made federalism close to redundant in Meghalaya.

However, it should be noted that Baba Ramdev’s empire was embroiled in some 81 cases within seven years of its founding in 2006. Some of these cases included a violation of the Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act and the Indian Stamps Act in its home state, where the Patanjali trust was alleged to be involved in numerous benami transactions in Haridwar.

It is only rational that Meghalaya, nearly all of which falls under the Sixth Schedule, would be wise to worry about the spectre of land grabbing, illegal land transactions, and displacement of tribal clans. 

The state has a sordid history of businessmen colluding with local elites for benami deeds, and its government now being forced to accommodate an oil palm monopoly on tribal lands will be disconcerting.

Patanjali, along with a central push for palm oil, thus present a dystopic and far-reaching existential crisis, one that seems too weak to challenge for Meghalaya.

The current definition of forest cover, as per the Forest Survey of India, will legally classify oil palm plantations as forest cover, despite not being as dense as the cover which currently exists in Meghalaya.

Forest cover is currently defined as “all lands, more than 1 ha in area with a tree canopy density of 10 per cent irrespective of ownership and legal status. Such lands may not necessarily be a recorded forest area. It also includes orchards, bamboo and palm.”

Meghalaya — A Tough Battle with the Centre

The sparse population of Meghalaya, the vast tracts of fertile land, and its geographic and cultural disconnectedness from the mainland mean that any devastation is likely to be of little concern to the most populated centres farther west. 

With its treasure trove of natural resources — whether for mining or for razing — Meghalaya is a real estate opportunity for Indians who are otherwise uninterested in the people’s well-being.

The state, with its people, risks being degraded and left to the ravages of climate change once it has been stripped of all its fuel, and those billions who form the bulk of the nation (and consumers) will move to new pastures — so to speak — for their dalda and fairness creams. The cost of new oil will be new blood. 

It seems that if the Centre cannot have its radioactive fuel on this land, then it will simply grow its own fuel on it, even if the future is a likely pan-species genocide in Meghalaya.

A Lesson from the Long History of Oil Palm

When he first chanced upon the indigenous oil palm in West Africa, Alivde da Ca’ da Mosto, a Venetian explorer and slave trader, wrote that it had “the scent of violets, the taste of our olive oil and a colour which tinges the food like saffron, but is more attractive.” 

The crop grew almost wildly in African groves, where it was cultivated as part of the shifting agriculture system. But it’s miraculous yield would tempt farmers to hack at natural growth to expand oil palm plantations. 

Once European colonisers became invested in the plant, the mid-1800s saw a boom in the production of this commodity and its invasion across all of Europe’s colonies — from South America to South-East Asia.

The oil palm industry has always had a colonial relationship with land — and this extractive contract continues to this day, even if the hegemony is now turned inwards. This is not the only oil that gluttonous elites — both outsiders and insiders — have razed “lesser” civilisations for. 

The mania for oil palm is much like the insanity that arrested us when plastic was first developed: miraculous, revolutionary, and innovative. 

Now, there is toxic plastic in the deepest pits of the sea and we are hurtling toward the same mistake with oil palm, despite the decades of evidence staring at us in the devastation of South-East Asia — where the Khasis first began their long migration in search of home.

(Edited by Anirban Paul)

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