Oil palm cultivation will be more damaging to the environment than poppy plantation

Environmental experts say that certifying oil palm amounts to nothing more than ‘’green washing’. Also, Oil palm cultivation in a biodiversity hotspot area like Manipur will be more damaging to the environment than poppy plantation.

BySanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Updated on 3 Jan 2022, 10:56 am

Representational Image (Photo: Unsplash)

Representational Image (Photo: Unsplash)

On December 18, 1591, a seven-month sea voyage from Africa to England ended when a ship anchored at Limehouse docks in London. Along with 150 elephant tusks and 589 sacks of pepper the ship carried 32 barrels of palm oil. It is thought to have been the first arrived into Europe of what would become perhaps the most controversial plant product that is not a drug. To say that palm oil is divisive is an understatement. To its advocates, it is a cornerstone of economic development, making efficient use of land and supporting millions of smallholders through profitable international trade. To its detractors, it’s a cause of deforestation and social conflict, a direct threat to endangered species and a contributor to climate change.

With demand for palm oil rising rapidly there is growing concern about its sustainability and awareness that some palm oil is ‘’good and some is bad’’. The term covers various things we get from a species of tropical palm called’’Elaeis guineensis’’. Crude palm oil is squeezed from the palm’s fleshy red fruit; palm Kernel oil is extracted by crushing the fruit’s hard stone. Finally many palm oil derivatives are acquired through industrial processes which together account for about 60 per cent of global palm oil use.

Oil palm trees are native to West Africa but were introduced to tropical regions of South-east Asia and Latin America in the late 19th century. Oil extracted from the fruit was traditionally used in Africa for cooking but has now found a wider range of uses: as a substitute for animal fat such as butter in baked products, soaps and cosmetics or as a basis for biodiesel. Around half of the packaged products in supermarkets contain palm oil.

Although palm oil is not particularly healthy (it contains higher levels of saturated fat than most other vegetable oils), it has many advantages: compared to soybean (the world’s second most widely consumed vegetable oil after palm oil), and oil palm cultivation requires only one-tenth as much land, one-seventh as much fertilisers, one-fourteenth as much pesticides and on-sixth of energy to produce the same quantities of oil and is therefore very cheap.

In addition, palm oil is highly resistant to oxidation, making it suitable for frying and giving it a large shelf life. As a result, consumption of palm oil has doubled over the past 15 years to nearly 8 kg per inhabitant of the global and shows no sign of slowing down. Until the 1960s, oil palm was mainly grown in Africa but since then production has shifted to south-east Asia. According to FAO statistics, Indonesia (53 per cent of global output) and Malaysia (29 per cent) are the leading producers followed by Thailand (4 per cent), Nigeria (2.6 per cent), Colombia (2.3 per cent) and Ecuador (1 per cent). The top importers of palm oil are India (17.5 per cent of the global total) and China (10.8 per cent). Overall, Asia imports 53.5 per cent of all internationally traded palm oil, while Europe takes 24.7 per cent and Africa imports 14.1 per cent, other countries account for the remaining 7.7 per cent.

Oil palm is something of a wonder crop. It yields 4-10 times more oil per hectare than other sources of vegetable oil such as soybean or coconut palms. This makes it an efficient and profitable use of land. The economic value of palm translates into jobs, infrastructures and tax revenues. In Indonesia and Malaysia, some 4.5 million people earn a living from the palm oil industry. In Indonesia alone, another 25 million people depend indirectly on palm oil production for their livelihoods. This all means, palm oil could play a big role in reducing poverty-if done right.

The palm oil rush of recent decades has come at considerable cost to forests and people who depend on them, so it has become so controversial. Palm oil production has been associated with corruption, forced eviction and land grabbing. It has sparked conflict with local communities, including indigenous people. There have also been serious concern about forced labor and child labor and violations of workers right on some plantations. Oil palm now covers a combined area about the size of Syria and an estimated 60 per cent of this land was previously covered with forest. Much of the deforestation has been in Indonesia and Malaysia destroying the habitat of rare creatures such as Orangutans, tigers, rhino and elephants. Greenpeace estimates that in Indonesia alone, rainforest cover corresponding to the size of around five football fields disappears every single minute.

A study reports that a booming small palm oil production is largely to blame for it. Group such as Greenpeace have documented how rainforests are being eroded at a rapid pace to make way for oil palm plantations. That makes oil palm a major climate killer. Peat land, believed to be a reservoir for huge amounts of carbon, is also being burned and cleared for oil palm plantations. That makes the carbon foot-print of a litre of biodiesel up to 2,000 times worse than a litre of conventional fossil –based fuels.

According to a recent study, replacing rain forest with oil palm plantations releases 61 per cent of the carbon stored in the forest mostly into the atmosphere. Each hectare of rain forest converted releases 174 tonnes of carbon. The ubiquity of palm oil and the growing demand for it highlight the scale of the challenge. Between 2000 and 2015, the global average amount of palm oil consumed per person each year doubled to 7.7 kg. Demand for palm oil is set to triple from 2015 levels by 2050, with much of the growth coming from markets with low sustainability requirements.

A steadily growing oil palm monoculture is also destroying biodiversity and contaminating the Earth with large amounts of pesticides and manure. Environmental experts say that certifying  oil palm amounts to nothing more than ‘’green washing’ ’because large agriculture companies and local corruption  have an easy time dodging the sustainable standard laid down by the certification. They point out that oil palm plantations aren’t just causing environmental problems but also social upheaval. They documented hundreds of conflicts between local communities and palm oil producers in the Island of Sumatra in Indonesia. In Colombia, tens of thousands of people are said to have been forcibly removed from their land to make way for large scale oil palm plantations.

International human rights groups as well as organisations in Colombia say the palm oil industry is closely linked with paramilitary and drug barons in Colombia. They say that drug money is laundered by-investing in the plantations. On one hand P.M Modi said that agriculture scientists and agro economists have pointed out the potential of Northeast farmers to take up oil palm plantations. He further said, oil palm cultivation in Northeast would be a big help to the country and farmers community of Northeast.

Accordingly, the Government of Manipur constituted the oil palm Mission Manipur on August 20, 2021 to start cultivation of oil palm in the hilly regions of Manipur to control jhum cultivation and eradicate poppy plantation. However, according to experts, oil palm cultivation is not suitable in high altitudes like hilly regions of Manipur. They opined that it is not advisable to practice oil palm cultivation in far flung areas.  

Oil palm cultivation in a biodiversity hotspot area like Manipur will be more damaging to the environment than poppy plantation. Besides the disadvantages of monoculture, chemicals used in oil palm cultivation will have a bearing on the ecosystem of Manipur.

(The views expressed is personal)

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

Faculty, JCRE Global College, Imphal, Manipur. The writer can be reached at sjugeshwor7@gmail.com

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