Palm-oil in Manipur: Bad to worse

Jinine Laishramcha *

Where is Manipur up to ? Has she been dying ? What does one see by looking at the ever-increasing socio-political-economic degeneration ranging from flourishing corruption to crime and violence, from crumbled education to deploring environment, from free-float drugs to abandoned economy ?

If it is not the case of dying virtually, it is of drying literally. Drying of water at the source-places after a prolonged destruction of natural environment and deteriorating the forests is what we have been witnessing.

Prime Minister Modi’s palm-oil project in Manipur at his recent visit to Imphal pops up here.

For the simple reason that water comes from forest where rain is absorbed by the plants then they release slowly in the spring holes. The drying of the springs and natural fountains in the hills and foothills around has been a reality for Manipur now.

Modi’s proposal will rub salt into the injury because the palm-oil plantation will accelerate drying up of the water-sources sooner than expected, pushing us to a water scarcity and a water stress zone. Modi is ignoring the already deteriorated environmental reality of Manipur. This is contrary to the cordial policy and work for fulfilling the water supply for irrigation and household needs.

What is Palm-oil ?

It comes from the fruit of a palm tree from Africa. Two types of oil can be produced; crude palm-oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the stone in the middle of the fruit. Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply. Besides used as edible oil, palm-oil is used increasingly in the cosmetic industry and sometimes used as bio-fuel across the world.

India’s interest: India is at present the world’s biggest importer of this oil. It brought in 7.2 million tons of crude and refined palm-oil worth $5.1 billion in 2020, according to UN data. Of this, 93% was from Indonesia and Malaysia. On 15 August 2021, Narendra Modi announced a support of Rs 11,000 crore to incentivise palm-oil production. The Government intends to bring an additional 6.5 lakh hectares under palm cultivation. Of this about 2.5 lakh hectares are from (North) Eastern States.

Adversities: Palm cropping is a monoculture and palm trees occupy a vast land, not allowing other plants to grow along. It never becomes a scientific and good agricultural undertaking for many reasons. According to experts and bad experience from Indonesia and Malaysia, the plantation causes deforestation, long term soil deterioration, destroys water sources, terminates natural habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Since this monoculture yields questionable outcomes, an international body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm-oil was having on the environment and society.

First: Where is the Environmental Impact Assessment Report ? The first and foremost requirement is what the benefits and losses could be. As a common sense criterion for such plantation the Government should display a white paper in public available for comments and consultations from the interested sections of people. It will determine the proposed work whether will be carried out or not.

If the losses are bigger than the benefits, definitely it must not be executed. In order to go with fair regularity towards not to damage the environment and ecology, the Government should not be blind to Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Report a requirement set by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Moreover, the Government-authority should extend UN human rights principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent – An Indigenous Peoples’ right and a good practice for local communities which means public should be given fair opportunity to know well enough about the pros and cons of the projects and to voice their needs and to share their opinions.

Second: For whom is the project ? A very loose response from the State authority may be, this monoculture will improve State economy. The response sounds irresponsible in the absence of substantial supports and evidence.

For example, who will get the benefits, the local farmers and people or corporates from outside, or all of them. Then, how much the local community will get, how will they get it ? For whom is the development ? Answer is from what we learned in the past, from the Loktak Hydro Electric Project and Ithai Barrage.

Again, some Ministers, contractors, bureaucrats and armed groups are to snatch unfair shares somehow in the process especially on negotiation.

In Mizoram, the lack of a collecting centre in the vicinity is a challenge for the farmers. If they want to sell palm-oil fruits, they have to drive 30 kilometres to West Phaileng in Mamit district, incurring heavy transportation charges.

Because of this, many farmers have given up the cultivation of palm- oil and switched to areca, pineapple and banana which are easier to sell. But for some, it is difficult to make the switch because they were so emotionally invested in this cropping.

Third : Mizoram has planted palm trees in about 29,000 hectares as the biggest producer in the North East. From our next door’s experience it confirms that palm is a highly water- consuming crop with each plant needing about 300 litres of water per day, about 45000 litres of water per hectare every day. In addition to its impact on biodiversity, palm-oil is also a significant threat to soil fertility.

According to C. Zohmingsangi, from Mizoram University, who is studying soil biology around palm-oil plantations in Mizoram–nutrients, enzymes and carbon are found in much lower percentage in the soil after palm cropping than other types of forests.

Manipur and other (North) Eastern States are part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot. They are home to some 8,000 flora species, 35% of which are endemic. There are nearly 2,200 species of fauna, of which 24% are endemic. The overwhelming consensus among environmentalists is that palm-oil is detrimental to such rich local ecology of (North) Eastern India.

Fourth : If the foothills of Manipur are to be used for the palm-oil, the undertaken will be regretted for that matter sooner than later.

The reason is that perfect residential colonies can be extended in and around such scenic surroundings;
To accomplish the crucial need of multi-communities residents in a communal harmony setting;
To restore the wetlands and waterbodies that people have occupied;
To allocate the agricultural paddy fields for meaningful purposes in the valley;
To design Manipur afresh avoiding the haywire and unplanned towns and the leikais;
To avoid the frequent floods To align the beautiful landscape for tourist attraction.

Finally, there are a good bunch of eco-friendly projects that can be alternatives to such questionable palm-oil cropping. Integrated farming, horticulture, medicinal plants, bamboo, hemp so on and on can yield better than this toxic palm. Why on earth do the State and its agencies fail always to execute such ?

If they are sincere and committed, a green heaven on our native soil that is economically viable, contributes to restore forests and water-sources is possible.

* Jinine Laishramcha wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Assistant Prof at the University of Suwon, S Korea
This article was webcasted on January 21 2022.

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