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Mixed response to Centre's oil palm mission in NE, experts fear ecological effect

 
By Sujit Chakraborty
Guwahati/Agartala, Oct 10 (IANS) Oil palm farmers are excited that several northeastern states inspired by the Centres National Mission on Edible Oils - Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) have undertaken oil palm cultivation in a big way. However, experts and a section of politicians have diverse opinions over the possible adverse impact on the environment and wildlife.


The Central government in August launched the Rs 11,040 crore National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm as a new centrally sponsored scheme with a special focus on the northeast region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Farmers supported by the state governments in Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland had undertaken oil palm cultivation in a limited manner around 10 years ago.

Two weeks ago, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu in principle agreed to the proposal of Andhra Pradesh-based Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd to invest over Rs 500 crore on nurseries, plantation, setting up of palm oil factory and refinery,

The company urged the state government to allot at least 25 hectares of land to it for the establishment of a 5 MT per hour capacity mill in the state.

The Assam, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh governments have already undertaken ambitious plans to expand oil palm cultivation to a few lakh hectares of land.

Hyderabad based 3F Oil Palm company last week announced that it would invest Rs 1,750 crore in the next five years to expand oil palm cultivation to 62,000 hectares of land in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh creating employment opportunities for over 3,000 people.

Company CEO Sanjay Goenka said in Guwahati that the area under oil palm cultivation in Arunachal Pradesh would be expanded from 2,000 hectares to an additional 30,000 hectares with an investment of Rs 750 crore.

He said that additional 30,000 hectares of land would be brought under oil palm farming in Assam investing Rs 1,000 crore.

Several hundred farmers in Goalpara, Kamrup and Bongaigaon districts are now cultivating oil palm trees in about 550 to 600 hectares of land for the past few years.

After the Union government launched the NMEO-OP, several political parties including the Congress, NGOs, experts and environmentalists strongly objected to its large-scale cultivation.

Scientist Anjan Sen Gupta, however, said that there is no proven study about the ecological effect of palm oil.

"However, there should not be any monoculture of palm oil or any other crops or plants. Genetically modified cultivation of any crop or plant is always not good for the society and environment," Sen Gupta told IANS.

Health expert Apurba Kumar Dey said that palm oil has high saturated fat content, which can be harmful to cardiovascular health.

"However, one study found that, when consumed as part of a balanced diet, palm oil does not have incremental risk for cardiovascular disease.

"In the bordering northeastern states, Bangladesh produced palm oil is easily available and a detailed study must be done about the effect of this imported palm oil on health," Dey told IANS.

Experts and researchers associated with various research groups including Guwahati based Aaranyak said that large scale palm oil cultivation might cause destruction of forests leading to a crisis of food for many wildlife species and birds as they do not consume palm oil fruits.

According to experts, the further destruction of forests would worsen the already ongoing human-animal conflict in the northeastern region.

Wildlife species like monkeys, hoolock gibbon or the golden langur and various birds are likely to be largely affected if oil palm cultivation is undertaken in a big way in the mountainous northeastern region, the experts said.

Congress Lok Sabha members from Assam Gaurav Gogoi, Pradyut Bordoloi and Meghalaya MP Agatha Sangma recently in separate letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly objected to the Centre's NMEO-OP, fearing large-scale effect on the environment and wildlife.

"The NMEO-OP would bulldoze the interests of the northeast people and the region's ecology and wildlife.

"While agricultural development is inevitable, we must think along sustainable lines and in wider consultation with all stakeholders before any irreversible damage is done," Bordoloi, who represents Nagaon Lok Sabha constituency, said in his letter to the PM.

India is the largest importer of palm oil mainly from Malaysia and Indonesia, the two countries that according to several scientific studies have already faced the brunt of its rampant cultivation.

Bordoloi, while appreciation the efforts to reduce dependency on other countries for palm oil, also cited the example of Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia on the devastating effects of monoculture of oil palm plantations on biodiversity, depletion of water supply and soil degradation due to substantial chemical input requirements.

Of the outlay of Rs 11,040 crore for the NMEO-OP, Rs 8,844 crore would be borne by the government of India and Rs 2,196 crore is the states' share.

Under this scheme, it is proposed to cover an additional area of 6.5 lakh hectares for palm oil by 2025-26 and thereby reach the target of 10 lakh hectares ultimately.

The production of crude palm oil is expected to go up to 11.20 lakh tonnes by 2025-26 and up to 28 lakh tonnes by 2029-30, an official document of the NMEO-OP said.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

--IANS
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