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An aerial view of North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands would 'benefit' from the new palm oil initiative Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Singh

India's ambitious palm oil push triggers biodiversity fears

Roshni Majumdar New Delhi
September 6, 2021

India wants to reduce its dependence on other countries for palm oil. But environmentalists are concerned the country's new palm oil goals could threaten wildlife and swaths of forests, as well as tribal land rights.


The Indian government introduced a new plan in August to boost the production of palm oil. India is one of the largest consumers of palm oil, which is used in almost everything from soaps to chips. But the country still imports most of its palm oil.

India also produces a range of other vegetable oils, like mustard and soybean, but it has seen exponential demand for palm oil over the last few years.

To reduce dependence on other countries and cut down on import bills, the government decided to boost domestic production of the commodity. Sky-high prices this year have also compelled the government to rethink its strategy.

What is India's palm oil 'mission'?

India's latest palm oil project, the National Mission on Edible Oils — Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), aims to boost palm oil production in regions with high rainfall. Oil palm crops require rainfall throughout the year for successful growth.

India wants to target the northeast of the country and the eastern archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar islands for its project.

These ecologically sensitive areas are home to many different kinds of flora and fauna.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the NMEO-OP as a "game-changer," and said the project would benefit these regions.

The government also hopes that the initiative will help farmers increase their incomes, with a crop that yields more oil than traditional oilseeds like peanut or sunflower.

India sets new palm oil goals

India currently produces palm oil on more than 300,000 hectares (741,316 acres) of land and plans to cover an additional area of 650,000 (160,6184 acres) hectares by 2025-26.

India requires 25 million tons of palm oil every year, according to M.V. Prasad, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research. The country produces around 10 million tons and imports a further 15 million from other countries.

India's expanded coverage will help boost production by 1.12 million metric tons (1.23 million US tons), Prasad told DW. The government is expected to spend more than $10 million (€8.4 million) to implement its new palm oil project.

How will the project impact biodiversity?

Officials have said that the government wants the cultivation of oil palm crops to take place only on lands already being used by farmers. Environmentalists, however, remain skeptical and are concerned about the kind of impact the project could have on India's wildlife.

Sudhir Kumar Suthar, an assistant political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said that replacing one type of forest cover with another — as in the case of palm oil cultivation — threatens the existence of biodiversity.

India's northeastern region is home to 51 types of forests, and palm oil cultivation could prove destructive, he said.

A 2020 study by Malaysian scientists found that the conversion of forest areas into oil palm plantations also resulted in higher carbon emissions. It noted that from 1990 to 2005, about 50% to 60% of oil palm plantation expansions were the result of forest clearances.

Destroying rainforests would impede international efforts to combat climate change.

How would farmers and tribal communities be affected?

Vinita Gowda, an evolutionary biologist who has studied northeastern India extensively, warns that the Indian government should learn from what is happening to palm oil giants like Indonesia and Malaysia.

The two Southeast Asian countries produce about 80% to 90% of the world's palm oil on plantations that were once forests. But conservationists are urging the Indonesian government to extend a freeze on palm oil cultivation that came into effect in 2015.

The US, meanwhile, has banned imports of palm oil from two Malaysian plantations over alleged claims of abuse of workers.

According to Suthar, oil palm cultivation could also negatively impact water tables in the country and the way land is used by farmers and tribal peoples.

Suthar cited India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, where much of the land is owned by tribal communities. The political scientist warned cultivation would affect the forest rights of tribespeople.  

How the world got addicted to palm oil

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