What’s win-win about oil palm cultivation?
It baffles me to read that Conrad Sangma (Shillong Times, September 8, 2021) is still toying with the idea of introducing palm oil cultivation to Meghalaya especially after his brother James (Shillong Times, 31st August 2021) and his sister Agatha have expressed their opposition to the idea (Shillong Times, August 28th 2021).
Agatha Sangma’s protest is clear and unambiguous.
She rightly points out such plantations would lead to ‘loss of forest cover’, loss of habitat for endangered wildlife’, while ‘the large-scale adoption of a foreign species of plant entailing water-intensive harvest will cause irreparable ecological imbalance besides depleting the groundwater table’.
If pointing out the above environmental hazards were not enough, she also spells out how cultural identity in the North East springs from a symbiotic link with the land. ‘Ownership of land is a centrality of any tribal society [and] widespread plantation for commercial gain in all possibility will detach the tribesman from his prized possession of land and wreak havoc on the social fabric’. Not that this loss of identity and a sense of exile from their roots is not already experienced by countless inhabitants of the state.
Where is Conrad Sangma’s ‘win-win’ situation in such a bleak scenario? He talks about utilising ‘barren land’ and ‘non-forested areas’, but does he query why land is barren or non-forested or is that too uncomfortable? Of course, like so many of those who hold political power, he knows full well that indiscriminate tree felling and exhaustive mining practices have degraded the land, so why would anyone want to add to the desertification by introducing palm oil plantations? But as is the trend in Meghalaya, so long as these ‘commercial’ projects go ahead and continue to benefit the chosen few within and outside the state, who cares about the landless and the voiceless or the silent cries of the patient earth? Have our representatives drifted so far away from their native roots that they no longer empathise with those who still live on and in sympathy for the land? Do they not realise that by dancing to Delhi’s tune we are forging an identity dictated by the rules of the outsider? Is that what we want? It is certainly not what I want.
Finally examine Agatha Sangma’s other observation that ‘The plantation areas selected are the north-eastern region and the Andaman Islands both of which are biodiversity hotspots and ecologically fragile’. Yes, why choose these areas? Is it because we are so far away from the seat of ‘real’ power that we are regarded as wildernesses waiting to be tamed and civilised (i.e.exploited), or is it because we are seen as mere ‘dependencies’ and therefore our compliance is all but guaranteed? This ignorant, patronising, don’t-care colonial attitude has to be challenged and we can only do it if we the citizens of Meghalaya protest, and rise up to protect the ecological fragility of our homeland failing which, we will forever lose the sacred privilege of living in a biodiversity hotspot and the right to call ourselves a tribal community with a distinctive heritage.
Use the ballot box wisely.
Obeying His Master’s Voice
Despite condemnation and disapproval from almost all quarters, be it from the NPP MP from Tura, Agatha Sangma, the Meghalaya Environment and Forest Minister, James Sangma, environmentalists, subject matter specialists, social activists, and concerned citizens, Conrad Sangma the Chief Minister of Meghalaya , has apparently decided to turn a deaf ear to calls of caution as far as the introduction of Palm oil cultivation in Meghalaya is concerned. Alone he seems determined to stand out as the only champion for the introduction of the NDA’s National Mission on Edible Oils – Palm Oil scheme for NE India. His latest argument is that Govt will ensure a balance before taking any decision on the matter ( ST Sept 9, 2021). Now which Govt does he mean, for neither the one in the Centre nor the State find much credibility with the public here. Again this argument, the need for a balance, only strengthens the conviction that the Palm Oil proposal is dangerous and detrimental to the interest of the state and hence the Govt’s need to come up with a compromise. The question that immediately springs to mind is where and in which aspects do we need to compromise ?
If the balance required is in the realm of environmental degradation, then needless to say there is very little scope for a compromise in that field. The CM has stated that it will be a win-win situation for the state if it can utilise barren and non forested areas. Now there is very little barren area in Meghalaya and if there is it is found only in the plateau area which has cold frosty winters unsuitable for palm oil. So barren area utilisation as claimed is out.
Does Meghalaya have non forested areas? Here we enter into uncertain territory as some have defined jhum fallows areas as non forest. But are they? Jhum fallows are actually areas left undisturbed for a period of time for the rejuvenation of forests. Once they rejuvenate people return to them for reconducting their jhum activities. This is termed as the jhum cycle, a practice that allows temporarily cultivated hillsides to revert back to their original forest status. Introduction of permanent mono-cropping in the form of palm oil plantations in Jhum fallows will actually result in preventing forests from rejuvenating themselves. Jhum fields will then give way to permanent crop plantation which in turn will adversely impact on the food security situation of the local people involved. In reality palm oil mono cropping in these hills is a manmade recipe for the environmental disaster we all seek to prevent. Any compromise is thus misplaced.
The CM has also claimed that palm oil cultivation will enhance livelihoods and income. Now this is a powerful argument in favour of palm oil but can it stand the test of time? Ground reality might be just the opposite. Whose income will it enhance? Palm oil cultivation will require large plantations otherwise it is uneconomical. So if forests are to be spared then on whose lands will the plantations take place? It will only mean contract farming, which in the absence of an MSP for our farm products, can only result in distress sales for our farmers or for the takeover of large tracts of cultivable land by corporates which in turn will result in loss of land and livelihoods for our rural poor. Yet if the Centre and the State Govt is really concerned about promotion of edible oils why don’t we go in for enhanced production of oilseeds such as Mustard, groundnut, soybean and sunflower. These are crops our farmers are comfortable with; can be cultivated in the small holdings of our poor and marginalised upland farmers and their promotion is unlikely to adversely affect the environment, the land tenure system of the state nor the livelihoods of our farmers.
In view of the above I sincerely believe that there is a lot more sense in adhering to the age-old proven system of retaining and promoting forest related farming systems for our mountain areas than to simply blindly obey His Master’s Voice from Delhi. To plunge in simply to please the corny capitalistic concepts of Modi and Co might simply lead our poor cultivators into a trap they might have great difficulty getting out of.