Sustainable development goals & Palm oil cultivation: A paradox

By Bhogtoram Mawroh

“The SDG report is not a perfect document. Arguments can be made as to the choice of indicators and whether those chosen can help assess the progress towards the SDGs. However, there is no doubt that the indicators do bring out many gaps in the state of our development.’’

On the 26th August, 2021 NITI Aayog released the ‘North Eastern Region: District SDG Index, Report and Dashboard Baseline Report 2021-2022’. The report was a damning indictment of Meghalaya’s performance in terms of its progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Realizing that development is a multi-dimensional concept and extends beyond GDP measurement which does not consider issues of inequality, fairness, environmental externalities, and sustainability, the United Nations General Assembly identified 17 global goals to provide the “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by the year 2030 and track the progress in achieving them.
In terms of ranking, the Report placed Meghalaya second from the bottom in the North East, with only Nagaland faring worst. Out of the 103 districts, the highest rank from the State was achieved by East Khasi Hills which came at 57th rank. At the national level, the State was among the bottom five states. The SDG report is not a perfect document. Arguments can be made as to the choice of indicators and whether those chosen can help assess the progress towards the SDGs. However, there is no doubt that the indicators do bring out many gaps in the state of our development. We are indeed at the bottom of the ladder. But should we take the SDG report seriously? Is the Union Government of India serious about the whole exercise? I feel there is a lot of ambiguity around this. The best example of this is the recent announcement of the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) Scheme with a special focus on the North East region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The whole push towards the attainment of SDGs stands in complete contrast with the goals of the proposed Scheme.
The Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research estimates the country’s oil palm cultivation potential at 28 lakh hectares (ha). Palm oil is already grown in the country with Mizoram containing 78% of the total land under palm oil cultivation in North East India. The Scheme is aimed at covering an additional 6.5 lakh ha area under oil palm cultivation by 2025–26 to touch 10 lakh ha, mainly in the North-East region and Andaman and the Nicobar Islands which includes Meghalaya as well. For North East, the area earmarked for the Scheme is substantial considering the region makes up just over 5% of the total area of the country but will make up almost 30% of the total area under the Scheme. Meghalaya which has been identified as one of the potential sites has a total area of just over 22 lakh hectares. So, the area under the Scheme is substantial and will have a massive impact on the State. In this regard, Meghalaya’s progress towards SDGs, especially the three SDGs viz., SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production; SDG 13 – Climate Action; SDG 15 – Life on Land, is going to be severely threatened by this Scheme.
SDG 12 emphasizes “doing more with less” thus promoting efficiency, green economies, and sustainable infrastructure. It focuses on reducing degradation and pollution and minimizing waste. The high input-intensive nature of the plantation system is in complete opposition to the goal. In their article, ‘Mizoram’s balancing act with palm oil’s ecological impact and economic benefits’ Bhattacharya, Talukdar and Guha have discussed in detail the impacts of palm oil on the local ecology which includes a negative effect on soil biology and depletion of local water resources. They have quoted C. Zohmingsangi, a doctoral researcher at Mizoram University reporting that nutrients, enzymes and carbon are found in a much lower percentage in the soil after palm oil trees are introduced. With palm oil also requiring around 40,000 to 50,000 litres of water per hectare per day, it puts great pressure on the local water table as well. Water shortage is in fact already being reported from several areas surrounded by palm oil groves. In Meghalaya, the runoff ratio ranges from 60% to 100%, i.e., more than half of the rainfall that the State receives is lost through surface flow without recharging the water table. It is for this reason that areas like Sohra (receiving one of the highest rainfalls in the world) are infamously termed as a ‘wet desert’ because of the water shortage problem faced by the community. Palm oil plantations will only exacerbate the problem. With the inevitable degradation of soil and water resources, it will be impossible for Meghalaya to achieve SDG 12.
SDG 13 is aimed at integrating climate change measures, disaster risk measures and sustainable natural resource management into national development strategies. Palm oil will require a substantial change in land use; from evergreen and semi-evergreen tropical and sub-tropical forests to be replaced by monoculture, hallmark of industrial agriculture. The article ‘Measuring Carbon Emissions from Tropical Deforestation: An Overview’ by Gregory P Asner has reported that deforestation, especially in tropical areas, contributes to about 20% of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG). Furthermore, according to the note ‘Agriculture and Climate Change: Towards Sustainable, Productive and Climate-Friendly Agricultural Systems’ published by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), agriculture (especially fossil fuel driven industrial agriculture) contributes a significant share of the GHG emissions – 17% directly through agricultural activities and an additional 7-14% through land-use changes, i.e., more than 20%. It is difficult to see how a Scheme that will increase the State’s greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 20% will help it achieve SDG 13.
Finally, SDG 15 is aimed at protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable management of forests, combating desertification and halting and reversing land degradation in conjunction with integrating ecosystems and biodiversity into national and local planning. According to the Meghalaya Biodiversity Board, Meghalaya is situated in the North East India Biogeographic zone (along with Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura) which is a significant region as it represents a transition zone between the Indian, Indo-Malayan, Indo-Chinese bio-geographic regions as well as a meeting place of Himalayan mountains with that of Peninsular India. The State also represents an important part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot which is one of the 4 biodiversity hotspots present in India and 34 in the world. As a result of all this, Meghalaya has been identified as a key area for biodiversity conservation due to its high species diversity and high level of endemism. How will a monoculture, no less of an exotic species, contribute to this rich biodiversity, is difficult to understand? Will the replacement of natural forest by a monoculture be able to recreate the same level of interactions between the local species or destroy it altogether? The answer is not very difficult to guess.
The impact of the palm oil plantation on the SDG 12, 13 and 15 is very straightforward. But the Scheme will also have an adverse impact on SDG 1 – No Poverty; SDG 2 -Zero Hunger; SDG 3- Good Health and Well Being; and SDG 10- Reduced Inequalities. This will take place through intrusion into the traditional land tenure system and the weakening of the Indigenous Food Systems (which is organic by default and a cherished goal of the Union Government of India – another paradox). Discussions on these will happen in future submissions. But the impact on SDG 12, 13 and 15 is so obvious it baffles why the NITI Aayog report and the announcement of the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) happened almost simultaneously. Maybe the whole SDGs exercise is an eyewash and Meghalaya should not feel bad at being among the worst performers because it doesn’t really matter. In that case, we should not take any serious note of future SDGs reports but instead focus on how much greenhouse gases we can emit into the atmosphere, how much biodiversity can we destroy and how much of our land and water resources we can degrade. That will be a much more worthwhile endeavour.
About the writer: Bhogtoram Mawroh is a Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at NESFAS and can be reached at [email protected]

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