Diversion of forest land for red oil palm plantations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and will “open the floodgates” for similar agricultural use of forest land.
This is what a Supreme Court appointed committee noted last week while raising red flags against a proposal, which is part of the National Mission On Edible Oils-Oil Palm. A centrally sponsored scheme, the NMEO-OP was launched in 2021 with an aim to reduce India’s palm oil imports from Southeast Asia by focussing on the Northeast and Andamans. Previous schemes were then subsumed under this one.
In India, palm oil is mostly used for cooking and other packaged foods such as ice creams and chocolates.
The Supreme Court had in 2002 oil palm plantation in forest lands in Andaman while relying on the Shekhar Singh Committee report, which observed that “existing plantations of oil palm, rubber and teak are reportedly no longer viable and should be phased out”. Following this, the ecologically fragile archipelago wounded up 1,593 hectares of forest land under red oil palm plantations.
However, the island administration filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2018, seeking that the ban be lifted. It wanted diversion of 16,000 hectares of forest land – an area as big as 627 Narendra Modi stadiums. The UT’s proposal was also part of the Centre’s Rs 11,000-crore oil mission.
However, the central empowerment committee, which was asked by the apex court to submit inputs on the proposal and was set up in 2002 to monitor forest and wildlife cases, made adverse remarks on January 12. “The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, FC Rules, 2022 and the guidelines issued thereunder strictly prohibit the diversion of forest land for agricultural purposes and any non-site specific activity…any permission to raise red oil palm plantation or any other non-forest agricultural crop in the Island is bound to open floodgates in all the states for similar agricultural purposes on forest lands,” it said.
The panel also asked why the government petition did not identify and demarcate the forest land to be used for plantations. “In fact, the proposal…merely states that grasslands will be utilised for raising the red oil palm plantations and that too without any specific reference to (a) existence of grasslands in Andaman and Nicobar islands (b) location of such grasslands and (c) whether the grasslands are in one compact block or are situated in multiple locations.”
Sharing a conservative estimate, the panel said the maintenance of the proposed plantations will require 32,000 workers, and this could lead to encroachment on forest land. “The availability of such a large labour force in the Islands is doubtful and the possibility of illegal migrants entering the island from neighbouring countries cannot be ruled out.”
The panel also pointed to greenhouse gas emissions if the request was approved. “It has not been stated as to how much of sequestered carbon, both underground and above ground, is going to be released to the environment while clearing 16000 ha of existing natural forests. Similarly the quantum of carbon being sequestered by the existing forests of the islands vis-à vis red oil palm plantation also needs to be analysed for a fair comparison.”
Requesting the court to “consider above issues”, the panel said the petition was an attempt to bypass the due process under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.
A senior advocate, privy to the last SC hearing on January 16 told Newslaundry that the central government has decided to form a high-empowered committee to look into the environmental concerns.
Push for oil palm plantation
The National Mission on Edible Oils seeks to decrease India’s palm oil import bill. The mission show that India imported 63.2 percent of edible oil consumed in the country in 2015-16, and this has eventually come down to 52.07%. The government has also decided to provide a minimum support price to farmers under the mission.
However, ecologists have raised concerns about the impact on ecology. In an article in , Omair Ahmad, South Asia editor of the Third Pole, wrote that under the mission, India may buy cooking oil for slightly cheaper price but the environmental costs are greater.
Vulnerable to earthquakes, the Andamans are a biodiversity hotspot and home to more than 2,500 plant species, of which around 250 are endemic.
Palm oil plantations in , especially Malaysia and Indonesia, have seen some wildlife species being pushed to the brink of extinction. The two countries are home to endangered orangutans.