Oil Palm Policy: Don’t Lose Ancient Forests To Silver-Bullet Ideas
On a sultry August evening, I heard a high, shrill cry. The sound was unmistakably that of a woodpecker, a bird that excavates insects from trees. With a long beak and a focussed tap-tap motion it makes on tree trunks, the woodpecker is a striking bird to behold. When I looked at the red, white, and yellow coloured Black-Rumped Flameback, the last rays of the sun were bringing the bird’s name to life – its back was molten gold as it bent its head to find grub. The sight should have been beautiful, had it not been for the fact that the bird was tapping on a dead plank – a piece of wood bolstering a terrace. As trees get cut down, birds like woodpeckers are seen searching for food in things that look like trees.
This August, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change released its sixth Assessment Report on global warming and planetary change. The findings are ‘code red’ and say that the earth could soon warm by over 1.5 degrees Celsius. For India, the report says we will have more heatwaves, extreme rainfall events, and humidity. Similarly, the Ministry of Earth Sciences finds that rainfall will increase in the Himalayas. The inference is this will lead to more landslides, rockfalls, etc.
One of the best and cheapest ways to store carbon and tackle climate change is to leave trees and forests intact and restore wilderness. This helps in micro-climate regulation too and augments ecosystem services like groundwater recharge and the prevention of landslides. Yet new policy thrusts are against this basic premise. One is the idea of oil palm being a magic bullet for India’s growth. The other is the idea that the destruction of ecosystems can be compensated through minuscule efforts.
The government has just announced a push for oil palm cultivation, particularly in North-East India and Andaman and Nicobar islands. Oil palm is a water-intensive crop and needs a subtropical or tropical environment. As a leading consumer of palm oil, there is nothing wrong with India wanting to achieve independence in oil. The problem lies in promising oil palm cultivation as a silver bullet, and in a potentially indiscriminate manner. The forests of North-Eastern India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands are amongst the best in India: these are our great rainforest lands. Both the areas are biodiversity hotspots, with species found nowhere else—such as gibbons, hornbills, geckos, orchids.
The hill slopes of north-eastern states are covered with dense, many-layered forests, interspersed with wild fruit, terraced fields, or shifting cultivation. A majority of the land is community-owned. For years, state governments there have spoken about oil palm as easy money. A popular ad for oil palm is of a tree sprouting gold coins.
But firstly, oil palm should not replace forests. Across tropical countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, oil palm has replaced rainforest, leading to local species extinction, mass deforestation, crime, and social unrest. Oil palm cultivations look like forests but are not. Such cultivation would be similar everywhere – while our tropical forests are unique to location and species.
To the untrained eye, oil palm monocultures do not look destructive, but if they replace forests, they will destroy both wildlife and habitat.
On the very idea of combating the destruction of habitat, the National Board for Wildlife has an idea. If a protected area is impacted by a project, the NBWL says a tiny 2% of the project cost from that impacted area can be used for wildlife. This is a tradeoff that is hard to defend in a time of climate change and mass biodiversity loss. It is unclear how the NBWL believes 2% is the right ‘price’ to pay for the damage.
But this stems from the idea that lost ecosystems or forests can be easily replaced. This logical fallacy is highlighted in the 2021 Dasgupta review on the economics of biodiversity, which points out that “accumulating produced capital at the expense of Nature is what economic development has come to mean for many people” and we are globally losing $6 trillion annually by damaging nature.
If our path has to be sustainable, then we cannot lose ancient forests to silver-bullet ideas.
Forests are not an inexhaustible source that can be plugged in and recharged at will. In reality, they take hundreds or thousands of years to grow. Even a tree can take decades to grow a trunk and hold an insect – one just has to look at the woodpeckers tapping on fake trees.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.