Govt Gives Green Signal To Oil Palm Mission Despite Red Flags From Top Forestry Institute

Govt Gives Green Signal To Oil Palm Mission Despite Red Flags From Top Forestry Institute
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To cut the import bill, the Union Cabinet cleared the Rs 11,040-crore National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) with a focus on growing the crop in the North-east and Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to their favourable rainfall and temperature last week.

As per a report from leading daily, that clearance, however, came in the face of objections raised by India's top forestry research institute against introducing oil palm in biodiversity rich areas and in the absence of a detailed study it had proposed.

The Supreme Court, in November 2019, had asked the Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education (ICFRE), an autonomous institute under the Environment Ministry, for its opinion. It was approached by the Andaman and Nicobar administration for relaxing its 2002 ban on plantations of exotic oil palm in the archipelago.

ICFRE submitted its report in January 2020, recommending that introduction of oil palm "should be avoided" in biodiversity rich areas, including grasslands, without detailed studies on its ecological impact.

The Environment Ministry in August 2020 asked ICFRE to undertake a study on oil palm's invasiveness and ecological impact and develop models for substituting existing plantations and intercropping with indigenous trees and plants.

ICFRE scientists made field visits, consulted stakeholders and submitted a study proposal by November 2020.

The "joint report" submitted to the SC on June 19, 2021, noted that there was no data from India to support several inputs received from ICAR-IIOPR. In his affidavit submitted along with the report, ICFRE director general Arun Singh Rawat recommended, yet again, "comprehensive" and "detailed" studies to assess the invasiveness of oil palm in Little Andaman, its impact on native fauna and the overall qualitative changes in native flora and biodiversity.

According to the media report, nearly 16 sq km of forest land gave way to oil palm plantations in Little Andaman between 1976 and 1985. In 1995, three NGOs moved the SC seeking to defend the island's tropical rainforests and indigenous communities. The apex court formed a committee in 2001 and, based on its report, stopped monoculture or commercial plantations on the archipelago's forest land in 2002. It also banned the introduction of exotic species.

The push for replanting oil palm in Little Andaman came in July 2018 when Niti Aayog member Ramesh Chand visited the archipelago following a policy meeting. He recommended that the administration "should seek a review of the ban on plantation of exotic species" and commission a feasibility report for oil palm, said the report.

Accordingly, ICR-IIOPR submitted its report in December 2018, noting that "during the discussions with the Chief Secretary, it has been informed to the team of scientists that the A&N Administration would take care of issues relating to Supreme Court ban… with the help of the Government of India."

Studies and reports revealed that Oil Palm is the source of the world's largest consumed edible oil primarily due to its high productivity, versatility and substantial price advantage. But plantations are also blamed for inflicting widespread environmental and social damage across continents, from Cameroon to Malaysia.

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