Ambiguous definition means oil-palm plantations will count as forest cover
The Forest Survey of India defines forest cover thus: “All lands, more than 1 ha in area with a tree canopy density of 10% irrespective of ownership and legal status.
The National Mission on Edible Oils- Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), approved by the Union Cabinet last week, will increase the area under oil palm cultivation by an additional area of 6.5 lakh hectare (ha) by 2025-26, bringing a total area of 10 lakh ha under oil palm plantations in the country -- and thanks to the current definition of forest, the plantations that studies have found lead to deforestation and loss of biodiversity, will be classified forests.
The Forest Survey of India defines forest cover thus: “All lands, more than 1 ha in area with a tree canopy density of 10% irrespective of ownership and legal status. Such lands may not necessarily be a recorded forest area. It also includes orchards, bamboo and palm.”
“If the oil palm plantations meet our definition of forests, they will be integrated in forest cover. There is no plan as on today to change or review our definition of forest cover,” said Pankaj Agarwal, director general, Forest Survey of India. The total forest and tree cover in the country as per FSI’s 2019 report is around 80.7 million ha (807276 sq km). There was an increase of 0.56% in forest cover and 1.26% in tree cover as compared to 2017 according to FSI.
Independent experts said fragile biodiversity rich areas like the North-East states and Andaman & Nicobar Islands (both specifically named in last week’s cabinet note) will bear the brunt.
And the fear is that much like in other parts of the world (West Papua, a province of Indonesia is a case in point) , primary forests will be replaced with oil palm ones.
“Oil palm plantations are not being proposed on empty lands. They have to negotiate prevailing ownership or use rights, irrespective of the land being forest, revenue, hill council, private or any other form of ownership. In countries where oil palm has been pushed through there are many documented cases of serious injustices and land conflicts (both individual and community level). What also needs to be emphasised is that conversion of land for oil palm or any other such large-scale commercial plantations in India do not require an Environment Impact Assessment based environment clearance as is mandated for highways, dams or industries,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.
According to a paper by TR Shankar Raman and Jaydev Mandal, which was published in May 2016 in the journal Ornithological Applications, oil palm plantations in Mizoram had just 10 species of birds, followed by teak plantations (38), jhum (50), and rainforests (58). Forest bird abundance in the jhum landscape was similar to that in a rainforest, on average 304% higher than in oil palm plantations, the study found. According to Nature Conservation Foundations, jhum is a rotational system of organic farming involving the cutting and burning of forests for farming.
According to a study “The environmental impacts of palm oil in context” by several biodiversity experts published in Nature Plants last year, between 2008 and 2017, oil palm expanded globally at an estimated rate of 700000 million hectares a year; palm oil is the leading and cheapest edible oil in much of Asia and Africa. Oil palm expansion’s direct contribution to regional tropical deforestation varies widely, ranging from an estimated 3% in West Africa to 50% in Malaysian Borneo. Species threatened by oil palm plantations made up 3.5% of the taxa and 1.2% of all globally threatened taxa (27,159 species) in 2019 including orangutans, gibbons and the tiger. The clearance of forests and drainage of peatlands for oil palm emit substantial carbon dioxide also.
“Entire lowland forest, except for Taman Negara NP, in Peninsular Malaysia are lost to oil palm plantations. They are one of the biggest drivers of loss of biodiversity in Sumatra. We should not simply ape the Malaysian or Indonesian model of oil palm plantations. No natural forests, whether it’s a protected area or not, should be replaced with oil palm plantations. If done in an unplanned manner, this will have disastrous consequences on India’s biodiversity,” said Bivash Pandav, director of Bombay Natural History Society.
The Union environment ministry is also focusing on facilitating plantations outside forest areas. The ministry invited an expression of interest (EOI) to prepare a draft amendment to the Indian Forest Act 1927. One of the key areas of amendment will be to encourage forest sector economic growth in the country -- especially getting non-government actors/ private sector/ civil society/ individuals to take up afforestation/tree planting and/or to develop/manage private forests on non-forest lands on their own.
A forest policy has also been in the works which will support plantations and agroforestry in non-forest areas by government and private bodies. “The draft forest policy is being internally circulated for comments. It will be shared for public comments once approved,” said a senior official from forest policy division of the environment ministry who asked not to be named.