18 July, 2019

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An Open Letter To The President: Does Oil Palm Deplete Soil Water Sources?

By Parakrama Waidyanatha –

Dr. Parakrama Waidyanatha

An open letter to His Excellency the President; An Unscientific Report by the Central Environmental Authority on Oil Palm and Peoples’ Objection to its Cultivation

Your Excellency,

There was a news item in the press recently that some local politicians and villagers were objecting to the cultivation of oil palm in the Galigamuwa area, of the Kalutara district. Sadly, among other things, this is apparently a consequence of a highly unscientific report that had been produced under the aegis of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), and the belief that this crop is causing drying of wells and streams. I believe you had the occasion to consider its contents. The scientists of the Coconut Research Institute, the organization that is vested with the conduct of research on oil palm and several other contributors to it had disagreed with much of the observations in the document and refused to sign it. Consequently, the report had been presented as several components written separately by the participating institutions.  

The contention of the CEA is that it is not as environmentally friendly as tea, rubber and coconut and because of some other considerations too, it is not recommending its cultivation expansion. However, the Plantations Ministry in its component of the report states that it is no less environmentally friendly than the other plantation crops, and given also the massive economic importance of oil palm, it is seeking your approval as the Minister in charge of the subject of the environment to expand its cultivation. However, regrettably it would appear that your approval has hitherto not been forthcoming.

Oil palm

Does oil palm causes drying of wells and streams?

The main objection to  the cultivation of oil palm by the CEA and several other environmentalists is  its purported excessive consumption of water leading to drying of wells and streams. The CEA has based its arguments on the basis of per tree evapo-transpiration (ET) of rubber and oil palm. It has been pointed out that, whereas a mature rubber transpires only about 63 litres of water per day, an oil palm tree transpires 249 litres. However, scientifically ET should be measured on per unit area basis and not per plant. Whereas the recommended planting density of rubber is 520 trees per hectare that of oil palm is only 143 implying that the corresponding rates of ET should be 32,760  and 35,607 l/ha respectively; a difference of a mere 8.6%. Can such a small difference in ET cause such a vast impact on drying of water sources?  The whole country (wet zone) has yet less than 10,000ha of oil palm and the proposal is merely to increase it to 20,000 ha. The increasing water consumption over the years with increasing population and global warming-related weather changes are perhaps the reason for the phenomenon. Even in non-oil palm cultivated areas of the wet zone instances of drying of streams and wells are not uncommon.

Other absurd observations in the Report

Of some 15 observations in the CEA report the large majority are baseless and some are howlers!  That growing oil palm on slopes causes excessive erosion is one of them. Like rubber oil palm plants are established along contours in platforms and the soil is usually well protected with cover crops (see photo).

Young oil palm cultivation with a leguminous soil cover

Compared to tea where the average soil loss during land preparation for replanting is over 250 tons/ha, and soil loss continues through its life cycle, the losses with rubber and oil palm cultivation are comparatively small. It is also reported that oil palm causes soil compaction. This contention is not supported by research evidence in Sri Lanka, and is unlikely to be more than for rubber.

The Report also states that there is excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers in oil palm, the latter being 8-10 times that of rubber. These are also faulty. The use of pesticide is no greater than with other plantation crops and fertilizer use is only about double that of rubber. Being a highly productive crop high nutrient demand is to be expected like in tea. 

Concern has also been raised about waste material and its disposal in the industry. Much of the carbonic waste is used for generating energy which is used in the oil palm processing and there is satisfactory effluent disposal with pollution risk being no greater than with rubber effluent disposal. It has also been reported that oil palm stems go waste. It may be that at present stems are not utilized here, but in countries like Malaysia where vast extents are under oil palm the trunks have many economic uses.

A further naive claim is that oil palm is a threat to biodiversity in that fruits dispersed by animals generate seedlings which are difficult to control! The fruits are usually exhaustively collected and a few stray ones in the fields  dispersed by animals, surely, can easily be weeded out.

Your Excellency’s early decision on this report is needed. Ideally an independent team of experts should be appointed for appraisal of the CEA report and action taken based on its findings. 

Overgrowing seedlings 

Following cabinet approval a large stock of imported hybrid seeds costing Rs500 million has been planted in nurseries and your indecision is delaying their field planting. It appears that the seedlings are now overgrown and unless planted soon, will be go waste!

Palm oil, the global vegetable oil

Palm oil supplies 42.3% of the global vegetable oil demand utilizing only 14.8 million hectares whereas the soy oil which takes the second place produces only 29.8% of the demand but utilizes as much as 103.8 million ha. It is the most productive vegetable oil producer, producing, on average, about 4 tons/ha/yr. Our annual vegetable oil demand is about 180,000 tons but we produce only 53,000 tons of coconut oil and 18,000 tons of palm oil, the balance now being imported mostly as palm oil. 

One of the naive recommendations of the CEA is to expand the coconut cultivation to meet the national oil demand. CRI studies show that the potential for expansion of coconut in the intermediate and dry zones is very limited for various reasons. One possibility, however, is to expand its cultivation in the wet zone as a shade crop in tea.

It is regrettable that CEA did not consult the CRI as to the potential for expansion of coconut oil production before making the recommendation. The global coconut oil demand is increasing especially as virgin coconut oil, and coconut has other diversified uses. Today coconut oil fetches over 30% more in the local consumer market, and that is why palm oil consumption has increased so rapidly.

The most productive and profitable plantation crop 

The cost of production of palm oil is the lowest of all plantation crops, and the profit highest. The net profit per hectare of coconut , tea rubber and oil palm is Rs 175,000, Rs 88,000,  Rs 80,000 and Rs 612,000 respectively. In order to make the country self sufficient in vegetable oils, there is thus justification for conversion of 40,000 to 50,000 ha  of the less productive rubber lands into oil palm.

After the second world war, with the global vegetable oil demand increasing rapidly and conventional oils such as coconut, soya and corn not being able to meet the demand, many tropical countries expanded oil palm cultivations, some even stretching into virgin rain forests. Here in Sri Lanka we are only considering diversifying less productive rubber lands.

In the 1960s, Malaysia had the so called 60-40 land policy for rubber and oil palm, realizing the massive economic benefits of the latter. However, about five years later, its government revised the policy to 40-60! And small farmers were incentivized to grow oil palm over rubber through several national projects.

Abandoning rubber

Our rubber growers are gradually abandoning rubber for alternative crops and other more profitable options  of land use. Our national rubber cover exceeded 200, 000 ha in the 1990s but by 2015 it has decreased to 123,000 ha due to decreasing productivity, skilled labour shortages, low prices and profits. One answer to increasing greater profits from their lands is to grow oil palm in them.

Interestingly, palm and coconut oils, though ridiculed as “heart disease- causing tropical oils” in the 1980s in the west, essentially at the behest of the soya lobby, have continued to grow in global demand. Fat composition of palm oil (not palm kernel oil) can be called heart-friendly as it has 48.5% unsaturated fats which decrease cholesterol and 38% monounsaturated fat which is known to increase the good (HDL) cholesterol.

In conclusion, determination of what crop to grow should not be conditioned by tradition but by environmental suitability, sustainability and profit. Taking into consideration all these factors, oil palm overtakes the competitive plantation crops in the wet zone, viz, tea and rubber.

We trust Your Excellency would make a decision based on hard facts and not sentimental rhetoric. 

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Latest comments

  • 3
    1

    OP can be planted all over Sri Lanka aiming at 10,000 USD before 2024

  • 4
    2

    A brilliant article by Dr.Parakrama.

    Some politicians fall victims to popular demand of the public.

  • 3
    3

    President’s advisors need to advise the president not to read this ‘open letter’ or to take any notice of it, due to the following reasons.
    /
    The most significant thing about the oil palm campaign is that its actors are seasoned gangs financed by multi nationals interested in high profits only, with no regards to impacts on human health, agriculture of the environment. The same gangs used their own versions of ‘science’ to claim that the poison glyphosate posed no health risks to humans. Now that the US legal system has analysed their submissions and real life evidence, and has begun to impose billions of dollars of compensation, the ‘dollar kakkas’ have been forced to move on to other projects. (Alas, Monsanto is no more and a new dollar cow has to be found).
    /
    The reader should not be fooled by the the claimed ‘scientific evidence’ because they are corrupt, cooked-up information designed to deceive the public. As a Sri Lankan familiar with the cultivation of millions of acres of oil palm in Malaysia and Indonesia, I can highlight the dangers to anyone interested in the oil palm conspiracy in Sri Lanka, (that can be easily witnessed during the express train journey from the KL airport to the city.) It is astonishing how any other plant or animal life fails to establish in oil palm plantations. No weeds, no ans or other insects, no birds. This is because an extremely toxic resin that oozes out of the berries, fronds, stem and the roots of this palm in to the soil, repelling all other life. This is in addition to its exhaustion of ground water, siphoning all available water from the water table.

  • 3
    1

    Could this highly biased writer spell out the environmental, and other risks of growing oil palm, the number one vegetable oil in the world. Any decision should be on scientific facts a through cost benefit analysis. not on sentiments and rhetoric.

  • 3
    1

    At the end of there’s nothing you can do with the oil palm at the end of its life cycle un like the rubber plant which is a semi hard wood that can be used to make furniture or in a worse case scenario can be used as firewood.

    It would be still better to promote coconut plantations as the coconut tree has innumerable uses from medicine to furniture and everything in between from tip to root.

    • 0
      1

      No Daneelo, you can burn the oil palm at the end of its life cycle and make valuable electricity out of it. There are already several Dendro plants in Sri lanka and they need firewood of any sort.
      Also, if one hectare of Palm plantations produced Rs 612,000 compared to the Rs 175,000 from coconut, then it is worth it

  • 3
    2

    The writer seems to be looking for a hook to hang the oil palm industry funded ‘science’ to hang. Though the list of health, environmental and social impact of oil palam cultivation is too large to write in a comment like this, a summry follows.
    /
    Around 66 million tonnes of palm oil is produced annually, with Indonesia and Malaysia, producing 86 per cent of it. Oil palms are very productive, making palm oil is cheap to produce. attracting multinationals like flies to excreta.. It is sold under bogus labels such as “vegetable oil” and “vegetable fat”. Adding to palm oil will also diminish the market for coconut oil, a significant export of Sri Lanka. (We Sri Lankans are famous for digging our own graves, therefore not surprising!)
    /
    A 2016 Greenpeace report found that in Indonesia alone, palm oil has led to the deforestation of 31 million hectares of forest, an area equivalent to the territory of Germany. Deforestation at this scale speeds up global warming and by removing tree roots that anchor the soil, allowing heavy rains to wash away nutrient-rich top soil. This will drive agricultural crop yields to decline and farmers then have to use expensive fertilizers marketed by the same or related companies that own palm oil plantations..
    /
    Water pollution in turn, due to the increased use of fertilisers and pesticides on plantations can affect the quality of drinking water adding to the kidney disease in countries like Sri Lanka. The consumption of palm oil, high in saturated fats, also poses significant health risks.
    /
    Removal of scarce land also threaten endangered and other species of animals including elephants, .orangutans, rhinos and tigers who already lack enough living space.
    /
    These are the first level references to the damage caused by this destructive crop. Judging by the techniques used by these companies and the ‘scientists’ who carry out ‘research’ funded by them, there is likely to be a barrage that describes such concerns as ‘myth-based’.

    • 0
      0

      Sunlight’s comment is full of personal attackas and empty of scientific facts. Adding to coconut oil is a must because there is not enough coconut oil to go around.

      There is a huge lobby of people who kindle fear among the public and collect donations by claiming themselves to be heros fighting for the ecosystem. They are usually trying to sell some aternative product at very high cost, or frightened and uninformed individuals. So we have the “traditional rice” lobby trying to tell you to eat kalu heenati or what ever (1.1 metric tonnes per hectare) traditional rice at 5-8 times the price, and give up the modern high yielding hybrids (6-8 tonnes per hectare) thats Sri lankan rice sicentists at Bathalagoda etc., have developed after decades of effort.
      They want you to give up fertilizers for compost (and where do you get a continuous and dependable supply of compost! – import highly polluted stuf from India), give up safe herbicides like glyphoste, use dangerous broad-spectrum insecticides (e.g., azadirectins made from Kohomba plant), and use non-existent manual labour to weed the farmlands etc. These people, having destroyed the Maize cultivation, nearly destroyed the tea plantations but fortunately the president lifted the ban on glyphosate in the nick of time.

      • 0
        0

        Furthermore, Sunlight refers to misguided jury decisions in California where they think that the illness of ONE individual can be unequivocally and clearly related to a specific cause! This is only possible in a very few cases like cancer resulting from radiation, or cancer resulting from tobacco. That is why the International Agency on Research Into Cancer (IARC) ruled that glyphoste is only a class-II carcinogen. In tests with rats, a rat of weight 100-150 grams, if fed about 50 grams of glyphosate DAILY, is found to get sick. This is normal for ANY substance. Every substance is toxic above a daily admissible maximum.
        The US, Canada, UK, Japan, Australia, Germany, India etc, some 190 countries have cleared glyphosate as a very safe herbicide.
        see USA: https://www.producer.com/2019/05/u-s-releases-clear-stance-on-glyphosate/
        see Canada:https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/health-canada-herbicide-glyphosate-roundup-1.4975945

        You can similarly find clearances assuring the safety of glyphosate from all the mwedical and toxicology expertrs of all major countries in the world. I believe the National Science Council of Sri Lanka has opposed the ban on glyphosate.

        But Juries are collected from the public, and in many US states there is some much anti-science information that they don’t even take vaccinations against common infections like Measles because there are these “Sunlight” types who propagate faked up pseudoscience.

  • 4
    0

    In addition to my comment, my comment about Oil palm with the comparison of coconut is not supported here. So, it is an advertisement. President should have a good panel of advisers and not this Konduru Oil merchants.

  • 1
    2

    Regrettably, Sunlight wildly ‘shoots from the hip’ without knowing facts. I repeat again that his is mere factually incorrect rhetoric! Here are his major comments and my observations:
    1.”Adding to palm oil will diminish the coconut market” There is no competition between the two. We only produce 53,000 Mt coconut oil /yr whereas our total vegetable oil demand is some 180,000 MT, and we import over 100,000 MT oil palm. See my article. We should endeavour to produce our requirement of oil palm locally. As I have already said there the expansion of coconut cultivation in the dry areas is highly limited because of poor fruit set. But we can expand coconut in the wet zone, as an intercrop/shade tree in coconut. Sunlight, pl speak to the CRI for more information.

    2. Yes, we know that lot of rain forests have been devastated in S.E Asia for growing oil palm There is no case of depletion of our forest cover here as we are only proposing expansion of oil palm by replacing about 40,000 ha of rubber with it, a far more economically profitable crop !
    3.’ Oil palm is sold under a bogus labels, veg. oils and veg. fat’. In fact both terms are correct to describe oil palm, Sunlight!
    4. Again your knowledge on fat composition of palm oil is wrong. We are talking here about palm oil obtained from the pericarp of the fruit and it has only about 14% cholesterol elevating saturated fat, but 48% cholesterol lowering polyunsaturated fat(LDL) and 38% HDL(good cholesterol) elevating monounsaturated fat. I have given all this in my article. Please read it again carefully! By the way, the kernel oil which comprises about 10% of the palm oil fat has a composition of saturated fat like that of coconut. In terms of increasing cholesterol, coconut and palm kernel oils are far worse than palm oil.
    5. As regards fertilizer and pesticide use with oil palm ,please read my article again!
    As for Daneelo Nugara, so many furniture and other items are turned out of the palm oil trunk. As I have said in my article return from oil palm/ha/yr is as against coconut and rubber as follows:612,000, 175,000 and 80,000 respectively. You should look at the total economics and sustainability when growing any crop. There is no argument that coconut should be promoted but please see my article and the above comment.

  • 3
    1

    I told you so!
    These company-paid ‘scientists’ will say anything to get their agenda implemented, for good money of course.

    • 0
      0

      Of course, the farmer needs good money. That is why he prefers a better crop which has a lower environmental impact than that from traditional farming with digging up and tilling the soil causing enormous soil erosion. Do you want the farmer and the public to suffer in hunger, while you are wealthy enough to eat the traditionally grown food, irrespective of the environmental damage, extra need for water and land involved.
      Meanwhile, perhaps “Sunlight” is selling “ORGANIC FERTILIZERS” making tonnes of money.
      I have suffered enough from the ban on glyphosate that you people forced on us. If you have no alternative product or crop to offer, stop just slandering people.

      • 1
        0

        Standard techniques of the MNC funded bogus ‘science’ lobby.
        /
        Thankfully the lies don’t cut anymore.
        /
        There will not be oil palm in Sri Lanka.
        /
        So move on to the next one, artificial rain making perhaps!

        • 0
          1

          Sunlight says “Water pollution in turn, due to the increased use of fertilisers and pesticides on plantations can affect the quality of drinking water adding to the kidney disease in countries like Sri Lanka”.
          From where does “Sunlight” e get this type of nonsense? From venerable Ratana?
          Fertilzers and Pesticides are most used in Tea, rubber, coconut and maize plantations, and least used in paddy cultivation. It is the paddy farmers who get kidney disease, and that too only if they live in specific areas of the dry zone. People who use water from agricultural canalas and tanks do NOT get CKDu.

          So the onset of the disease is directly ANTI-CORRELATED with agricultural use.

          • 1
            0

            I was waiting to read your comment Chandre. Thanks.
            /
            Though Monsanto went under, changed the name, it is still in business under Bayer name, as we know. So we have to maintain the projects.
            /
            Proctor & Gamble and Olay are looking for consultants and R&D managers from Sri Lanka. Let me know if you or any others are interested.

  • 2
    0

    Its widely accepted that Palm oil is not good for health or for the environment it is grown. Villagers are not fools to note scarcity of water near such plantations. They have better sense than so called scientists.

  • 0
    0

    Nana says that ‘it is widely accepted that oil palm is not good for health or the environment’. Pl read my article carefully.
    Little knowledge is a dangerous thing!!

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