By 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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.