Not golden any more: Kerala farmers burn fingers with oil palm cultivation

Thinking from the farmer’s point of view, government officials in Kerala feel it will be difficult for them to meet the 6,500 ha oil palm expansion target set by the National Mission on Edible Oils.
Oil palms being felled at Kanakkary in Kottayam
Oil palms being felled at Kanakkary in Kottayam
Written by:

The 2030 vision document of the Directorate of Oil Palm Research, under the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), aims to expand India’s oil palm cultivation to one million hectares. The Union Cabinet has allotted Rs.11,040 crore to meet this target. By March 2021, the country has managed to bring about 3,70,028 ha under oil palm.

However, the exotic crop is being promoted on Indian landscapes disregarding the stories of ecological devastation and loss in Malaysia and Indonesia. The disapproval by Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) with regard to growing them on bio-diverse regions too has not stopped the crop from entering such locales in India. Despite the Supreme Court ban against further expansion of oil palm in the biodiverse region of Andaman & Nicobar, imposed in 2002, deforestation began a few weeks ago to bring more area under the oil palm. Expanding oil palm cultivation in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, an ecologically fragile archipelago, is part of the Rs 11,000 cr National Mission on Edible Oils - Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) plan.

According to the department of agriculture, while most states have come close to meeting at least 50% of their state’s area expansion target under ISOPOM, NMOOP, OPAE & NFSM, Kerala has only managed to achieve about six percent of its target between 2014 and 2019. This push for oil palm expansion continues despite a steady rise in several oil palm plantations across states being abandoned by the farmers due to poor infrastructure and low land suitability. Whenever farming was hit by crisis farmers in Kerala have searched for alternative cash crops. The story of oil palms is no different. 

“We tried growing vegetables, tubers, coconuts but nothing has ever survived the floods. Look around, all the coconut trees are dying. Finally we have found a crop that can sustain water logging. Nothing seems to bother them. They can stand in water for several months and yet bear fruits,” said Tommy John from Kottayam, who adopted oil palm farming. Vijayan Nair, another farmer from Ernakulam, took to oil palms because his farm level was way lower than his surrounding farms. “So nobody easily agrees to work on my farm. The last time I sowed paddy, I had to get my friends and neighbours to help me with the harvest. But I did not want to leave my land barren,” said Vijayan Nair from Ernakulam. For Ousepachan, a farmer from Kottayam district, finding labourers for harvesting rubber was becoming very difficult. “I had to look for an alternative crop in order to sustain myself,” he said.

Oil palm turned out to be the alternative crop in the 90s for several farmers across Kerala who struggled with low profits and pest attacks. In the next two decades that followed it replaced several paddy farms, rubber plantations, coconut groves and forest lands. “When I heard about oil palm, I simply jumped in. I didn’t even apply for the subsidy. I just wanted to plant something,” recalled Vijayan Nair.

A bait for future conversions

Soon after the oil palms were planted, Vijayan Nair began to regret his decision as rats and snakes started to proliferate and became a huge nuisance to the neighbouring farmers. “While my 15 oil palms were growing well, the rats were eating up my brother’s paddy that he had just sown and as soon as my palms grew bigger they would cast shadows on his land and make it even more difficult for him to grow paddy.”

“You cannot grow paddy adjacent to oil palm farms. You can only grow them a plot or two away.” said Pramod kumar, an oil palm farmer from Pathanamthitta.

Not wanting to be the cause of his brother’s misfortune, Vijayan hired a JCB and uprooted all the seven-year-old trees and eventually burned down his farm. “Unlike other trees, the wood has no takers. So, I had to burn them as I was scared the thorns would end up on somebody else’s farm,” he said.

But not all who turned to oil palm got rid of them fearing damage to their surrounding lands which resulted in the emergence of many clusters of small oil palm farms across the state.

While conversion of paddy farms located at higher altitudes challenged surrounding paddy cultivation, conversion of low lying regions had more detrimental impacts on its surroundings and people. 

Kerala’s model oil palm farm

At the turn of the century a group of enthusiastic oil palm farmers had set off to build the state’s first model oil palm farm after the central government had promised a subsidy for the first four years of its cultivation. An additional subsidy for purchasing saplings made it more attractive. The model farm was originally planned in Alappuzha’s Kuttanad region, known for paddy cultivation and  lies 1.5 m below sea level. “But the party workers were against converting paddy farms,” said an oil palm farmer on condition of anonymity, referring to resistance faced from workers affiliated to the Left Democratic Front.

From Kuttanad’s paddy farms the model oil palm farm moved 50 km north within the same district of Alappuzha to Muhamma, a lake-side village that was spinning coir at an industrial scale. But the plan was met with a similar opposition at Muhamma too. From the popular paddy growing regions of Alappuzha, the model oil palm farm went eastward, crossing the picturesque Vembanad lake only to stop at Kallara, a small paddy village in Kottayam district where the paddy cultivation was fast disappearing.

The farm had replaced 211 acres of low-lying paddy farms with oil palm. The 135 disheartened farmers of Kakkathuruthu paddy society had unanimously welcomed the change of crop as paddy cultivation was becoming less profitable for them. However, the people living close to the farm had to pay a much higher price.  

Low suitability, high costs

De-weeding manually or mechanically on waterlogged farms becomes difficult resulting in the use of a herbicide known as ‘Roundup’ to kill weeds growing around the palms. Owing to the health risk posed by the use of Glyphosate, a chemical compound present in ‘Roundup’, on 21st October, 2022 Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has published an order banning its procurement, sale and use across India. Several oil palm farmers across Kottayam have confessed to using the herbicide to kill the weeds.

“Everytime water from the oil palm farm is pumped out into the canal, all the fishes in the canal die. Before the conversion, there were plenty of fish in the canal but now we catch fish from the paddy farms until the farmers drain them for cultivation. We then have to buy fish from the market as the canal water is no longer edible,” said Chandrika Babu, an old resident at Kallara.

“Oil palm cultivation done after filling low-lying paddy farms impacted the population of fishes and  made the surrounding regions more flood-prone by disrupting the natural drainage of the region.” said Joseph Jefri, the agricultural officer at Kallara. Yet post the introduction of the paddy and wetland conservation in 2008, paddy farmers continued to replace paddy with oil palm. 

A contaminated canal near the oil palm farm at Kallara.

The decline

“It was a highly profitable crop but the only processing mill in Kerala is situated at Kollam district which makes transporting the harvest unviable for small farmers. That is the only reason why I got rid of them and planted coconut trees instead,” said Mathachan from Kottayam.

“Earlier one oil palm used to bear four to five fruit bunches but after the devastating flood of 2018, the yield has gone down to two fruit bunches on some trees while some have stopped giving fruits altogether. Since 2018, our farms have started facing regular floods. I still do not know if the drop in yield is because of the floods. But it is increasingly becoming unprofitable to transport a few fruit bunches all the way to Kollam,” said Jose Samuel,who manages the farm in Alappuzha for Rajan Daniel.

Amidst allround enthusiasm for the golden palm that was meant to bring economic prosperity, farmers who turned low-lying paddy fields into oil palm farms failed to foresee the additional cost for regularly maintaining the bunds. Frequent dewatering became one of the biggest challenges making oil palm farming unviable. Despite several meetings, the farmers have not reached a consensus as they are reluctant to spend more money than they already have to continue oil palm harvests. Many of them had taken loans from the Oil Palm India Ltd (OPIL) for cultivation by converting their paddy farms. Some of them are yet to repay the debt, some have sold off their plots while the majority of them have stopped harvesting the fruits. OPIL is a joint venture of the Government of Kerala and Government of India with share participation of 51% and 49% respectively.

“If the government could declare oil palm as an agricultural or plantation crop, we could get more benefits. Since it's a cash crop, electricity is not free, making frequent de-watering too expensive for us,” said Shajan John who with his brother owns 90 acres of oil palm farm in Kallara. While many farmers still find oil palm to be the most lucrative crop, some are ready to reconvert their land. “If the government will help us to reconvert this land to grow paddy then I don’t mind going back to paddy cultivation. But will the government help us financially?” asks a farmer in terms of anonymity.

According to the guidelines of the OPIL, oil palms can be cultivated on any altitude up to 1,000m above sea level as long as the region receives an annual rainfall of 2,000-3,000 mm, its temperature stays between 29 and 30 degree celcius and the atmospheric moisture does not fall beyond 80%.

Between 1971 and 1980, Kerala forest department had leased out 4,350.64 ha to cultivate oil palm. Now 70% of the state’s oil palm plantations stand on forest lands. In 1971 a total of 705 ha of forest land on the banks of Chalakudy river was leased out to Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) after clearing the land off its previous rubber plantations. A decade later, OPIL leased out 3645.64 ha of natural forest at Punalur in Kollam district to grow the state’s largest oil palm plantation with Kerala’s only oil palm mill.

However, unlike other southern states, neither does Kerala provide free electricity to oil palm farmers nor does it grow oil palm largely as an irrigated crop. The rain-fed oil palms of OPIL and PCK growing at a height of 100m above sea level have been recording an annual yield of nine tonnes per ha as against the national average of 20 tonnes per ha. “The yield we received from the oil palms growing on the hill was less than half of what we otherwise got. So, many of us replaced the ones on the hills with rubber,” said Pramod Kumar from Pathanamthitta who grew oil palm both on fallow paddy lands and on hills.

OPIL has started irrigating a small batch of their oil palms. The success of the excercise may have a negative impact on Kerala’s groundwater table like it has been recorded across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. 

Undoing the damage

The agriculture directorate of oil palm in Kerala has confirmed that the state won’t be seeing much expansion in the future. An official from the Agriculture Department, on condition of anonymity, stated that since Kerala is a densely populated state with fragmented land holdings, growing oil palm on small plots is not viable for the farmers especially due to the absence of sufficient local procurement options. Thinking from the farmer’s point of view, the officials feel that it will be difficult for Kerala to meet the additional 6,500 ha oil palm expansion target set by the National Mission on Edible Oils. Sources at OPIL also feel expansion of cultivation is an unviable ambition for Kerala. 

Model oil palm farm, that has been waterlogged, at Kallara in Kottayam.

While the government does not have any concrete idea to undo the damage the crop has caused to several farmlands, a citizen initiative – Meenachil-Meenanthara-Kodoor river relinking programme has managed to reconvert 15 acres of oil palm plantation that had replaced paddy at Kanakkary village. “Because we could not convert the paddy fields, the oil palms had to withstand long periods of water logging. However, we were told that they will survive and some even did but not a single tree was harvested ever. So when the citizens approached us to reconvert the land back for growing paddy, everyone agreed,” said Joy Vazhavely, a former oil palm farmer from Kottayam. 

“Several more acres of oil palm farms are marked for re-conversion in Kallara and Neendoor villages to restore ecological balance,” said Anilkumar, a lawyer and convener of Meenachil-Meenanthara-Kodoor river relinking programme.

The large-scale land conversions have been happening at a much faster pace than the re-conversions and as many environmentalists believe converting land for growing oil palm may become one of the ways to reclaim wetland. 

 (The author is a recipient of NFI Fellowship 2022)

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute