Prohibit or regulate palm oil production?

By Tharumalee Silva

Cultivators and environmentalists are seemingly going back and forth on the benefits and risks of the palm oil industry following a recommendation by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) which conducted extensive research on the matter.

At a media briefing, Planters’ Association of Ceylon (PA) Chairman Sunil Poholiyadde reiterated that stalling the importation process of oil palm seeds had irreversibly damaged the industry, while it had allegedly been the single most profitable crop to cultivate for over 50 years in Sri Lanka.

According to statistics of the PA, seven out of the 21 regional plantation companies (RPC) in Sri Lanka are engaged in oil palm cultivation.

Environmental woes

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch of the environmental benefits of oil palm cultivation, PA Secretary General Lalith Obeyesekere stated: “Oil palm cultivation generally results in lush undergrowth which helps to conserve soil moisture and nutrition within optimal parameters. Biodiversity in rubber and oil palm plantations are almost similar.

Compared to rubber cultivation and processing, the usage of chemicals for oil palm processing is much less. At present, oil palm is not affected by local fungal infections; hence, it does not require antifungal treatment. In fact, today there are new species of fish that are being discovered that is endemic to the Nakiyadeniya estate – the first and largest oil palm estate in Sri Lanka.”

He further stated that chemicals are not used during processing of ripening fruits to obtain palm oil. In contrast, substantial amounts of chemicals are used in rubber in the form of fungicides, pesticides, and processing chemicals.
“Factory solid waste is used as organic manure and also as fuel to generate renewable energy. Oil palm factories are also capable of being self-sufficient in its energy requirement. The effluent is 90 to 95% water and there are no chemicals. Technology is available for treating such effluents,” he said, also confirming that the environmental benefits of oil palm cultivations are essentially the same as that of tea, rubber, and coconut.

However, according to environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena, oil palm cultivation has more negative effects, as it affects the biodiversity of the environment surrounding the plantations. He said: “There are issues of certain invasive species being created as a result of oil palm cultivations. For example, peacocks have been migrating to the cultivations. The peacock has now become a problem in the Wet Zone as the dry environment created by the oil palm farms is the ideal habitat for them to procreate,” he said.

The statistics of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also supports Gunawardena’s statement and according to statistics presented by the organisation: “Globally, palm oil production is affecting at least 193 threatened species, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It has been estimated that oil palm expansion could affect 54% of all threatened mammals and 64% of all threatened birds globally. It also reduces the diversity and abundance of most native species. For example, it has played a major role in the decline in species such as orangutans and tigers.”

Furthermore, environmentalists claim that oil palm cultivation provides a suitable breeding ground for invasive species such as snakes and vipers.

Sustainable methods

However, the IUCN suggested that switching from oil palm cultivations to other oil crops may not be a suitable solution. Instead, they suggest that oil palm should be cultivated in a sustainable manner where forestry is not sacrificed for new crops and effective policy planning is implemented.

The IUCN states: “Palm oil needs to be produced more sustainably. A simple shift from oil palm to other oil crops is not a solution as it may lead to further biodiversity loss. Oil palm produces up to nine times more oil per unit area than other major oil crops, and can help meet global demand for vegetable oils that is estimated to grow from an annual 165 million tonnes now to 310 million tonnes in 2050. Banning palm oil could result in diminished efforts to produce palm oil sustainably, and an increase in land used for producing other oils (mostly soy, sunflower, and rapeseed) which is likely to shift biodiversity impacts to regions where those oils are produced.”

Poholiyadde also gave his insight to the matter, stating that the Government gave cultivators specific guidelines when producing crops. “The Coconut Research Institute (CRI) established clear guidelines for oil palm cultivation. These include stipulations that oil palm cannot be established on terrain with a slope that is steeper than 20 degrees. Oil palm is currently grown in areas which on average receive an annual rainfall of more than 3,500 mm, which is substantially higher than what is required by the crop. In any event, CRI guidelines state that oil palm cultivation is recommended only in agroecological zones that receive more than 2,500 mm of annual rainfall,” he said.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a palm oil mill can generate 2.5 metric tonnes of effluent for every metric tonne of palm oil it produces. “Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people. While oil palm plantations are not large, as users of pesticides and fertilisers overall, its indiscriminate application of these materials can pollute surface and groundwater sources.”

With regards to this, Poholiyadde stated that the water that is released in local palm oil mills is treated up to 95% and he deemed the remaining 5% also harmless.

As far as the benefits of oil palm cultivation go, Poholiyadde vocalised that it is good for the economy since most of the local traditional crops such as coconut, rubber, and tea are not profitable crops.

“We are on record stating that there is a negative environmental impact when oil palm is cultivated in a sustainable manner within the guidelines established. This is what is happening in Sri Lanka. There has not been a single instance of deforestation in Sri Lanka as a result of oil palm cultivation because we only replace old unproductive rubber lands with oil palm. These are lands that are already under cultivation; hence, we reiterate that there is no negative impact and we can only benefit from the continued cultivation of this crop,” Poholiyadde confirmed.

With the continuous debate between environmentalists and cultivators, it seems imperative to find middle ground.
Being a developing country with a debt crisis, Sri Lanka can clearly benefit economically from persevering oil palm production; however, as an island rich in natural resources, it is also of utmost importance that these resources be protected for the next generation.

Many international research organisations suggest sustainable methods of cultivating oil palm.

According to Conservation International (CI), sustainable methods of growing oil palm crops can be achieved through strengthening policies. They suggest that governments should ensure their policies and incentives support more sustainable palm oil production which does not directly or indirectly result in deforestation.

As an incentive towards promoting sustainable oil palm cultivations, the CEA has taken measures to impose guidelines for the production of oil palm crops.

According to the guidelines given by the CEA, when planting the seeds which have already been imported, a strategic environmental assessment should be done, and the seeds should only be planted on cleared land. District secretariats should monitor the goings on of the existing oil palm cultivations, plantation companies must put forth an environmental management plan with regards to their existing cultivations, and prior to the companies activating the management plan, the Ministry of Plantation Industries must approve it via a special committee.