On the morning of December 19, 2021, the residents of Khedelipara village in Assam’s Goalpara district were in for a shock. An adult female elephant was found dead in a banana plantation, around 1.5 km from the village. Initially, the elephant was suspected of having died from electrocution. But the forest department had ruled it out.
Rachan Daimary, a research scholar from Dudhnoi town in Goalpara, however, said death by electrocution is possible. “Elephants have been electrocuted in the past in Goalpara,” he said. “In Khedelipara, there are rubber and banana plantations at the edge of the village. Raiding of crops by elephants in these plantations is common, which sometimes prompts residents to retaliate by electrocuting them.”
Goalpara is considered to be one of the worst affected districts for human-elephant conflict in Assam. Media reports say that around 20 people were killed by elephants in Goalpara in 2021, while five jumbos also died during the same period. Data presented in Assam Assembly in 2019 shows that 76 people were killed by elephants in the district from 2010 to 2019.
Apart from being a hotspot for human-elephant conflicts, Goalpara is also a pioneer in oil palm cultivation in Assam. The first oil palm plantation in the state was set up in Khungkhrajani village, around 6 km from Dudhnoi town, back in 2015. Over the years, many monoculture plantations, including rubber, banana, tea, and areca nut, have sprung up in Goalpara.
According to the recent India State of Forest Report, 2021, Goalpara has only 22.18% of its geographical area under forest cover, which is one of the lowest in the state. Also, only 13.73 sq km of the district falls under the Very Dense Forest (tree canopy of 70% or more) category.
Oil palm plantations
Around eight years ago, the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, an autonomous council that administers almost the entire Goalpara district and parts of Kamrup (Rural), decided to cultivate oil palm in Goalpara. Oil palm was virtually unknown to the people of Assam at that time, and Goalpara became the first district to start oil palm cultivation in the state.
Narrating the history behind starting oil plantations, Tankeswar Rabha, Chief Executive Member of Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, told Mongabay-India, “At that time, the Indian government was writing to the Assam government to start oil palm cultivation in the state. However, the Assam government refuted the idea saying that they did not have the required land.”
“However, while discussing with other council members and farmers of the area, I realised that we could start oil palm cultivation here,” Rabha said. “Many farmers said they were ready to begin cultivating oil palm if they got support from Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council. The first plantation came up in Khungkhrajani village in 2015.”
More than 3,000 hectares of land in Rabha Hasong area is currently under oil palm cultivation, involving around 2,000 farmers, notes Rabha. He believes it can significantly contribute to solving unemployment problems.
“By 2024, we have a target to bring 4,000 hectares under oil palm cultivation in Rabha Hasong area,” Rabha said. “Oil palm has replaced rice as the former is much more profitable. On one bigha land (0.13 hectare), farmers growing rice will earn around Rs 4,000 in a month. If he grows oil palm on the same land, he will earn three times that amount at the same time.”
In Khungkhrajani village, oil palm cultivation is a community project. Amar Rabha, a middle-aged farmer, said 11 out of 52 families in the village are cultivating oil palm.
“Back in 2015, we barely had any idea about oil palm. Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council and the agriculture department gave us free seeds at that time,” Amar Rabha said. “On a plot of 70 bighas here, 11 farmers have grown 300 oil palm trees.”
“Apart from that, we grow oil palm in our backyard,” Rabha said”There are 30-35 oil palm trees in my home. We started selling our produce at the rate of Rs 10/kg from last year. We also intercrop in the fields with turmeric, pineapple, potato etc. There is a bit of water shortage as the entire farm needs 400 litres of water both in the morning and evening. Barring that, there is no other issue.”
Nayan Kumar Borah, Goalpara’s agriculture officer, dismisses allegations by a section of activists that oil palm cultivation has been carried out in forest land. “This is a baseless allegation. No forest land has been used for palm oil cultivation so far,” he said. “It has been done mainly on wasteland and fallow lands. We still have abundant land where oil palm can be cultivated.”
“The demand for oil palm in the country is very high,” he said. “Every year, we import oil palm worth Rs 80,000 crores. If we use our land properly, we can meet that demand and also export the surplus.”
The Assam government has plans to start oil palm cultivation in 17 districts, including heavily forested ones like Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.
An officer in the agriculture department, on condition of anonymity, said, “Now, we are starting oil palm projects under the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm. As many as five to six companies have been empanelled in this regard, though it is yet to be decided which company will get which district.”
“An action plan of Rs 70 crores, which includes planting materials subsidy, irrigation subsidy and processing industry subsidy has been sanctioned,” the officer said. “However, the funds are yet to arrive from the Centre. Apart from that, some nurseries have been started at Karbi Anglong, Chirang, Dhemaji and Kamrup [Metro].”
Narayan Sharma, assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Sciences, Cotton College State University, had visited the oil palm fields in Khungkhrajani in 2017 and again last year. He said that oil palm is a highly water-intensive crop, stressing the negative impacts of oil palm cultivation.
“Though people say they are inter-cropping, there is nothing in the ground below the oil palm [no other crop can be grown below the ground where oil palm is grown because it guzzles water], Sharma said. “Oil palm turns vast patches of land into biological deserts. Oil palm guzzles so much water that it is difficult to practice [cultivation of] any other crop.”
“Also, a distance of 12 feet needs to be maintained between two oil palm trees,” Sharma said. “So, it is not profitable for small farmers. A farmer needs to have 10-12 bighas to make something out of oil palm.”
Agriculture officer Bora, however, said that oil palm does not create water scarcity as it draws water from the surface. “Oil palm does not have a tap root system. It has a fibrous root with which it draws water from the ground surface area – which is abundant,” he said.
The lack of a processing unit is plaguing the oil palm farmers in Goalpara currently.
“The Assam government had allotted 50 bighas of land in Piplibari at Dhupdhara in Goalpara district for setting up an oil palm processing unit,” Dhaneswar Rabha, president of the Oil Palm Growers Co-ordination Committee of Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council said. “However, the unit is yet to start. We request the government to ensure that the unit starts soon because farmers are not getting value for their product.”
Chenaisri Basumatary, a farmer from Bhalukjuli village in Rangjuli, Goalpara, testifies to the rising human-elephant conflict in the district. His wife’s brother Jagannath Khaklary (32) died in an elephant encounter in his village last year. “The attack happened at 10 in the morning,” he said. “My brother-in-law was looking for a cow that hadn’t returned home the day before. Unfortunately, he came face to face with an elephant.”
Basumatary says crop-raiding by elephants is common in his village. “There is a school in our area which also serves as a granary,” he said. “Elephant herds damage the school every year to consume the paddy stored there.”
Saranga Dhar Rabha, a school teacher living in Dudhnoi, who has been working to mitigate human-elephant conflict in the region, said that the growing number of monoculture plantations have a role in aggravating the human-elephant conflict in Goalpara.
“In Goalpara, the forest has been destroyed by monoculture,” he said. “The rubber board has set up rubber plantations that have hampered natural forests.”
“Palm oil is a more recent phenomenon, whose impact is yet to be fully seen,” he said. “Three-four decades ago, we didn’t hear much about elephant depredation in Goalpara. But now, a herd of 30-40 elephants stays in Goalpara for the year.”
Banana plantations have also come up in a big way in Goalpara. “Many people here have 15-20 bighas of banana plantations,” Rabha said. “Darrangagiri in Goalpara is the largest banana market in Asia. So, there is a lot of demand for bananas here. Elephants frequent these plantations as they also get their food here.”
Narayan Sharma said that palm oil in Assam has not reached a stage that could induce or aggravate the human-elephant conflict. “Banana and rubber plantations have played a greater role in propagating that conflict in Goalpara,” Sharma said. “Also, there are a lot of small tea gardens in people’s backyards in Goalpara.”
“People blame jhum cultivation for forest loss but it actually supports more biodiversity than oil palm,” he said. “If we are not careful, then palm oil can increase human-wildlife conflict in the future.”
Sharma, however, said that it is essential to balance out different aspects of the issue. “We need the economy to balance with ecology,” he explained. “Oil palm can be grown in wastelands where other crops like paddy cannot be grown. Also, farmers can practice it in areas where the water table is very high, and there is less chance of water scarcity occurring in the future. It can be cultivated in degraded forests with invasive species which do not support biodiversity.”
Speaking about the reasons behind the human-elephant conflict in Goalpara, Jitendra Kumar, Divisional Forest Officer of Goalpara, told Mongabay-India, “Rise in human population and encroachment of forest land are some of the main reasons behind human-elephant conflict in Goalpara,” he said. “Plantations have come up inside forests. Also, elephants are chased away from nearby Meghalaya state, and they enter Goalpara.”
“Currently, the forest in Goalpara comprises mainly small reserve forests scattered here and there and not in continuous patches,” he said. “Elephants are long-ranging animals. They go from one forest patch to another through villages where conflict happens. Out of the four ranges in Goalpara- Rangjuli is the most affected, followed by the Lakhipur range.”
Oil palm scenario
Last year, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu said the state is planning to bring 1.33 lakh hectares of land under oil palm cultivation soon. Geographically, Arunachal Pradesh is the largest state in the North East with an area of 83,743 sq km. The state has also got 92.99% of its total area under forest cover.
A research scholar, who is working on the topic of oil palm expansion in Arunachal Pradesh, on conditions of anonymity told Mongabay-India, “As of now, the government has planned oil palm production in nine districts of the state- which have been divided into four zones.”
“Zone 1 comprises Namsai, Changlang and Tirap, Zone 2 has Lower Dibang Valley, Zone 3 has East Siang and Zone 4 comprises East Kameng, Papum Pare, Lower Subansiri and West Siang,” he said. “The plan is to cover 5000 hectares by 2022. Till now, some plantations have been raised in every zone.”
He informed that presently three companies have invested in oil palm cultivation in Arunachal Pradesh.
Regarding his experience of interacting with oil palm farmers in the state, the researcher said, “Presently, farmers who have large plots of land are cultivating oil palm. Also, they are not putting their entire land under palm oil cultivation.”
“Most farmers are using around 10% of their land for palm oil,” the researcher said. “Currently, they are mainly waiting for rainwater for irrigation. Most of the farmers till now have had a positive experience with oil palm.”
“The only issue they are facing is the absence of a processing unit in the state,” the researcher said. “Oil palm is a highly perishable product and if the good doesn’t reach the processing unit within 24 hours, it degrades. Also, like Mizoram, road connectivity in Arunachal Pradesh is not great which delays the process further. In such a scenario, there is not much option other than dumping the products.”
As many of the districts where oil palm has been proposed have a rich array of wildlife, there is concern that it might hamper the biodiversity of the state. Regarding this, the researcher said, “As per my knowledge, till now no forest land has been converted into oil palm plantations.”
“They have mainly come up on agricultural land and fallow land,” the researcher said. “Some of them have also replaced rubber plantations. However, if the government converts 1.3 lakh hectares into oil palm plantations, then they will definitely have to go for forest lands.”
“In Arunachal Pradesh, 60% of the forests are owned by communities and chances are that some of those might be converted into oil palm plantations,” the researcher said. “So, if that happens in the future, it will definitely lead to more environmental impacts and human-wildlife conflicts.”
Conservationist Jayanta Kumar Das, who is also the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Udalguri, another district ravaged by human-elephant conflict in Assam feels that expansion of oil palm is going to be disastrous for northeast India’s biodiversity
“These plantations look like forests but they are not actual forests,” Das said. “Elephants will not get any food from these plantations. So, with more area being brought under oil palm cultivation, these animals will face food scarcity.”
“Lack of food will make them stressed and agitated and when they will enter villages looking for food in this state, the conflict will increase massively,” Das said. “If they have to meet the area targeted by the government, they will have to start oil palm cultivation in forest lands, grazing lands and Proposed Reserve Forests.”
“In this way, there will be no buffer zone left beyond the protected areas which can be used by wild animals,” Das said. “Unless they practice oil palm in a sustainable manner, it is going to be disastrous for the northeast region.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.