Women sitting in verandahs and pounding oil palm fruits, while chewing betel nuts, is a common sight in Saikaa village in Mizoram’s Kolasib district. Small plastic bottles of palm oil line the houses adjoining the roads that weave their way across the forests in this mountain village. Five years ago though, before Kolasib was declared India’s first oil palm cultivation district, the scenes here were different. The women were busy in the farmlands, engaged in jhum cultivation or swidden agriculture, producing food for household consumption.

Jhum is a practice of rotating land for temporary cultivation, commonly practiced by the tribal groups in the North Eastern states of India. Typically, about half a hectare of bamboo forests is cut, burnt and cultivated without using any chemical fertilisers. After five years, the field is rested for the forest to regenerate. Due to this unique nature of cultivation, whose knowledge is handed down generations, the jhum farmers do not own formal land tenure.

“Jhum protects agro-biodiversity and diverse landraces within crops – 67% of India’s remaining biodiversity is found in North East India,” said Phrang Roy, chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society in Shillong. “Indigenous people believe that their well-being and peace are very much linked to [a] shared economy.”

Jhum has been the traditional livelihood for these indigenous communities, who comprise 90% of Mizoram’s population. Women are an integral part of this process: from tilling the land to deciding the crop and producing a good harvest.

Over the last few years, these traditional informal community farms have been declining, making way for individual farmlands. This is due to the Mizoram government’s New Land Use Policy, introduced in 2011, which formalises individual land title. The policy aims for land reclamation and forestation by introducing permanent farming systems and land reforms, by doing away with what the government views as a “destructive way of cultivation”, according to Pu Hiphei, speaker of the Mizoram Legislative Assembly. The government is promoting settled farming through oil palm plantations. But one of the unintended outcomes, as seen in many other developing countries, is an issue confronting many of the women in Mizoram. With land titling, women are left out of ownership rights and land-use decision-making.

Ripened oil palm fruitlets ready for extracting palm oil.

“I would not have given permission for oil palm plantation, but nobody asked me,” said 50-year-old Ngunchin Sangi of the Mara tribe in Kolasib district. For Sangi and her husband, switching to oil palm plantations was the only way to be on the right side of the government. “Farming agricultural crops used to give us food security for our family. Oil palm plantations provide nothing to women. It is squeezing out blood both from my land and my body.”

But this initiative has its supporters among the younger generation. “Earlier we couldn’t make cash from bamboo and mixed forests or doing jhum,” said Pu Lalchhhana, member of the growers’ association in Kolasib. “With oil palm cultivation, the income increases every year and paying land tax ensures that our land lease gets renewed. Hopefully in 10 years, I will receive an individual land title because I’m doing settled oil palm cultivation.”

India is the world’s largest importer of palm oil. In April 2017, the Union Cabinet approved measures to increase oil palm area and production by pumping $ 1.5 billion to help farmers grow oil palm.

No place for women

“Oil palm is a man’s business,” said Rinpui, 45. “At least in jhum farming, we were equal partners. After giving up jhum for oil palm plantations, I’ve no option but to earn my livelihood from artisanal palm oil. Pounding the fruitlets all day hurts my hands and elbows.”

Indigenous women of Mizoram pound fresh oil palm fruitlets.

Rinpui’s view is echoed by her sister-in-law, Sawmi Mas. “Approximately 10 clusters are produced in a year by the oil palm plant,” said Mas, as she sorted the fruitlets from the oil palm clusters. “Each bunch has about 1,000 to 2,000 fruitlets. With artisanal palm oil, we’ve to manually sort the fruits. Women do the labour-intensive work because we are the one without land rights.”

The concern raised by these indigenous women reflects the global scenario of gender disparity in land rights, particularly among indigenous peoples living in tropical countries. “This is despite the fact that several studies have shown that women are the main knowledge holders and excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment,” said Carol Colfer, visiting scholar at Cornell University, who is working on forest, health and gender.

For almost a century, in the West and in Central Africa – where oil palm originated – women were at the forefront of the industry. The local communities harvested palm fruits from the wild and family farms, and processed them at home for local consumption. Palm oil became part of their culture and livelihoods. It also became an important source of income for women, who mainly did artisanal production and would sell it at the local markets. This otherwise women-centric trade was soon threatened by corporate-controlled, often unsustainable, cheap industrial production of oil. Mizoram’s problems are the reverse: here women are left with no alternative but to do artisanal oil palm extractions.

Women were an integral part of swidden cultivation, locally known as jhum.

In a small, dark, smoky asbestos makeshift room, 60-year-old Lalsangpuii from Thingdawl village roasts crushed oil palm fruits. She is unaware of the government policies or issues like deforestation caused by monoculture oil palm plantations in tropical countries. But she is aware of the decrease in bird population in her state. “This red oil palm and betel nuts are not native to Mizoram,” said Lalsangpuii. “It is because of this red palm [that] I’m indoors all day in front of fire, manually roasting the crushed fruits. The smoke from the firewood stove has led to breathing problems and pain in my shoulders. Earlier I’d walk in forests and work with others in our community farm – it kept us healthy.”

Her entire family is engaged in the artisanal palm oil business. The male children squeeze the oil out of the roasted fruits, while the younger women are involved in sorting and pounding the fruitlets. The elderly women roast the fruits and sell the bottled artisanal oil.

This new livelihood practice adopted by indigenous women in Mizoram is largely unorganised. “For 10 hours of work, we make maximum eight bottles of oil,” said Lalsangpuii. “It is unrefined and cannot be used for cooking, so we sell it as a beauty massage oil to outstation travellers passing via the main road. If I am lucky, I can sell four bottles a week, each costing between Rs 100 and 150.”

A woman fries the crushed palm oil fruitlets on the firewood stove.

As per the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil committee, established in 2004, the palm oil production companies need to be registered. They also need to support the local communities and ensure environmental sustainability. Nestlé, the multinational giant, was suspended from the committee in June after failing to submit palm oil sustainability reports. This resulted in global media attention and in some places, Nestlé products were boycotted by environmental activists. It left the company with no choice but to work towards getting their membership reinstated.

This shows how the RSPO membership could become a powerful tool to ensure that the multinational companies promote sustainable palm oil. But sustainability comes with its own challenges. If companies implement stricter rules for production standards, it might drive many smallholders away, further hurting the women of the household. The European Union’s decision to ban palm oil biofuel is aimed at avoiding deforestation, but it is the smallholder oil palm cultivators who might face the brunt of such a decision. Therefore, there is a need in developing a holistic strategy for addressing gender and social diversity inequities in oil palm plantation.

“The danger with oil palm is that traditional farming systems, like swiddening, are disrupted permanently,” said Colfer. “Land tenure is often solidified and handed over to men exclusively as [often externally-defined] heads of the household. Women, who may have had strong or at least reliable access to lands, may suddenly find themselves without such access or rights – as has happened in a number of Asian and other settings, when oil palm comes in.”

A Mizo woman sells a bottle of artisanal oil palm as massage oil.

In 1995, the global consumption of palm oil was 15 million tonnes and by 2022, the market is expected to reach over $88 billion for an estimated consumption of 120 million tonnes. India urgently needs a stringent standard of defining sustainable palm oil and monitoring mechanism to ensure that all oil palm companies are not only members, but adhere to the standards of the RSPO.

The New Land Use Policy needs to ensure women’s inclusiveness in oil palm plantations. The best way is to identify and formally recognise local customary laws of collective indigenous territories that promote social and gender equity inclusiveness.

All photos by Purabi Bose for the film Tasawuff (2018).