OIL PALM IN NAGALAND: A story of reneging companies and broken government promises

Empty containers of chemicals used in oil palm cultivation under Peren district. (Photo Courtesy of the author)

Empty containers of chemicals used in oil palm cultivation under Peren district. (Photo Courtesy of the author)

Robert N Solo
T Khel, Kohima Village

Nagaland provides a firsthand experience of living biodiversity-amongst the last of the ‘hot spots’ left on our planet.  The drive from Khonoma village through Dzulekie in Kohima district and then up to the border of neighbouring Peren district offers a view of nature in all its pristine magnificence.  

From the narrow road that winds its way along the high mountain ridges, the forests that climb up to their summit look like huge clumps of broccoli - dark green, dense and impenetrable. Within that jungle fastness lies an unimaginable treasure trove of infinite varieties of trees, creepers, medicinal plants, wild vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, flora and fauna. 

The recent construction of the road linking Khonoma to Peren sadly however, could well be the death knell of this natural forest. It may not survive the onslaught of ‘development’, with forest lands and natural resources increasingly pledged to fuel the engines of India’s proposed five trillion dollar economy.

The consequences of such ‘development’ are all too apparent when one crosses the Kohima district border and heads to Jalukie, a growing town and commercial hub within Peren district. Here, the landscape changes to orderly plantations of teak, areca nut, rubber and in recent times oil palm.  The land is dry, dusty and becoming inhospitable to human life.  We see the adverse impact of mono culture cropping, the rising use of chemicals in the soil. 

The Indian sub-continent has parts of four of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots-these are the Himalayas; Indo-Burma in the Northeast, the Andaman Islands, Sundaland in the Nicobar Islands and the Western Ghats. These rich biodiversity regions now face the threat of government development policies that are pushing oil palm and other monoculture plantations as cash crop, largely under corporate management.

The National Mission on Edible Oils with a special focus on the Northeast, Andaman and Nicobar, offers an unprecedented subsidy of Rs 11,040 crore, luring farmers who are unaware of the evidence on the downside of oil palm and thus unable to make informed decisions. Many of these plantations are replacing natural forests, wet paddy cultivation lands and regenerating jhum fields (slash-and-burn cultivation). 

Some two decades ago Peren, largely inhabited by the Zeliang and other tribes, was also covered in dense, natural jungle.

 Farmers here practiced paddy and jhum on community-held lands. However, over the last decade, changes in climatic patterns, gradual drying of water sources, reduction in soil fertility and decline in paddy production have prompted farmers to leave rice cultivation and envision new land use practices.

Depleting returns and lack of government support for the issues faced have led to small farmers selling their fields to the wealthier elites, including government officials who have a steady cash flow.  Consolidating their land holdings, they established teak and rubber plantations and then transited to oil palm because of the hugely attractive subsidy it offered.

One such plantation owner is a government officer in Tening Block. He was amongst the first to grow oil palm in the area in 2015. Investing huge personal funds to buy 45 hectares, he planted 4,000 saplings purchased through Sevasaiss, a company based in Andhra Pradesh, introduced by the Nagaland Agriculture Department.

According to this farmer payments promised have been unduly delayed and they were not prepared for the initial investments required. ‘‘Had we known, we would not have got into this. The high capital cost cannot be sustained by poor farmers who do not have any other additional source of income”, he said.

Peren’s plantation owners were initially taken for training in oil palm cultivation to Hyderabad. Field visits to Mizoram in a similar landscape would have been more relevant, a farmer said. Farmers in Mizoram have now been growing oil palm for over a decade and have their own milling facility built by Godrej. Although it was advised that oil palm is best grown in the foothill areas, Mizo farmers also planted it in the higher reaches where the weather, road and transport conditions are not suitable, he noted.

The story so far, based on conversations with three different oil palm farmer groups in Peren and Niuland districts, is one of company and government reneging on the assurances and promises they made. The original company they were dealing with and which had encouraged them, Sevasaiss, was abruptly replaced by the government.  

Consequently, after five years, and at the time of the first harvest, farmers found that there were no buyers for the fruit bunches that are produced throughout the year. It was only in 2023 after a MoU was signed between Godrej and Government of Nagaland that the farmers were told that the company would pay them Rs 10 per kg for their harvested fruit (in Assam the rate is Rs.8 per kg from the same company). 

While many in Peren still await their first harvest, plantation owners are discovering that there are a number of hidden costs in the initial years before the harvest.  This requires personal investment of around Rs. four to five lakh. These costs eat into the profits the farmers had counted upon.  

Labour costs for instance, in these parts are high (Rs 400 to 500 per person daily). Oil palm plantations require labour to clear the land, to plant the saplings and need to be weeded twice a year. They also need regular clearing of undergrowth. Once planted, to uproot a mature oil palm tree requires hiring JCBs, which roughly costs Rs 2000 per hour. Women labour in the work force has receded and male workers charge more because the harvesting of the thorny oil palm fruit is difficult work. Annual out of pocket costs thus mount to over Rs 1 lakh. The subsidies promised to the farmers have not been very regular or paid on time. 

In the oil palm plantation visited outside Jalukie, one saw evidence of the heavy use of an herbicide called Hijack, with empty bottles strewn around the plantation.  This herbicide containing glyphosate is used to control the proliferation of weeds.  Its use is banned in the US as it is carcinogenic.  

The plantation owners said that chemical fertiliser was applied in the first year by digging around the plant.  “When we add fertiliser the leaves sprout so we see a positive impact.  The green cover will make it a tourism spot, the plant is very attractive”, one said. In what used to be a bastion of organic cropping, the chemical contamination of the soil now, will last decades. The farmers of Peren may well have missed the organic market bus.

The most challenging issue is access to water, for the oil palm is a guzzler, with each plant requiring at least 250 to 300 litres per day as per government recommendation. 

While rainfall from June to October has been fairly consistent, the impact of climate change is also being noticed with reduced water in rivers and streams. In the dry months irrigation to the oil palms is now down to once or twice a week in the slope areas. The government has provided some farmers one water tank and a pump.

The introduction of oil palm to Peren district has brought with it a slew of environmental and social problems, including depleting soils, water shortages, the use of harmful chemicals, rapidly increasing labour costs and shifts in land tenure and ownership.  The near-complete lack of institutional support to farmers has made oil palm cultivation a loss-making proposition. What has played out in Tening Block is now being repeated across Peren and Niuland districts.

At an oil palm plantation of around 12 hectares near Jalukie, taken up by a church council in 2017, its spokesperson said they owned the land and the State Agriculture Department convinced them to plant oil palm. He said “I feel ashamed to tell you about the small amounts of money given to clear the land, around Rs 20-30,000, for that was barely enough to buy fuel needed for the machines.” They were also given a tiller, a grass cutter and recently a tractor, he revealed. 

“One of the difficulties we face is with the issue of maintenance.  It has proved to be very expensive”, he said. “We know that the plants require more water. We have not given extra irrigation as required, as we do not have a well. Around 400 plants have died due to fire, insects and rats. Some of the saplings dried up. Of the 2,000 saplings initially planted in 2017, we had to replace the plants that died and after doing that, we currently have around 1,700 plants that are still alive,” he said. 

This experience reveals that State encouragement and some support that came in the beginning, has been waning and that subsidies have been substantially reduced. While farmers struggle with maintenance issues, it is entirely their effort that prevents plantations from deteriorating. But that effort is costing the organisation Rs one lakh annually at the very least, which includes initial land clearance and one-time weeding. 

Frustrated by the lack of company guidance and government support the church representative said, “No official has come here yet. Since nothing much has happened to address our needs, we wanted to uproot the oil palm plants. We approached the Agriculture Department and told them that we want to cut it down and clear it away from our land, but they told us, ‘Why do you want to cut, it’s gold’. 

The farmers have no idea how to manage the harvest of their crop; no training has been provided by the company and no one seems to know where the collection centre is located, who will pick up the harvest and what price will be paid for the fresh fruit bunches. 

“We are hoping that involvement of Godrej will ease things. We are not optimistic. Things are unpredictable.  We have to do what the Agriculture Department says. They tell us to do things but they are not hands on. There is apprehension over how to go forward.  We have made investments for the past six years and it is difficult to remove oil palm now after so much time and effort.  We have not used chemical fertilisers so there is a chance of restoring the land”, he said.

According to the church council representative a neighbouring farm in village Ngwalwa experimented with a pollinator, a newly introduced insect that flies across trees and covers a radius of 20 kms that contributed to a good oil palm harvest.  However, nobody knows the origins and rationale for such potentially harmful biological experimentation.  When asked about this, the Sub-Divisional Officer who could have answered this question, has got transferred, he reported.

The location of the mill to process the oil palm within 48 hours presents another challenge to Peren farmers. Currently the only such mill catering to the Northeastern region is located at Kolasib in the Mizoram foothills. With poor road and transport conditions, delay in processing results in deterioration of the oil quality. Farmers then have to accept the price dictated by the company. 

There is a proposal to set up another mill at Ganesh Nagar on the Assam-Nagaland border, close to Hebron, a camp of the NSCN-IM, a Naga political group. That area is still a distance of three hours from Jalukie, which is the collection centre for Peren. 

A plantation owner in Tening block of Peren, reiterates, “Small farmers cannot grow oil palm, it’s too risky.  For two years we grew papaya in the oil palm plantations, but pesticides were required.  We have recently sent truck loads of saplings to a nursery for distribution. The Central government people came to see and are satisfied with what we are doing. But money or supplies are not coming to me. I am subsidising the government”, he said.

An identical story emerges in a discussion with oil palm farmers in the recently created (2021) district of Niuland.  

These foothills, along with Wokha, Peren, and Chümoukedima are unique fertile lands that could be the organic bowl of Nagaland.  Anything grows here without chemicals — turmeric, betel nut, lemons, fruits, paddy, mustard seeds, amongst others. All that they required was some heavy machinery like tractors to prepare the land, but there has been no government support for multi-cropping, the farmers said.

In 2017 oil palm was introduced in Niuland and the district has around 80 farmers who have established 1400 bighas (about 350 hectares) under oil palm cultivation. Since the past two years they are represented by the Oil Palm Farmers Association. When abandoned by Sevasaiss, the livid farmers went to the Agriculture Dept and threatened to ‘call their bluff and file a case against them’.  

The President of the Association, a Sumi tribal said, “We planted oil palm and after five years we got the first fruit bunches, but the original company was no longer around to buy the harvest.  We have put in a lot of effort and expense to create these plantations and borne an expenditure of upto Rs 1.2 to 1.5 lakh a year.”  

As of November, 2023, Godrej came and carried away 1,300 kg priced at Rs.10 per kg, which they said was fixed by the GOI. The total payment expected was of Rs 13,000 but at that time of the meeting the payments had not materialised even after three months. “It is a huge loss, for in the initial meetings we were promised Rs 150 to 200 per kg by Sevasaiss and the Agriculture Department. The cost of maintenance is extremely high. For the past couple of years we left the produce as it is because there was no collection. We are thinking of removing these plants but it needs a JCB and the cost is too much”, an Association office bearer said.

Irrigating the oil palm daily has become an insurmountable problem for the Niuland farmers.  Earlier they pumped water from their fish ponds or the river, but now they have run out of money. They are no longer able to water the plants. Now, they say, the trees are falling down and rodents are eating it. “If it was a few hundred trees it would still be okay, but it’s affecting thousands of trees”,  a farmer testified. 

The Niuland farmers have experimented with the pollinator, which they said is a weevil. “Despite using this pollinator, only the outer side of the seeds look good. The inside however, the kernel, which is the oil bearing part of the fruit, is not good”, they reported.

Given the existing situation on the ground, the prospects of a successful rollout of oil palm in Nagaland — one that brings benefits to farmers while still preserving soil and water quality — are grim.  The lessons from Peren and Niuland must be communicated across the state so that informed decisions (not based simply on government or corporate promises) can be made by Nagaland’s farmers.