The Indian government’s drive to expand domestic production of palm oil in the country’s northeast to reduce dependence on imports has been held back by a lack of road connectivity with farmers giving up its cultivation for other crops, Eco-Business reported.

Some farmers were switching back to their old crops, while others were opting to plant areca nuts and oranges, the 24 April report said.

India consumes around 9M tonnes/year of palm oil and is the world’s largest importer of the product, according to the report.

While state agriculture department records showed 10,843 farmers were involved in oil palm cultivation over 26,680ha of land in 197 villages in the northeast as of July 2021, the latest information showed only 2,733 farmers were involved in its cultivation in 193 villages.

As a result of national government policies, particularly the launch of the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) in August 2021, northeastern states Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland had started their own expansion initiatives, the report said.

To date, most of India’s oil palm cultivation takes place in southern India. However, India’s current expansion plan is focused on the northeastern region and, of the 0.65M ha of additional land that India aimed to bring under oil palm cultivation in the country by 2026, half was to be in the northeast, which accounted for only 7.9% of the country’s total geographical area, Eco-Business wrote.

Government initiatives to increase oil palm cultivation in the northeast were being held back by lack of road connectivity, according to sources quoted in the report.

“In the early stages, many farmers in remote areas took up oil palm cultivation. Many of them had their land plots far away from the highways. They found harvesting and transportation a problem. So, they stopped harvesting,” R Vanlalchhuanga, deputy director of the Mizoram agriculture department in charge of palm oil, told Eco-Business.

There was no lack of demand for the raw materials at processing units, Vanlalchhuanga added.

“We have a 5,000 tonnes/hour capacity unit here and we can’t even provide for 30% of its capacity,” he said, adding: “A section of farmers who have stopped harvesting haven’t uprooted the plants. They will start harvesting once roadway connectivity improves.”

However, several local residents were quoted as saying the main reason farmers did not clear their plantations was the associated cost.

Last year, a study assessing the impact of oil palm cultivation on behalf of the Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA) was led by John Zothanzama, head of the biotechnology department at Mizoram University and a CYMA member.

The study found that only plantations with good road connectivity and those covering large areas of land (10ha or more) were continuing with oil palm.

“About 40% of farmers we interviewed have switched to areca nut, banana, pineapple, and orange. It looks like the economic return is the main reason behind the switch in crops. For oil palm, farmers need better infrastructural support, and roadway connectivity to begin with,” he told Eco-Business.

Zothanzama pointed out that the sample size was small, with 50-60 farmers interviewed, which made it difficult to draw conclusions.