October, 7, 2021
Oil palm cultivation has been restricted in Sri Lanka. The curtailment has been enforced based on the adverse impacts that the cultivation is believed to have on the environment. Agriculture is considered to be a man- made ecosystem, thus any cultivation might have negative impacts on the natural environment. Even paddy, the main crop of our country apparently has several harmful effects on the environment. Even so, will we get rid of that cultivation? No. Therefore, the realism of a decision depends largely on the degree of considerations of the factors associated, their relative advantages and disadvantages.
The same principle is applicable to oil palm cultivation too. Malaysia, a country from which we import palm oil and related products can be considered as the most appropriate country for such an assessment. Their climate is very similar to that of our country. Agriculture contributes 8.21% to Malaysia's gross domestic product (GDP). In Sri Lanka it is 7.3%. Oil palm cultivation covers 18% (5.9 million hectares) of Malaysia's total land area. The main criticism of oil palm cultivation in Malaysia is that the expansion of oil palm has led to a sharp decline in the country's forest cover. However, the reality is that even today 53.3% (18.28 million hectares) of the country's land area is still forested.
Malaysia exports 88% of its oil palm production generating an annual income of 64.8 billion. The industry provides the people about 500,000 employment opportunities. Therefore, it is remarkable if a single crop can make such a significant contribution to the economic development of a country.
Sri Lanka also imports palm oil and related products from Malaysia, as we only produce just 17% of the vegetable oils required. We are forced to fulfill the remaining 83% through imports. In 2019, the country had to spend about 37 billion rupees for importing vegetable oils and fats which was in fact higher than the amount spent over importing chemical fertilizers required for the whole country. The amount of imported palm oil was 185 metric tons which was estimated to be three times higher than the amount imported in 2000. This increase is basically due to the failure of coconut cultivation in Sri Lanka to meet the growing demand. The average value of coconut production in the country is 2792 million nuts per year (average for the last 5 years). Out of which 65-70% (1,800 million nuts) is consumed by households and the rest is exported. The local demand would not be met even if the remaining coconut is used for oil production at the expense of all coconut-related exports. Even under this crisis, we found no means of expansion of the extent of coconut cultivation due to lack of land availability. However, oil palm cultivation in our country is limited to an area of less than 12,000 hectares and has no likelihood for further expansion due to state policies.
Countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have not experienced any signs of water sources drying up, which is similar to Sri Lanka, where no dry condition has been reported in the vicinity of the Nakiyadeniya estate where the cultivation began over 50 years ago. It is certain that an oil palm tree consumes more moisture (249 L) compared to that of a coconut (130 L) and a rubber tree (63 L). However, what is important in this connection is that the amount of water absorbed by a unit area of the cultivation. Coconut and rubber cultivations absorb water around 20,800 and 31,500 L/ha/day respectively. In the case of oil palm, it is 34,860 L, thus moisture consumption of these crops does not differ by a significant margin. This is because the less plant density in oil palm plantations compared to that of in rubber.
Despite the fact that oil palm too is evidently having some environmental benefits; no due attention has so far been paid. For an example, the net carbon dioxide fixation of an oil palm plantation (64.5 t CO2/ha/yr) is higher than that of a natural rainforest (42.4 t CO2/ha/yr). Furthermore, the photosynthetic efficiency of a rainforest is 1.73% which is as high as 3.18% in an oil palm plantation.
Therefore, taking all these into account, more sound and practical decisions need to be made. If the country is in a position to halt imports of palm oil and ensure the production of vegetable oil adequately to meet the local demand at a reasonable cost while protecting the environment, restriction of oil palm cultivation is somewhat justified. Otherwise, any decision taken for the sake of protecting the environment would only enrich the hands of food importers and will lead the country to a deeper abyss in terms of economic sustainability.
Prof. K.K.I.U. Arunakumara,
Senior Professor in Crop Science,
University of Ruhuna- Sri Lanka