- Sri Lanka has banned palm oil imports and ordered that the country’s oil palm plantations be replaced by rubber trees and other crops over the next decade, citing negative environmental and social impacts.
- The decision is based on the recommendations of a 2018 report by a group of environmental experts, which linked oil palm plantations to soil erosion and the drying up of water sources.
- Unlike other countries where the crop is cultivated, oil palms are not a driver of deforestation in Sri Lanka; instead, they replaced rubber plantations, which harbor a higher level of biodiversity and provide more jobs for residents.
- Another concern is that the oil palm is becoming an invasive species, found in the wild in a forest reserve, with as yet unknown impacts on native flora and fauna.
COLOMBO – Environmentalists hailed the surprise decision by the Sri Lankan government to ban palm oil imports into the country and raze existing plantations, but others say the science behind the move is unfounded .
The government made the announcement in an April 5 gazette, citing the recommendations of a group of experts formed by the Central Environment Authority (CEA). The panel identified soil erosion and the drying out of springs as among the potentially irreversible impacts of oil palm plantations on the island’s biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities. Its report, published in 2018, set out several recommendations aimed at laying the groundwork for banning oil palm cultivation on the island.
Gamini Hitinayake, a member of the expert panel and professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Peradeniya, said the proliferation of oil palms threatened native plant and animal species.
“The oil palm is a threat to the existence of all traditional plantation crops such as rubber, tea and coconut, which are much more environmentally friendly,” he told Mongabay.
Siril Wijesundara, former director general of the Department of Botanical Gardens and a member of an invasive alien plant species documentation team in Sri Lanka, said oil palms are growing naturally in the Indikada Mukalana Forest Reserve, in the west of the country.
“The oil palm is already showing signs of becoming an invasive species in Sri Lanka,” he told Mongabay. “As a precautionary measure to prevent the oil palm from becoming a [species], it is important to prevent the natural regeneration of oil palm seeds in and around [to] oil palm plantations. “
Introduced to Sri Lanka in 1968, the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) does not have a natural pollinator here. For example, the African oil palm weevil (Elaeidobius kamerunicus) has also been introduced into the country. While there are no documented reports of negative impacts associated with the beetle, more research needs to be done on this, said Jayantha Wijesinghe of local environmental NGO Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka.
Hitinayake said that another of the main concerns with oil palm cultivation is that the tree absorbs a lot of water, raising concerns that it could dry up local waterways. Oil palm is a fast growing plant and as such has a high rate of water consumption, especially during the growing phase, Hitinayake said.
Another problem highlighted by the expert group report is that oil palm plantations do not have intercropping or undergrowth; they are strictly monocultures and therefore do not support biodiversity. In contrast, the most common rubber plantations support a relatively high level of biodiversity. Recent research shows endangered Indian pangolins (Manis crassicaudata) prefer rubber plantations as the main habitat, after forests.
But the rubber plantations have disappeared to make way for oil palms since the latter were introduced here. Unlike most other countries where oil palm is grown, including major producers in Indonesia and Malaysia, the cash cultivation of the crop has not resulted in large-scale deforestation in Sri Lanka. Instead, he took over the rubber plantations, aided by tax breaks for seed imports and other government incentives.
This gave rise to another complaint, this one about the social impact of oil palm plantations. Growing and harvesting the crop is not as labor-intensive as rubber or other crops, prompting fears and protests from villagers working in rubber plantations over ‘loss of livelihood.
There are approximately 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of oil palms planted across Sri Lanka. “But in many cases, planters are breaking the basic guidelines issued for cultivation,” Wijesinghe said.
He noted that it is forbidden to plant oil palms on slopes of more than 30 degrees, but in some places they are grown on slopes of more than 60 degrees. There is also a ban on planting in wetlands or on river banks, but this too is often violated, Wijesinghe said.
According to the government’s new position on palm oil, all imports will be banned. The country purchases around 200,000 metric tonnes of vegetable oil per year, mostly from Malaysia. The new policy also plans to raze 10% of the area planted with oil palms each year and replant with rubber and other less water-intensive crops.
Argument “ unfounded ”
The return to the announcement was immediate. Asoka Nugawela, professor emeritus at Wayamba University’s Faculty of Agriculture, challenged the CEA expert group’s suggestion that oil palm plantations could dry up local water sources.
He said the oil palm in Sri Lanka is typically grown in areas where annual rainfall exceeds 3,500 millimeters (138 inches), while their water requirements are around 1,300 mm (51 inches). So the argument that they could dry up the springs is not true, Nugawela said.
“If you visit oil palm plantations, you can witness healthy and vibrant streams,” he told Mongabay.
He noted that the Nakiyadeniya estate, Sri Lanka’s first oil palm plantation, has now been operating for over 50 years, with no signs of water problems in the area. A 2018 study described a new species of freshwater fish in a stream in Nakiyadeniya; Nugawela said this proves the draining streams argument is unfounded.
He said climate change is a factor more likely to impact water availability, with rainfall patterns becoming more irregular. He also said that the issue of soil erosion is a management issue for which corrective action can be taken.
The Sri Lanka Palm Oil Industry Association also rejected the panel’s recommendations that justify the ban and questioned the science. He says companies have invested heavily in oil palm cultivation with the encouragement of successive governments and will appeal against the ban.
Banner image of oil palm fruit, from which palm oil is derived. Oil palm has a higher yield per acre than any other vegetable oil crop. Image via Pixabay.