Felling of rubber trees to make way for oil palm poses a direct risk to our rain forests.

Doubts have been cast on the much-advertised health benefits of palm oil and environmental concerns on oil palm cultivations. A paradigm shift reshaping the conventional thinking as regards vegetable oils has become discernible both in health and environmental spheres. All the good things once said about the vegetable oils are no longer heard.

Health and environmental concerns

Palm oil is no longer considered cholesterol lowering or cardio-protective. Some researchers argue that it may even raise blood cholesterol levels. Worse, it has been linked to increased cancer risks as well. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says certain contaminants found in palm oil, notably glycidyl fatty acid esters (GEs), could cause cancer. These contaminants are produced when palm oil is heated in the process of cooking. There are no safety levels prescribed for palm oil consumption.

Indications abound that oil palm will cease to be a lucrative cash crop in the future. Many countries including the EU member states have already adopted policies to phase out palm oil use. It is widely used in a variety of consumer products ranging from cooking oil, margarine, confectionaries, cosmetics, toothpaste and even vehicle fuel. In May this year, the European Parliament and the council of 28 EU national governments agreed, in Brussels, on framing a new set of targets for 2030 with regard to biofuels, where campaigners have specifically called for a total ban on the use of palm oil (and soya bean oil). This has already created much panic in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s two biggest producers of palm oil, accounting for over 85% of the world’s output. However, Sri Lanka seems to have gone into overdrive as regards oil palm cultivation for the reasons best known to the authorities and the plantation companies, much to the consternation of environmentalists and the people in the affected areas.

The EU decision was very much influenced by environmental concerns. Worldwide, oil palm cultivation is regarded one of the worst destructors of rainforests. Along with it goes the risk of extinction of some critically endangered species like orangutan, Sumatran elephant, rhino and tiger and Bornean pygmy elephant. Further, it involves environmentally destructive agriculture practices such as felling of large tracks of forest cover, the use of agrochemicals and causing natural water sources to dry up.

Jayantha Wijesinghe, Convener of the Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, has been in the forefront of a campaign against the expansion of oil palm cultivation in the country. He says: “In Sri Lanka the situation with regard to oil palm cultivation is very unique compared to many other countries. Here, you may not see direct intrusion into rainforests as in Borneo, Indonesia or Malaysia. But it is a direct threat to our rainforests, especially due to the felling of the rubber forest cover adjacent to precious rainforests.”

With sufficient experience in working in a number of South East Asian countries with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) on eco system restoration and conservation strategy planning, Wijesinghe provides technical expertise to activists who campaign against oil palm expansion, notably in the districts of Kegalle, Rathnapura, Kalutara, Galle and Matara.

 Strength of grassroots

Wijesinghe is satisfied with the progress his movement has made. “The biggest strength of the present campaign against oil palm is its ability to mobilize the people. There is lot of networking between the districts affected by oil palm cultivation and the villagers share their stories and experiences with one another from different districts via social media. This made things easy for us. The villagers already knew something about the dangers of oil palm cultivation, especially what was happening in other countries.”

Awareness about the ill-effects of oil palm cultivation has spread amongst the villagers, who often share their stories across districts, even via social media.
Awareness about the ill-effects of oil palm cultivation has spread amongst the villagers, who often share their stories across districts, even via social media.

Wijesinghe said that when plantations companies started removing rubber and planting oil palm the villagers realised what was to come. “They may not have had any scientific knowledge, but they knew it would have a devastating impact on the environment and their social life.”

Introduced in 1968, on an experimental basis, in a one-acre tract by the Watawala Plantations in Nakiyadeniya in the Galle District, oil palm cultivation continued at a slow pace until the late 90s. The first thrust for oil palm cultivation came around the turn of the century, when it was proposed to increase the total coverage to about 4,000 hectares. This proposal was met with stiff resistance, both from the environmental and scientific fronts. Even the agricultural experts expressed their concerns. The Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) released a report titled, “Oil Palm in Sri Lanka” in April 2002, highlighting negative impacts of oil palm plantation on the environment, which include high water consumption, high chemical inputs, water and river pollution, soil erosion and loss of bio-diversity.

Around 2008, came the second thrust for increasing oil palm cultivation further, up to 10,000 hectares. During that phase, many rubber estates from Kanneliya (in Galle district) to Horana (in the Kalutara District) were converted into oil palm plantations.

Then around 2011-12, a further plan got underway to increase the coverage up to 20,000 hectares. The Budget 2017 gave a turbo boost for the project. “That was when the real problem began,” said Wijesinghe. “For this kind of expansion there weren’t sufficient lowlands in the wet zone. They had to encroach on the montane areas in the Sabaragamuwa and the Sripada sanctuary”.

 Rubber the best

Wijesinghe is of the view that environmentally, rubber is the best plantation crop the colonial rulers ever introduced to their occupied territories. “By Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) definition, rubber cover is considered forest. Even it is so by the forest department standards”.

Elaborating on the role of rubber forests in maintaining the eco-balance in the ecologically sensitive regions of the country and their destruction for oil palm plantations, Wijesinghe noted: “Rubber forests act as buffer zones for many ecological hotspots in the country, especially the Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya (KDN) forest complex. The real problem arose when they started clearing some of these areas.

“The rubber cover provides free movement for wild animals from the adjacent forests. Removal of rubber cover led to many environmental and social problems for the people in the villages around. They, in fact, cleared forest cover in certain mountain caps in the Deraniyagala area, which were even not touched by the colonial planters during their time.”

“The people in the Kegalle District were very angry, because some of those forests that were cleared for oil palm plantations were actually in catchment areas, in the hill tops and even on high landslide prone areas. There was a very aggressive campaign launched by them.”

Identifying himself as a simple village farmer, Upali Piyasinghe from An-hetti-gama, Deraniyagala (in the Kegalle District) revealed how some plantation companies were trying to entice the poor villagers into supporting their oil palm cultivation projects.

“All this happened only about three years ago, with the change of government. They came to our village and distributed gift packs containing biscuits, toffees, chocolates, dairy products, toothpaste, etc. among the villagers and the estate workers, saying that they were the products made from palm oil. They distributed leaflets among us, saying many good things about themselves and oil palm cultivation. They also said they would repair the village road”.

When support from a section of the villagers was not forthcoming, they even employed aggressive methods, said Piyasinghe. “They also tried to get us to support them through intimidation. Village thugs threatened us, especially the estate folk, who were not well disposed towards the new project. They tried to divide the campaigners against oil palm. Some people went to work on their estates. They were paid more than the rubber tappers. Some of the villagers joined them. But we didn’t give in.”

Commenting on the value of the lush rubber forests and how integral they were to their lives Piyasinghe lamented: “The rubber lands provide you with so many things needed in your daily life. It gives us firewood, edible leaves like mukunuwenna and gotukola, herbs like gonika wel, deduru and iramusu.

Upali Piyasinghe alleges that some plantation companies are attempting to entice villagers by showing them how lucrative the oil palm business could be.
Upali Piyasinghe alleges that some plantation companies are attempting to entice villagers by showing them how lucrative the oil palm business could be.

The orchids grow among rubber trees. The birds nest on rubber trees. The monkeys and wild boar are abundant there. Now that the rubber forests have been felled for oil palm cultivations, they invade our villages. Farmers have a hard time, trying to ward off invading monkeys and wild pigs.”

Piyasinghe condemned the political interference. “The estates owned by the government were leased out to the private companies after the change of government in 2015. The political authorities operate hand in glove with the companies.”

Social disaster

Piyasinghe spoke of the social disaster that befell their hamlet owing to the oil palm cultivation.

“So far eight families have left the village. They are the poor Tamil estate folk. They were helpless. Four families left due to lack of water. No sooner had rubber trees been uprooted and oil palm planted than the streams began to dry up. There had been several streams right around us previously. Another four families had to leave the village as their houses were invaded by venomous snakes. When the wild boar were around they used to prey on snakes. Wild pigs are now hunted on a commercial scale.”

Piyasinghe warned the people of Colombo of the danger of drinking contaminated water. “Are they aware that they swallow all the chemicals that are washed off from the oil palm plantations here? There is no water retention on these plantations and when rains come, all the chemicals find their way into the Kalani Ganga, which quenches the thirst of millions of people.”

Presidential ban

Agitation campaigns led President Maithripala Sirisena to announce a ban on further expansion of oil palm cultivation, last September. The presidential decree was greatly influenced by the findings of a report produced by the Central environmental Authority (CEA) titled, “A study to identify Environmental and Social issues of Oil Palm cultivation in Sri Lanka”.

When a general manager of a leading plantation company, engaged in oil palm cultivation, was contacted for comment, he only said: “Oil palm cultivation is a governmental policy decision. What we do is what the government want us to do.”

The Director Plantation Management and Monitoring Division (PMMD) of the plantation ministry was overseas when “Counterpoint” tried to contact him. A senior officer said, on condition of anonymity, that there would not be further expansion of oil palm cultivation in the country. However, he said that some new varieties of oil palm seeds had been imported and some companies were seeking permission to plant them. “These stocks of seeds require around 2,300 hectares of fresh land.” Acknowledging the existing scarcity of land for oil palm plantation, he said, “Planting oil palm in exhausted rubber plantations – those that had over four generations of rubber replanted would be okay. But we must not allow the replacement of rubber with oil palm or clearing the forest cover for oil palm cultivation”.

The news coming from the ground is that there have been intrusions into the virgin forests and the large-scale felling of trees under cover of darkness. Oil palm expansion, during the last three years, has gone on apace with disastrous consequences for the country. The sooner it is stopped, the better for all of us. We must learn from the mistakes of other countries, which now regret having started oil palm cultivation.


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