As a tropical country, Sri Lanka has the capability for many crops to be grown without much difficulty.Therefore, the agricultural exports have been a main income for the country since the colonial era.Apart from main export cultivation such as coconut, rubber and tea, African Oil Palm cultivation in Srilanka got popularized among plantation companies since 1970’s. Although oil palm is economically profitable, the plantation has some serious negative effects towards environment.
During the end of last November, Sri Lankans got into thorough discussions about oil palm cultivation,commonly known among as “Katupol” (කටුපොල්) since it has been prohibited from cultivation no longer in Sri Lanka. This was a decision made by the previous cabinet. Continuing the positive work, the new minister of plantations and export agriculture, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana put the decision into action recently.
Brief insight into oil palm cultivation
This is a brief insight into oil palm cultivation, its economic values and the environmental effect. Elaeis guineensis, or commonly known as African oil palm, is originally habituated in West African tropical forests. The African oil palm conventionally supplied the countryside residents in West Africa with vegetable fat and oil, palm wine and some locally important non-wood forest products. During the sixteenth century it found its way to Brazil. In 19th century it was introduced to Southeast Asia as an ornamental plant. The tree became important as a plantation crop in 20th century.
Among the cultivated oleaginous crops, African oil palm has the highest productivity. The crop can fulfill the entire global demand for vegetable oils which is estimated to be 240 million tons increased by 2050 The varieties of the oil palm have economic life- span of 25-30 years. The plantations can produce fruits around the year. Therefore, oil palm cultivation is one of the most profitable cultivation. The ability to utilize palm oil in many products such as fat spreads, ice cream,chocolate, processed foods,cosmetic products makes the demand increased by day. Hence the threat to environment as well.Rain forests in Indonesia and Borneo Islands is threatened by oil palm cultivation. The natural habitats for species like orangutan and chimpanzees are drastically reduced due to cultivation, and this has raised eyebrows of many environmental and animal activists in a global scale.
Environmental aspects of oil palm cultivation
Even in Sri Lanka, oil palm is a threat to the ecological equilibrium.During the past few years the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and several other environmental activist groups have proposed that oil palm cultivation affects excessive consumption of water, leading to drying of wells and streams. The evapotranspiration of an oil palm tree is about 250 liters while the same index for a rubber tree is merely 63 liters. The previous proposal was to expand the 10 000 of cultivation up to 20 000. Since the global warming and water consumption of the increasing population spike sky high, the effect of evapotranspiration of oil palm cannot be considered a negligible issue.
There are no cover crops on oil palm cultivation. Although it is required for such cover crops, the lack of such alternatives cause soil erosion. The crops use excessive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which is again a negative aspect. Over 75% of the crops is disposed as waste in palm oil production. There are no proper disposal methods used in palm oil factories established in Sri Lanka. Also, the lands that were abandoned after cultivation takes years to recover.
Considering all these environmental aspects of oil palm cultivation, the advantage of the oil palm is lower. Hence, the government made a good decision by banning oil palm. This would cause the farmers and plantation companies to turn back to traditional export cultivation such as rubber and tea.