On Monday, 5 April 2021, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksha issued a gazette banning oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka (gazette No. 2222/13). President Rajapaksha stated that “representations have been made to me that the oil palm cultivation already widespread in Sri Lanka has been causing soil erosion, drying of springs thus affecting biodiversity and life of the community.” He emphasised “that it is a fundamental right to conserve a sustainable environmental system within the national development possess. I do hereby virtue of the powers vested in me by Article 33 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka order that the cultivation of oil palm be totally prohibited in Sri Lanka.”

Beyond the ban on importing palm oil and introducing new oil palm reserves, the President of Sri Lanka also recommends uprooting existing cultivation. He said, “I hereby direct that in order to systematically remove the oil palm cultivation and nurseries already launched action should be taken to utilize yearly about 10% of the land under oil palm cultivation for rubber planting or any other cultivation conducive to conservation of water resources.” 

 

History of Oil palm in Sri Lanka
Oil palm cultivation started in the 1970s in the Gall District in the tea estates. The demand for palm oil then was low as coconut plantations were the dominant crop. However, in subsequent years, many coconut plantations were destroyed due to the increasing demand for housing. With the decline of coconut oil, palm oil advocates seized this opportunity to expand their business.

Despite the opposition by environmental activists and local communities, since the 1990’s, rubber and the remaining coconut farmers began uprooting their crops and began planting oil palm with the support of previous governments. A committee appointed by the Central Environmental Authority in 2018 recommended that the establishment of new plantations, expansion of existing plantations, and re-plantation of oil palm should be discontinued in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the importation of viable oil palm seeds should be banned immediately under the export and import control Act and other relevant regulations.

 

Opposition to Oil Palm
The reasons for the opposition to oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka are not the same as Indonesia’s. The main concern and argument against oil palm cultivation among environmental activists in Indonesia is the unsustainability of large-scale deforestation. However, the struggles with palm oil in Sri Lanka are connected to water shortages. Activists and experts say that oil palms absorb too much water, which dries up the soil and destroys the water deposits. They also claim that oil palm plantations destroy small forest patches and river reserves that rubber plantations would sustain.

Even though there was no natural forest destruction such as Malaysia, Indonesia, or Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka seems to take the situation around Palm Oil Cultivation most seriously and sets a leading example for many other nations. 

 

Social and Environmental Impacts of Palm Oil in Sri Lanka
The exploiters of the palm oil Industry have significantly inhibited and damaged the biodiversity of Sri Lanka with their ruthless course of action. Palm-oil farmers and advocates have had a negative impact on many people’s lives in Sri Lanka, ranging from farmers of rubber plants and coconuts left without income to the killing of animals in case they touched the plants. During the decade-long battle against oil palm cultivation, several activists were arrested, including Ven Chandrajothi Thero, in 2019.  

 

Regional Impacts from the Ban on Palm Oil Imports
Malaysia has spoken out against the decision to ban on palm oil imports from their nation’s smallholders. Sri Lanka imports around 90% of its total 200,000 tons from Malaysia.  Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Datuk Dr. Mohd Khairuddin said that Sri Lanka’s decision “is a discrimination against the country’s product. But it will not affect the country’s oil palm industry”. 

 

Centre for Environmental Justice’s position
In 2018 Centre for Environmental Justice – CEJ created a briefing paper on the impacts of oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka. CEJ’s research found that plantations located in rural settings heavily destroy the natural systems on which local people widely depend. CEJ said that local people have the right to oppose and engage in such decisions regarding oil palm cultivation which brings disaster to the agroecology systems. 

CEJ argues that local people should be consulted before making such decisions, and oil palm cultivation should not be expanded without listening to their grievances. CEJ believes that the Plantation industry and the Government agencies should respect the rights of the local communities and rights defenders and refrain from harassing them when raising their voice on the local communities’ social, environmental, and livelihood rights.

CEJ applauds the Sri Lankan Government’s decision to prioritise the well-being and sustainability of the people and the land of Sri Lanka above personal agendas ruled by money and power. A decision that inspires hope for more positive change to come. 

 

For more information contact
Hemantha Withanage,
Executive Director,
Centre for Environmental Justice/Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka
Email: hwithanage@gmail.com