Palm oil, palmolein, palmitic acid - these are amongst the many synonyms for the refined product extracted from the kernel of the oil palm. Going by the vast swathes of palm-oil monoculture in the region, covering hill after hill, one would assume that the crop was native to the region. However, this crop has an international history.
Palm oil was first used over five thousand years ago - grown by West African peoples for millennia, the crop began to be traded. However, during the colonial period, palm oil began to be looked at as an increasingly lucrative crop to fuel the multiple demands of industrialisation. The first palm oil plant brought to Southeast Asia was in Malaysia in 1848, a stand of four trees at the Bogor Botanical Gardens in Java. Soon, colonial administrators were investigating the feasibility of the crop, and in 1905, a Belgian engineer named Adrian Hallet began planting oil palms in Sumatra. The first plantation in Peninsular Malaysia followed suit in 1917, and soon, in the postwar years, palm-oil only continued to grow. By 1966, Malaysia and Indonesia’s combined output of palm oil surpassed that of all of Africa, and government subsidies only encouraged the industry further.
A view of Malaysia and Indonesia today reveals fractured, shattered forests, with small hills peering out from a sea of oil palms planted in neat rows. While the industry has resulted in massive GDP growth in the region, much of the wealth generated does not reach communities and local residents - thus, palm oil agriculture has not only displaced numerous indigenous communities and dismantled their ways of life, but also produced very little in return. Many indigenous communities, such as the Orang Rimba in Sumatra, were hunter-gathering peoples, and relied primarily on forest products, while others relied on small-scale subsistence agriculture. The Indonesian government’s policy of transmigrasi, which involved the large-scale translocation of people from Java and other more populated islands to ‘colonise’ forested areas has played an important role in spreading palm-oil agriculture, but has also resulted in the wide scale erosion of small tribal cultures.
The ecological effects of palm oil are even more disastrous - plantations are virtual ecological deserts compared to the forests they replace. Consisting singularly of one tree species, the massive wealth of plant species found in multilayered dipterocarp forest practically disappears, taking the animal species that depend on them away too. Deep forest species find it increasingly difficult to survive in forest fragments, and edge species begin to dominate. Even worse, the loss of forest destabilizes soil, leading to increased runoff of sediment into clearwater streams - this, paired with the runoff of fertilizer from plantations, leads to widespread eutrophication in clearwater forest habitats. Additionally, because oil palms thrives at lower altitudes, most lowland forest has disappeared, with only small patches clinging on (such as at 30 Hills in Sumatra). Furthermore, Southeast Asian forests are also massive carbon sinks, and sometimes it on peatlands - despite it being illegal, farmers often burn land to clear it, and this can cause fires that last for years. In particularly bad years, the haze from fires travels to neighbouring countries and is extremely hazardous to local people - thus, deforestation and palm oil agriculture are helping drive a public health crisis as well.
Palm oil has become virtually omnipresent in consumer products today, ranging from biscuits, fried snacks, and even fast food, to soaps and cosmetics. With the rise of globalisation, palm oil went international, and it is now critical to industries across the world. Linked here is a page from the WWF which advises on how to avoid palm oil consumption from ingredients, and lists some common products that contain it: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil
However, given the need for economic development in Southeast Asia, it is difficult to insist on a complete ban on palm oil - the key need today is to prevent further deforestation, and to find ways to reforest plantations that are no longer in use. It is critical that we as consumers also stop consuming products produced with palm oil, or at least ensure that the palm oil in the products we consume is CSPO, or certified sustainable palm oil. The only way to assert change is through collective action - if we all reduce our consumption of products of palm oil, we can send a message to the global agribusiness industry, and also reduce our environmental impact.
For now, the oil palm reigns supreme over much of Southeast Asia - however, the growth of protected areas, gains in reforestation, and growing consumer awareness gives us hope for a different future. Get involved in our project to be a part of that future!